The final stop on our North Shore adventure was Grand Portage Lodge and Casino (and RV Park), seven miles south of the Canadian border. This quiet little campground, carpeted in golden wildflowers, was our gateway to a wilderness archipelago, Isle Royale National Park. The forecast was for cloudy skies and chance of rain when we headed out across Lake Superior for the 1.5 hour boat ride to the park. Thankfully the waters were calm.
Isle Royale National Park, the largest island in the largest Great Lake and the least visited national park (only 17,000 annual visitors), comprises the island we visitors see and another 400 smaller islands, some submerged. This wilderness archipelago covers just shy of 900 square miles, with only 200 miles of this being above ground, a full 80% of this park exists below the frigid waters of Lake Superior…pretty interesting. ;)
There are two visitors centers on the island and for day-trippers like ourselves, versus backpackers or those with more sophisticated tastes who stay at the lodge, Windigo Visitor Center at the west end of the island is the drop-off point. With only four hours on the island, we opted for a short hike to give us a feel for the backcountry.
As we walked along the rocky trail, through forests of maple, birch, and fir, on this cool cloudy day, listening to the frigid waters of Lake Superior lap the shore, I visualized rounding the bend to find an imposing bull moose munching on a balsam fir. The rangers believe there are about 1000 on the island and one was not too much to wish for, was it? Unfortunately our paths did not cross, which was not surprising, given that we lived in Yellowstone National Park for two years and I never saw one in the park until we took a trip to the Grand Tetons.
In the bone-chilling winter of 1948-49 an ice bridge formed between Canada and Isle Royale and a small pack of Eastern timber wolves crossed over. Today only nine exist on the island, the numbers down from an average of 20-25 due to disease and inbreeding. Trophic cascade, a term we learned years ago in Yellowstone, is reflected here in the relationship between wolf and moose. But with the wolf population at an all-time low, the moose population is much larger than is healthy for the island. The result is devastation of the balsam firs, a tasty moose treat. The conundrum for the park is whether to intercede and introduce another lineage of wolf to bring down the number of moose or not interfere with the rhythm of the island. It will be interesting to see what unfolds.
The best way to see this wild island, imho, is backpacking. With only 4 hours to visit, there is not much to be done besides explore the small visitor center, get your passport stamped and take in a short hike.
On our trip back the rains came and the fog rolled in, just as we approached a lone sentinel emerging through the mist.
Rock of Ages Lighthouse, one of the most remote on the continent, sitting two miles off the south end of Isle Royale, was built in 1908. It would seem that even a sea-hardened sailor could be brought to his knees in despair over the assignment to care for this station, given the acute isolation. Manned until 1977 and automated in 1985, the original 2nd-order Fresnel lens now sits in the Windigo Visitor Center.
One final sight I wanted to see before we left the North Shore was the High Falls on the Pigeon River, Minnesota’s highest waterfall at 120 feet. Located in the Grand Portage State Park, one-half mile walk from the visitor center, she did not disappoint, but then few waterfalls ever do for me if there is water flowing over them. :)
Grand Portage has a rich history dating back to the 1700’s in what was the beginning of the international fur trade. For those interested in learning more about “The Great Carrying Place”, you can read about it here. We did visit the Grand Portage National Monument and found the background most educational.