Sunday, September 13, 2009

Isle Royale National Park | September 2009

Prologue: The Big Picture
The blue line shows our route. Click to enlarge.

Craig and I planned to spend 8 days backpacking around the eastern end of Isle Royale. We would end up experiencing the kind of vacation where we truly let go of everything back home. There was no thought or discussion of work, laptops and phones were not missed, and small things like collecting berries to add to our morning oatmeal made us ridiculously happy. Toward the end, it occurred to me that I hadn't seen my own reflection in 7 days.

Calm seas. A freighter can be seen in the distance.

Isle Royale is an archipelago in northern Lake Superior created by ancient volcanic activity, then later scraped and gouged by glaciers. It is 99% wilderness featuring rugged terrain, high ridges, inland lakes, and wildlife such as loons, moose, and the gray wolf. The remoteness of the island makes it one of the least-visited national parks in the U.S., and the only one to close down in winter.
Our itinerary included 7 days of hiking, plus an extra day to use either along the way if a particular spot was especially interesting, or at the end of the trip if we felt like spending more time in the Rock Harbor area. Rock Harbor is the arrival and departure point for most visitors and is home to a ranger station, visitors center, camp store, several boat docks, and a lodge/restaurant/gift shop for those who want to spend lots of money. There are also a handful of day hikes that begin in Rock Harbor, and canoes can be rented for paddling around the many coves and small islands that make up Isle Royale's eastern end.
Leaving Copper Harbor on the Isle Royale Queen IV

On Friday, the 8am passenger ferry from Copper Harbor (Michigan's northernmost town located at the very top of the Keweenaw Peninsula) brought us 56 miles across a thankfully calm Lake Superior. We docked at Rock Harbor around 11:45 am, and joined the other hikers for orientation given by a park ranger. Intentionally planning this trip for September, we expected cooler weather and fewer hikers. While there weren't nearly as many people as there would have been in July or August, there were still quite a few. We learned that we would be enjoying the best stretch of weather the island had experienced all season, as clear skies and warmer than average temperatures would prevail for the next several days. Normally at this time of year, daytime highs in the 60's and nights in the 40's are common, but we would experience days in the mid-high 70's and lots of sun.
Orientation consisted of an overview of the 7 components of Leave No Trace, some do's and don't's regarding how to behave in the backcountry (For instance, if a moose is in your way on the trail, don't throw rocks at it. It's very sad that there are reasons why this type of advice must be given.). Sneaky foxes will steal anything left unattended. Moose need to be given a wide berth as females with young can become aggressive if they feel threatened. He also informed us that while the possibility of seeing a wolf is extremely remote, they want to know about it if it happens as it could provide useful information to the wolf study team.
Juvenile mergansers, I think

Upon finishing orientation, an itinerary must be left with a ranger at the visitors center. This information is helpful not only because it provides some idea of where you might be in the backcountry should something happen, but also because if seven people in a row are heading to the same place, the ranger can warn the eighth person that the campsite might be full. They enter your info into their computer and print out a backcountry permit for you to keep with you and post at your campsites. Hikers are not required to stick to their itinerary, but any changes should be reported when you turn in your permit at the end of your visit. Apparently, the majority of hikers end up deviating from their original plans somewhere along the way.
More photos from this trip can be seen here.


sylvia murphy said...

Hi Nina,

This sounds wonderful. How long did it take you to drive from your place to Copper least a day? That add time to the trip.

If we went, we were thinking of going from the Canadian side.

Can you visit the park w/o backbacking?

I am off to Washington State tomorrow. I will have one day off and plan to hike the Ho Rainforst Trail in Olympic National Park. If I ever finish my Nova Scotia posts, you'll get to see it.

Nina said...

Copper Harbor is a 12-hour drive for us. We left at 4:30am, got there at 4:30pm, ate dinner and went to bed.

Yes - you can go without backpacking. You can stay in the Rock Harbor area and take a handful of good-sized day hikes from there. Also, you can kayak or canoe all over the place. There are lots of small coves and islands to explore.

There is another visitors center area on the west side of the island (called Windigo), but I don't think it can easily be used as a base for non-backpacking.

Kerry said...

So gla dyou had a great trip! Can't wait to hear more. Your pictures and descriptions paint such a great brings back so many memories of that wonderful place! I especially loved the moose photo :)

JMD said...

Hi Nina,

I really enjoyed your trip report. I have a question for you. My husband would like to take me to Isle Royale next summer for a week long backpacking trip. I have never gone backpacking! What kind of training did you do to prepare yourself to hike that much and to carry that much weight?

Oh, and how were the bugs? One year we went hiking and camping in the UP in July, and got eaten alive at Pictured Rocks. It made the trip miserable. I didn't see you mention mosquitoes or biting flies in your report, so I just wondered.

Thanks again for the awesome report.

Nina said...

Thanks for reading! I'll tackle the bug question first. You definitely want to go late in the season if you want to have the fewest insect problems. I'm one of those people who gets eaten alive and I know how miserable it can make you. There were still some mosquitos in September; however, we experienced warmer than normal weather which followed a solid 2 weeks of rain which I think contributed to the bugs. Still, they weren't too bad and everything I've read and heard says that by September you should be safe. Still bring insect repellant, though. May - July would be the most buggy time, and the black flies and mosquitos can be very bad in late spring/early summer.
If you've never been backpacking before, Isle Royale will be challenging. I don't know where your husband plans to go on the island, and some trails are harder than others. Definitely avoid the Minong Ridge Trail for your first trip.
As far as getting in shape, I would recommend stretching and walking a lot. If you can, wear a backpack (just a regular one is fine, you don't need to totally gear up) with some weight in it to build up your stamina. You may want to visit the discussion forums at for advice also.
I am by no means a pro (Isle Royale was my second ever multi-day trip), and I was pretty beat up at the end of every day, but it was totally worth it!
I hope you go and have fun and tell me about it! :)

Anonymous said...

Ecellent trip report. I have gone to IR the past 2 years and plan on going again this year for #3. We go by canoe and travel to the inland lakes and up and around. 2009's trip was almost 70 miles and every one was worth the effort. Check out for a community of Isle royalers.

Jennifer Tislerics said...

I'm so grateful to have found these blog posts! The Porkies are high on our list of places to backpack. I wonder if I can convince my husband to consider cabins... certainly would make the packs a bit lighter!

Found you through the Fox2 segment with Deena on snowshoeing - an acquaintance from SOLAR ( was in the clip, too. Another friend from the club sent me your blog link. Would love to chat more with you someday.

Jennifer Tislerics
jtislerics [at] yahoo [dot] com

Mel Laurila said...


You have an incredible photo of the Minong Mine on Isle Royale posted on the Michigan in Pictures website. I've written a novel about copper mining based in the Copper Country that will be released by Tate Publishing in September. I'd like to use this image with your permission as a section divider in the book.

Your photos are some of the best I've seen so how do I get a hold of you to discuss this.