Isle Royale

(This column was first published in the October 28, 1996 Buffalo News.)

    Over my lifetime I have accumulated a list of places I would like very much to see. I would give my eye teeth to visit Attu in the Aleutian Islands, Big Bend in Texas, Churchill in northern Ontario. Isle Royale in Lake Superior, famous for its interacting wolf and moose populations, was also high on that wish list.

    I now owe a tooth. Over Labor Day weekend that last wish was fulfilled when I joined my Minneapolis friend, Wally Neal, for four days of backpacking on Isle Royale.

    Isle Royale is part of Michigan, but a Lake Superior map shows that it is nearer Minnesota and Canada than it is to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. We drove to Grand Portage at the northeastern tip of Minnesota and boarded the charter boat, Wenonah, for the three hour trip to the island.

    Happily, on the day we sailed, Lake Superior was flat as a millpond and the temperature was in the 70s, not standard fare on this inland sea. I have visited this north shore in mid-summer when cold gusts made jackets necessary and ocean-sized surf rolled up against shoreline rocks.

    A dozen of us boosted back-packs up to crew members and climbed aboard the Wenonah; about as many others were merely riding to the island for the day. While we would hike a 30 mile loop from Windigo, several of our companions instead planned to hike the length of the island along the Greenstone ridge trail, a distance of over 40 miles. On our last day Wally and I would return to Windigo along the west end of that ridge.

    As we left the harbor at Grand Portage, we looked back at the cut through the shoreline ridge and the trail over which early voyageurs carried loads ranging from 90 to 270 pounds. That made our 40 pound packs seem puny -- until we carried them up the island's first hill.

    We checked in at the Windigo ranger station and headed up the well-blazed trail. Almost immediately we found ourselves in wilderness, our path climbing over and around boulders into a rich hardwood forest. The trail was lined with bright red bunchberries, high thimbleberry bushes replacing them in open areas.

    Deep moose hoofprints were everywhere and we hadn't hiked more than a mile when we came upon the first carcass. All that remained were a few bones and skin tatters. This was probably a moose that didn't make it through the previous winter when over a thousand met the same fate. However it succumbed, it almost certainly provided a feast for wolves or foxes.

    Our hike took us through the territory of one of the three island wolf packs, and on our second day we found the tracks of two of them along a sand beach. As expected, we never saw one but on our third night we did hear their distant howls. That night we also heard nearby barking. Wally thought they were fox barks, but to me the notes sounded too deep-throated. I think they were more likely wolf pups.

    I found this experience different from any previous nature encounter. We knew the behavior of the animals around us so we were never afraid, but our sense was that we were visitors to a land "owned" by animals. There are too few places on earth where this is still possible today and the boat taking us to the mainland departed all too soon. The trip was indeed a wish fulfilled.

    A future column will explore the current status of wolves and moose on this isolated island.