Walk on the Wild Side
For a howling success, make this backpacking trek when the moon is full.
By Larry Rice
ISLE ROYALE NATIONAL PARK is like no other park in the United States. Located in Lake Superior’s northwest corner, the park has no roads leading to it. Nor do any exist anywhere on the island. That’s because more than 98 percent of the land in Isle Royale is designated wilderness.
Only about 18,000 visitors make it to this rugged island each summer. More people visit Yellowstone National Park in a single day than Isle Royale in an entire year. More often than not, in fact, the place is left to timber wolves, moose, red foxes, river otters, beavers, and snowshoe hares.
Though small by national park standards (45 miles long and nine miles wide), Isle Royale’s secluded backcountry offers ideal terrain for hikers. Almost 170 miles of foot trails allow a range of treks from day hikes to demanding two-week island circumnavigation. The most popular, best marked, and longest single route—one that will make your pals back home drool with envy—is the 40-mile Greenstone Ridge Trail that extends down the island’s backbone. The path passes through a northwoods wilderness of unspoiled forests, inland glacial lakes, bogs and swamps, and scenic shorelines.
The park service rates the Greenstone Ridge Trail moderate, but occasional difficult sections present knee-straining climbs, especially when you’re weighed down by a cumbersome pack. The route rises to an elevation of more than 1,300 feet, eventually leading to Mount Desor (1,394 feet)—the highest point on the island—where as payoff for your climb you’ll spy unsurpassed views of Lake Superior, Isle Royale’s outlying islands, and the Canadian shoreline.
After all your efforts to reach this island gem, don’t rush head-down along the trail. Instead, take it slow. The track veers near isolated inland lakes where dedicated anglers can wet their lines. The catch-of-the-day might include northern pike, perch, and an occasional walleye.
Stop often to sample summer-ripened blueberries and soak up the island’s rich history. For instance, not far from Rock Harbor Campground, you’ll arrive at a grouping of ancient copper pits. Native Americans pounded out the pits 3,000 years ago to obtain the pure substance that they fashioned into knives, spearheads, and ornaments. Look around; you could stumble upon an artifact.
Allow four to five days to backpack the Greenstone’s entire length. You’ll find camping in designated sites (first-come, first-served), unless you make arrangements for off-trail hiking and camping. Get a free backcountry permit at any ranger station.
You’ll have plenty to talk about and lots of camp chores after a hard day’s ramble. But pause and tune your ears to the natural sounds all around. When the night is right and the moon is full—if you’re lucky— you’ll hear the howling of wolves that, under ideal weather conditions, can travel up to 10 miles from the source.
Wolves? An island camp in the middle of Lake Superior? It doesn’t get much better than that.
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT ISLE ROYALE
When to go: The park opens to visitors from April 16 to Oct. 31, with full services offered mid-June to Labor Day. The busiest times are the last week of July and the first two weeks of August.
The way there: Scheduled ferry service operates from May through September. The two-and-a-half- to six-hour passage from Houghton or Copper Harbor, Mich., and Grand Portage, Minn., costs $50-$75 per person one-way. You can arrange a number of combination trips—boat one way and hike the other.
Local wisdom: Expect mosquitoes and black flies at their worst in late June and early July; bring plenty of repellent and pack a bug head net. Also know that rough weather can sometimes delay your drop-off and pickup times by a couple of days, though that happens rarely.
Resources: Isle Royale National Park, 906-482-0984 or nps.gov/isro. Get guidebooks, topographic maps, and other publications from the Isle Royale and Keweenaw Parks Association, 800-678-6925 or irkpa.org.