Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg
As I have mentioned in past columns, it takes a fair amount of effort to travel to many of our more remote national parks. Isle Royale is certainly one of these. This beautiful island is located in the upper reaches of mighty Lake Superior. The park is so far north that it is actually much closer to Canada than to the Michigan mainland. From vantage points on the island’s north shore, you can easily see the Canadian coast.
Charter seaplane service directly to Isle Royale may be available from Duluth, Minnesota, but such a convenience comes with a hefty price tag. The most convenient gateway airports are Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis.
Because Isle Royale is an island and there are no roads on the island, you will probably choose to travel there by passenger ferry. The ferries run from Copper Harbor and Houghton in Michigan, and from Grand Portage in Minnesota. Space on the boats fills quickly, so make reservations (which are required) one or two months in advance. This seasonal service usually operates from May through September. The ride from the two Michigan ports, takes about six hours each way, so bring a good book.
Ferries from the two Michigan ports will land you at Rock Harbor or the Rock Harbor Lighthouse near the east end of this narrow 45-mile-long island. Those from Minnesota run to Windigo on the western end.
Be prepared to get around solely by foot power. Backpacking is big, and there are lots of campsites in the park. If you camp, bring everything you need with you and be prepared to pack out all trash. Recreational activity also includes fishing, boating, kayaking and observing nature. Wheeled vehicles, such as bicycles, are not allowed. Wheelchairs are.
Your only lodging option is the small but comfy Rock Harbor Lodge. Nearby are the visitor center and a pleasant little restaurant. This more civilized eastern end of the island is pretty much the front country.
The island is covered in wilderness trails, some of which are challenging, with steep grades. Hike out along the southeastern coast for countless great sunrise compositions and to Tobin Harbor at sunset. Take the quick boat ride to the Edisen Fishery. Hike to Suzy’s Cave and up to Mt. Ojibway. If you are an uber-hiker, plunge into the back country. Shoot for Windigo at the west end. East-west trails run along the central Greenstone Ridge and the island’s more northerly Minong Ridge. Mere mortals will find the local ferry much more doable…and more relaxing.
Isle Royale’s wildlife is highlighted by moose and the resident wolf pack. In most years their populations pretty much keep each other in workable balance. If you are both sharp-eyed and lucky, there is a good chance that you’ll spot one or more moose, especially around dawn and dusk. Wolves are another story. These secretive canines are likely to stay clear of humans. The likelihood of seeing them is fairly low.
Listen closely around dusk for the distinctive call of the loon. The haunting sounds of these fascinating birds can be heard at several hundred yards.
The pure autumn light of the Great Lakes region can make for some wonderful images. Early fall usually brings gloriously sunny days and cool nights. If it is colorful foliage that you’re after, be aware that the window is a narrow one. The best autumn colors do not start to appear until early September and the season ends by mid-September.
Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published freelance photographer whose images have graced the pages of hundreds of books and magazines. He has photographed all 59 U.S. national parks as well as most of South America with medium-format cameras. Jerry was a national park artist in residence for 2015 at Petrified Forest National Park. More of his work can be seen at www.JerryGinsberg.com. Email him at email@example.com.