On the Wilderness Threshold ~ Isle Royale National Park

Grand Portage RV Park

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 Minnesota_140725-6191waters 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 emerges through the mist.
Rock of Ages Lighthouse emerges 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.

Houghton, MI ~ #1

We are spending a week at the City of Houghton RV Park.  I have to admit that my first reaction when driving into the park was not as positive as that of Bayfield, WI, our last stay.  The sites were closer together and were paved, not grassy.  However, when we got settled and I looked out our back window I quickly changed by mind.  We sit on the banks of the Portage Waterway and can watch the sunset from our window or while sitting around the fire.  Many boats, large and small, travel the waterway, so it has been great fun watching these boats glide by while sitting on our sofa.   An added bonus was to have our newfound friends John and Janie as next-door neighbors for the week!

Houghton, an old copper mining town, sits on the hills bordering the Portage Canal in Keweenaw Peninsula and has been tagged as one of The 100 Best Small Towns in America.  With a population of 7700, it is the largest city on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Many Cornish and Finnish immigrants came to this area to work in the copper mines and their influence is still apparent in the culture and cuisine in the area.

This historic, photographic town is the birthplace of professional hockey in the US, hosting the Portage Lakers back in 1903.  Dee Stadium currently houses a museum as tribute to professional hockey and is home to the Portage Lake Pioneers Senior Hockey Team.

There are some wonderful hiking and biking trails running along the Portage Canal that we were able to take advantage of.  We have had a couple of fairly cool days and the leaves on the trees are beginning to change color.  We are hoping to see a spectacular color show as we continue to venture further into the UP.

Houghton is also home to Michigan Tech University, best known for its engineering school.  We spent some time walking the grounds of the university and could see the international influence here.

Given that Houghton has an average snowfall of 208″ annually, it is sometimes said to have two seasons, “winter’s here and winter’s coming”.  This town is host to a number of winter sports:  cross-country skiing, Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, ice hockey, and ice skating.  Personally, as we have aged, we have become more warm weather fans but you can see the enthusiasm for all things winter here.

Something we really wanted to do was to visit Isle Royale National Park but realized early on that the season for this trip ended after Labor Day.  We were a little bummed but will just have to come back for a visit at another time.  We did the next best thing instead, toured the visitor center and watched a video relating to Isle Royale.  The 5-hour ferry trip to the island originates in Houghton at the docks outside the visitor center.

After spending some time separately doing some exploring, John, Janie, Terry, and I decided to meet at the town library.  John can be a little on the quiet side at times but we knew that he was enjoying himself when we walked in and he was grinning from ear to ear.  We didn’t know how long they had been there but Janie mentioned that he loved to read so maybe the library was just what the doctor ordered for him.  Oh, did I forget to mention, The Library is a restaurant and brew pub.  I’m thinking something else put a smile on John’s face that day.  We enjoyed several brews and the best artichoke dip any of us had tasted.  We liked both so well that we visited again later in the week.

Connecting Houghton to Hancock is the world’s heaviest and widest double-deck vertical draw bridge, Portage Lift Bridge.  Its center lifts to provide 100′ of clearance for ships.  The lowest deck is used to accommodate snowmobile traffic in the winter.  It is the only land-based link between the north and south section of the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Historic Hancock, founded in 1859 by the Quincy Copper Mining Company, is home to 4600 residents and is the northernmost city in Michigan.  Hancock has a strong Finnish heritage and has been called “the focal point of Finns in the US”.  This quaint town was named after John Hancock, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.  I don’t think you could call this downtown thriving but it had some interesting little shops that have seemed to stand the test of time.

Finlandia University, the only private university in the UP, was founded in 1896 under the name of Suomi College, affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church.  Finnish pastor J. K. Nikander founded this school to ensure the advance of seminary training in America.  Its role at the time was to preserve Finnish culture, train new ministers, and teach English.  In 2000, Suomi changed its name to Finlandia University, with a liberal arts focus.

The first building erected at Suomi College was Old Main, constructed in 1898 from local sandstone.   The university has since outgrown this building but it still stands as a tribute to Mr. Nikander.

Later in the week we ventured out with John and Janie to explore Eagle Harbor, Copper Harbor, and Ft. Wilkins Historic State Park.  We were also fortunate enough to be here for the 22nd Annual Parade of Nations and International Ethnic Food Festival.  I will blog about these in my next post.