Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
We were both peering over the map on the wooden floor inside the rustic little shelter alongside Washington Creek. Beyond the bug screen of the three-walled enclosure, a cold spring rain fell from a steely, pre-dawn sky. Sitting on the floor, worn soft from decades of bare feet, spilled coffee and sleeping pads, we counted out miles and tenths of miles as marked on the map, not as responsible navigators, but rather to put off trudging out into the cold for another few minutes.
“Two point one plus one point three.” My finger scooted north and east along the dotted black path. “Plus nine point four to Little Todd Harbor.”
“You forgot that point six there,” John said in a deep voice with a slow South Australian accent.
“Plus point six.”
When I’d asked John Hallett only a week prior if he would be interested in joining me for a four-day fastpack and pack-raft mission across Isle Royale, I didn’t actually expect him to say yes. I thought he might look at the six-hour drive and three-hour boat ride and say no. I thought he might want to know how far or fast I had hoped we’d go and then say no. I thought that, as a graduate student pursuing his Master of Fine Arts, the end of the semester might hold him to something a bit more artsy.
I moved my finger along the Minong Ridge Trail, which follows the northern spine of the Isle Royale, past Lake Desor and on to McCargoe Cove, counting miles and tenths of miles. Peppered around the shore of the island are the names of ships and the years of their demise in the tumultuous and temperamental waters of Lake Superior.
Cumberland, 1877; Chester A. Congdon, 1918; Siskiwit, 1840; Madeline, 1839.
I flipped the map over to reveal the rest of the island. It is more or less how I had described it to John—a thin sliver roughly the shape of Manhattan but four times the size. At 10 miles by 40 miles, Isle Royale is a self-contained biosphere of timber wolves, birch forests, moose, bald eagles and singing loons. It is a world in and of itself.
But describing an island’s dimensions, flora and fauna is really just a game of semantics, whereas covering ground and allowing it to wear you down—that is getting to know it. And that is why we found ourselves at the western end of the island, counting out tenths of miles.
“Three point five plus two plus four point three, for a total of”—I paused for effect, my finger resting on the dock where we had started our run just two-and-a-half days earlier. “45 miles back to Rock Harbor.” I glanced at the time on my phone. “In 30 hours. If we’re going to make the boat.” The 60-passenger Isle Royale Queen IV that brought us to the island would be returning to Copper Harbor with or without us. Missing the boat would result in enough bad consequences that neither of us cared to consider it.
Prior to that morning, John’s longest push had been 22 miles, which was actually the previous day. Even with John’s thin running experience, I had no doubt that he would rise to the task ahead. As a student, he routinely encounters deadline-induced fatigue on a similar scale to what we were enduring—a day-after-day pursuit of something that is arguably pointless in the end. And, in what seemed to have been a different lifetime, John served as a commander in the Australian Army. He and his eight men would routinely carry 90-pound packs through the Solomon Islands.
John stood up, limped across the room and shouldered his pack. Now down to the last of our food, our packs were at a weight that we could legitimately run with. John, who had gone without sleep for 48 hours finishing his most recent art show, was about to know the runner’s equivalent of that.
The walls of the three-walled shelters scattered about the island shed light on how Isle Royale, with its 165 miles of trails, is used and interpreted by the mere 16,000 visitors it receives during the abbreviated time of year that humans are allowed on the island. With no log to scribble in, decades of visitors have scratched and carved a thousand different stories into the walls. One says, “The Johnsons, 1989, 1993, 1999, 2014”. Another talks about blisters. Poetry is scribbled alongside a drawing of a spotted mushroom.
We stepped out into the morning drizzle and quietly started making our way toward Rock Harbor.
There are places that simply lend themselves perfectly to certain activities—or rather those activities migrate toward the places that allow for their best expression. It is a sort of homeostasis of part and place. Yosemite is for the big-wall climber. The Grand Canyon for the river rafter. And then for moving quickly and efficiently through the wilderness, there is shelter-to-shelter running across Isle Royale.
Despite the slight miscalculation of miles, the trip was going more or less as I had planned. What little I knew about Isle Royale a week earlier suggested a paradise for both land and aquatic travel. With inland lakes measuring up to eight miles long, the opportunity to get off our feet for a spell and make use of my lightweight Alpacka Rafts was irresistible.
A couple of days earlier, as John and I paddled our rafts through Siskiwit Lake past an inland island, I reiterated the yin-yang relationship of lakes and islands and the meta-ness of this biosphere. How does it go? When Moose Flats is a pond, Moose Boulder becomes the largest island in the largest lake on the largest island in the largest lake on the largest island in the largest lake in the world.
I reminded John of this as we floated by Ryan Island where Moose Flats sits. With the icy spring waters lapping at the sides of our rafts, we lost any desire to investigate this world record. As we paddled away, I thought about the essence of an island. Barricaded from the rest of the world, an island is a metaphor for both loneliness and freedom. An island forces us to think about a much smaller world—a world in which the human spirit must come to terms with its surroundings.
A lake, too, gives us an equal and opposite metaphor. It is what interrupts us land-locked terrestrials from plodding along through the dust and the dirt from here on forth. Just beyond where the water meets the land lies immediate wilderness.
And here you have the two—a massive island, within a lake so big it is visible from space.
As the water dripped off our paddles and into our boats, as our body temperatures dropped and as miles of a cold, dark nothing passed beneath us, our interest in philosophizing about lakes and islands and islands and lakes gave way to a much more basic interest in a warm fire.
By early afternoon, the rain had ceased and the clouds lifted. We passed along the sopping rim of beaver dams and up to the diminutive Minong Ridge, just barely taller than the surrounding evergreens. As the sun grew strong, the first of the birch tree buds appeared to emerge before our eyes.
By late afternoon, we pulled into Little Todd Harbor, where four Michigan State students we’d met on the Isle Royale Queen IV were lazily hanging out, watching the waves roll in and the weather slide through. They greeted us with a youthful enthusiasm and a sense of ease that accompanies those summer vacations when we no longer need to check in with our parents.
I drew a map of the island on the ground and quickly recapped our trip to them.
“Here’s where we camped on the second night,” I pointed with a stick, “and here’s where we realized how far we’d gone, and here’s where we saw a couple of moose.”
“Damn!” exclaimed one of them. “We’ve been chasing moose shit for days, but no moose!”
They told us about the animals they had seen, where they’d caught some fish and where they spent a rest day hanging out in camp, tripping on mushrooms.
“It’d be nice to do this trip with a day off in the middle,” I thought out loud.
“A day off?” John said. “It’d be nice to do this with one hour off!”
I guess it hadn’t occurred to me until then that we hadn’t paused all that much.
After unloading all but our last two meals on our new friends, we continued up the trail with lightened packs. Back on the ridge we stopped for another moose, just ahead of us. A blazing sunset burned northwest of us over Thunder Bay, Ontario. Beyond the budding birch trees and the 13 miles of open water, amidst the reds and oranges of the sunset, flickers of lightning ignited the clouds.
“This is the best view of the trip,” John said. He stopped for a moment and leaned on his walking stick.
“You’ve said that four times now,” I reminded him
“This one is for real.”
Though the sunset offered a good excuse to pause for a moment, it also implied encroaching darkness. On blistered feet, tired legs and empty stomachs, we continued on to McCargoe Cove, where we’d be able to find one last shelter before the morning’s final charge.
When pushing myself to my limit for days on end, I can’t help but think about the history of a place, the people who preceded me. I thought about the Chippewa people who would row the 13 miles across the water from the north shore of Superior for hunting and copper mining. I thought about the number of times that possession of the island changed between the French and the British before landing in the hands of an America fueled by Manifest Destiny. I thought about the decades of mining exploration and the clear cutting of most of the island. A quiet time when the mines dried up and the trees grew back. And now back to this—a 40-mile ripple in the earth’s crust, a biosphere whose greatest modern asset is its return to being just as it had been before humans got there.
There are places that simply lend themselves perfectly to certain activities—or rather those activities migrate toward the places that allow for their best expression. It is a sort of homeostasis of part and place. Yosemite is for the big-wall climber. The Grand Canyon for the river rafter. And then for moving quickly and efficiently through the wilderness, there is shelter-to-shelter running across Isle Royale. It is a place where, despite its history of mining and clear cutting, you are transported to something undeniably natural and pure.
We pulled into a shelter at McCargoe Cove as darkness settled in. Loons danced about in the glassy-calm water. We made fast work of lighting a fire, inhaling our final dinner and getting to bed. In the morning, regardless of aching legs and cold rain, we would need to cover the final 17 miles across the island.
Lying in the shelter, waiting for sleep to come, I tried to imagine Isle Royale a month later with the hatching of the mosquitos. And a month after that. I tried to imagine it in the fall when the birch forests are exploding with color. In the late fall when the leaves fall and the smaller lakes begin to freeze. The first snow. The depth of winter. Thirty below zero. Auroras.
I imagined a year when the cold is so persistent that the ice reaches down across Lake Superior from the north. A pack of wolves make the 13-mile journey over the ice to start picking off the plentiful moose. I imagine the sun returning from the south, the thawing of ice, the incessant spring snow and finally, the budding of leaves again.
I set my alarm for 5:45, though after just a few days on the island, I knew that the crescendoing cacophony of birds outside the shelter would awaken me first. I knew that our legs would be tired and that the last of our trail mix would not be appetizing. I knew that we would be checking the watch often as we inched closer to Rock Harbor. And I was somehow comforted by knowing that as days, months and years passed, this island would continue to be a world in and of itself—one not unlike the continental spirit, but ultimately alone.
Visiting Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
When to go
Isle Royale is open from April 16 through October 31. The busiest months for both humans and mosquitos are June, July and August. Avoid them both and pay discounted prices by going in the shoulder seasons. (Just don’t forget to pack an extra layer or two.)
A large part of the reason that Isle Royale is the least visited national park in the Lower 48 is because it is not easy to get to.
Four large passenger vessels and one seaplane charter offer transport to and from Isle Royale, departing from Copper Harbor and Houghton in Michigan and Grand Portage, Minnesota. Round-trip transport ranges from $140 to $310 for the seaplane. For a complete list of vessels, rates and schedules, visit the National Park Service Isle Royale website (nps.gov/isro).
The small, regional airports of Duluth, Minnesota and Houghton, Michigan, will put you within a few hours of most of the departure ports. The larger airports of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Madison, Wisconsin and Detroit, Michigan, offer more travel options, but put you significantly farther away.
It is not uncommon to come across people spending up to two weeks on the island, and, if you have the time, it is sure to be worth it. For the trail runner short on time, light gear and a steady pair of legs will allow you to see the island in three to five days.
What to pack
165 miles of trails connect Isle Royale’s 36 campgrounds, many of which offer three-walled shelters. A skilled and efficient fastpacker could get away with a pack as light as 12 to 15 pounds. A skilled and efficient beer drinker could get away with packing heavy to a nearby shelter and running different loops, day after day.
But I hate camping
For those who prefer four walls to three, there are a few non-camping options on Isle Royale. The Rock Harbor Lodge on the east end of the island offers rooms and cabins for $240 and up per night. On the opposite side of Isle Royale, Windigo Camper Cabins are available for $50 per night.
—This article first appeared in the December 2016 issue of Trail Runner.