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Call of Wolf on Lake Superior Island

Foster is an Oakland, Calif., free-lance writer

This island park in Lake Superior almost at the Canadian border lures visitors for both its seen and unseen attractions.

Everyone views the beauty of the lake landscape and the forest flora, and most visitors encounter some of the 800 moose that live here.

But few visitors see the secretive 20-25 wolves (they are counted from airplanes each winter) that keep the moose population in check.

The presence of the wolves heightens the awareness of a visitor, not because of fear of human attack, which is infrequent, but because the visitor walks amid this classic, stable ecosystem, where a wolf-moose equilibrium flourishes on a protected wilderness island. The wolf-moose balance is Isle Royale’s most spectacular resource.

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“Our mission is to maintain Isle Royale as a wilderness, partly because of the wolves,” says Superintendent Thomas Hobbs, who recently came here from Yellowstone Park.

Secure Ecosystem

Isle Royale, northern Minnesota, north central Idaho and northern Montana host the 150 remaining wild wolves in the contiguous United States.

“On Isle Royale we can perpetuate a secure and enclosed ecosystem with a stable wolf population for the public to enjoy and scientists to study,” says Hobbs. “Isle Royale is the epitome of something working well in the national park system.”

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Visitors, moreover, arrive with a purpose, adds Hobbs. They invest considerable time and money just to get here.

“Isle Royale is our least visited national park,” says Hobbs, “but once people get here, they stay longer than at any other national park.”

Only 15,000 people made the four-hour boat crossing from mainland Michigan or Minnesota last year during the May-September season when the island is open to the public. But once they disembarked, either to the full-service lodge at Rock Harbor or to the 200 backpacking campsites, they stayed an average of four days. By contrast, the average stay in Yellowstone or Grand Canyon is four hours.

Filled With Anticipation

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The 45-mile boat ride to Isle Royale is a prelude filled with anticipation. Concessionaire or park service boats cross Lake Superior, the largest (by volume) freshwater lake in the world, leaving from Copper Harbor and Houghton in Michigan or from Grand Portage in Minnesota.

The lake may be calm, but can also be black, eerie and treacherous. The water in Lake Superior is exceedingly cold, hovering around 42 degrees in summer at the surface. Ten feet below the surface it is 34 degrees.

A 300-foot iron ore barge, the Fitzgerald, sank in Lake Superior as recently as the 1970s. Indians called Lake Superior “big body.”

When Isle Royale appears on the horizon it seems to float, as the Indians described it, because you can see the top long before you see the bottom. As the boat pulls closer, you begin to appreciate that this park is a main island and about 200 small islands in an archipelago. When this largest island looms before you, it’s easy to imagine why French map makers decided to honor Louis XIV by giving the place a royal name.

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The land became a national park in 1940, mainly because it was a huge island with a forest wilderness.

The boat pulls into Rock Harbor. After an orientation at the Visitor Center, which is well stocked with descriptive literature and maps, you either walk to Rock Harbor Lodge or head to a backpacking camp.

Comfortable Rooms

The lodge offers comfortable rooms, a good restaurant and rental canoes as well as fishing/excursion boats.

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The park experience amounts to relaxed isolation, with no phones, no TV, no roads and no cars. A lodge excursion boat, the Sandy, takes visitors around the island with a park naturalist on board. The park service and the lodge concession organize ways to approach the island by hiking, canoeing, motor boating, naturalist talks and nature seminars.

With a map in hand, you can hike half a day from the lodge. The stroll out to Scoville Point is a good warmup. The 170 miles of trails are well-maintained and extensive. The island is large, 45 by 9 miles, 572,000 acres of land and water.

But to journey more than half a day from the lodge you must be well-equipped and have backpacking skills. Summer rains at this northerly latitude can chill when night temperatures drop.

Everywhere there is much to see. The moose can be anywhere and are unpredictable. Moose may lurk around the lodge, but mostly they stay in the back country. The huge animals show little fear of humans but the bulls can be feisty in the rutting period, September, and the cows will protect their young passionately in the calving season, spring.

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If wolves threaten a moose, the moose tends to enter the water. Deadly confrontations between moose and wolves occur mainly in winter because the wolves survive on alternative food supplies in summer.

Exceptional Density

The density of wolves here is exceptional, with one wolf for every four square miles. Summer backpackers often hear the howl of the wolves at night, which chills in a manner similar to Sherlock Holmes’ hound of the Baskervilles.

“The thrill of hearing a wolf howl,” says Hobbs, “is that it reminds you, as nothing else can, that you are in a wilderness. You are far away from civilization. You are dependent on yourself for survival. Wolves don’t attack humans, but they are out there. The howl has a stimulating and rejuvenating effect on humans.”

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The No. 1 wolf in a pack, the alpha wolf, researchers conclude, must make his howl the longest and loudest, partly to maintain his dictatorship, which is not benevolent. Wolves may howl to share information about a meal, and also for the fun of it.

Summer visitors often see red foxes, squirrels and rabbits. Beavers are evident because of their dams, which profoundly affect the plant life and food supply, but these nocturnal animals are rarely seen. Pileated woodpeckers and smaller birds are abundant.

Eating Pleasures From Lake

The lake waters in and around the park teem with lake trout, whitefish and salmon, culinary pleasures that may be indulged in at your campsite or in the dining room of the lodge. A harmonious commercial fishery has survived here since the 19th Century, with one remaining small fishing operation, the Pete Edison Fishery, maintained by the park service as a living history museum.

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Wildflowers bloom throughout summer. Thirty-six types of wild orchids are one superlative. One rare plant Devil’s Club exists east of the Rockies only on Isle Royale.

When you look at a large-scale map of Isle Royale or walk the trails here, glacial scraping of the terrain is evident. Glaciers moved northeast to southwest across here as recently as 10,000 years ago, combing the terrain and gouging out the rocks.

Beauty in Small Packages

Beauty can also be discovered in small packages. You can find the Michigan state gem, greenstone, throughout the area. Look for it at the beach below Rock Island Lighthouse. The small stone, which appears to have eyes, can be kept legally if found below water level. Searchers wade into the shallow water and lift fistfuls of gravel in search of this treasure.

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Indians, as early as 1500 BC, dug surface copper here, heated the maleable metal and pounded it into scraping instruments or sharp projectiles. The pits where Indians mined veins of surface copper are marked. At the park service museum on Mott Island you can see some of these early tools, which were traded to other Indians as far away as New York state.

In 1985 park service divers found a ceramic pot in 70 feet of water. Experts have dated the pot to about 1,500 years ago. Probably it broke during a canoe crossing and was tossed overboard.

The Indians that French trappers and missionaries met, the Algonquin and Chippewa, had lost all knowledge of copper use. Ben Franklin, aware of stories about copper in the region, insisted in the treaty map drawing after the American Revolution that the island be included in U.S. territory.

The excursion boat Sandy makes a circuit around the island, with a stop at restored Rock Island lighthouse next to the Pete Edisen Fishery. A dozen major ships, mainly packet boats carrying freight to the island, lie wrecked within park waters, mandated to reach 4 1/2 miles from the shore.

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For a brochure, write to Superintendent, Isle Royale National Park, 87 N. Ripley St., Houghton, Mich. 44931, or phone (916) 482-3310.

Boats leave for Isle Royale from Copper Harbor and Houghton, Mich., and from Grand Portage, Minn. Contact the park service to take its Ranger III from Houghton. To take the Isle Royale Queen from Copper Harbor, contact Isle Royale Ferry Service, Copper Harbor, Mich. 49918, phone (906) 289-4437 summers and (906) 482-4950 winters. One way for adults, $25, children $15.

The fastest way for an outsider to get to the island is from Chicago or Minneapolis by Simmons commuter airline to Houghton-Hancock or Grand Portage.

There is one lodging option on Isle Royale, open roughly Memorial Day to Labor Day. No one stays on the island during winter. The lodge is Rock Harbor Lodge, Isle Royal National Park, P.O. Box 405, Houghton, Mich. 49931, phone (906) 337-4993. During winter, reservations for the following summer season can be made to National Park Concessions, Mammoth Cave, Ky., 42259, phone (502) 773-2191.

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Overnight and two meals at the lodge costs $62 single, $99 double. Housekeeping cottages are $55 single or double, $7 each extra person. Meals at the lodge: $4.95 breakfast, $6.30 lunch, $11.25 dinner.

If you have a day on the mainland waiting for a boat to the island, consider a visit to the Porcupine Wilderness area with a view of its Lake of the Clouds. Or you can descend into historic Delaware Copper Mine.


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