Isle Royale is about 40 miles long and is surrounded by the frigid waters of Lake Superior, hovering at a comfortable 40 degrees. It is also the largest island inside the largest freshwater lake in the world. It is a park that likes to claim superlatives. You will find it advertised that Ryan Island is the largest island on the largest lake (Lake Siskiwit) on the largest island (Isle Royale) on the largest freshwater lake in the world (Lake Superior) on several brochures.
For the lower 48, it can also probably claim the title of “hardest to visit.” Unless you want to swim for 12 miles in Lake Superior’s waters (which we would under no circumstance recommend after taking a 3.2 second dip), you will have to take a boat to get to the isle. The boats themselves are not easy to get to, as they leave from Copper Harbor and Houghton, MI, or from Grand Portage, MN.
As we had just been in Ely, MN, visiting the Boundary Waters, we opted for Grand Portage. After you decide where you want to leave from, you also have to decide where you would like to enter Isle Royale. You can start on the west side of the island at Windigo, or you can aim for the east side of the island at Rock Harbor. Given that it was $18/per person/per trip more expensive to go to Rock Harbor, we stuck with Windigo.
The variety of activities is incredible. You can scuba dive and visit shipwrecks, you can sail to the island, you can check out the numerous lighthouses, you can bring a canoe and paddle/portage from lake to lake, or you can hike. We went with the hiking option and upon arriving at Windigo, we checked in at the Ranger Station to get our camping permits. Our plan was pretty simple—we would spend three days and two nights hiking the 30-mile Feldtmann Loop trail. Our third night would be spent at Huginnin Cove (which came highly recommended) and then we would return to Windigo for our boat out.
To say that our first day was wet would be like saying the Beatles were a moderately popular band in the 1960s. As the Beatles couldn’t have gotten more popular, we couldn’t have gotten wetter. Our boots were full of water, our socks could be wrung out, and luckily we got a break in the water as we arrived at camp and were able to set everything out to dry.
Happy to arrive at Feldtmann Lake without rain pouring down on us, we considered stepping in the lake. It was then that we saw something swimming near the shore. A fish? No. Fish don’t look like that. Oh, wait. It’s a leech. A 4-5 inch leech undulating through the water as if to wave and say “Hi, come on in for a swim, we will welcome you with arms wide open!” We didn’t swim.
Our next drive proved to be quite delightful. The rain and clouds disappeared and the sun shone brightly. As we hiked, we could still feel the affects of the previous days rain as we hiked through grasses and branches that soaked us with residual wetness. As for superlatives, Isle Royale can also claim the title for “absurd amounts of mosquitoes.” You had to develop a hiking pattern for your arms. It was the only way to kill or remove them. Swing arms back and forth, swat shoulders, swat triceps, swing arms, wipe off legs, repeat! They were everywhere.
Our third day was again very sunny. We finished our loop and hiked back to Windigo for a snack before making our way out to Huginnin Cove. Our break consisted of drinking two Budweiser diesels and housing a can of Pringles. We also treated ourselves to two mosquito headnets and made our way back to the trail.
Huginnin lived up to expectations. It was beautiful. We made a dinner of stuffing mix, ramen and Indian food. We capped off the night with some hot chocolate and cribbage on the beach as the sun set, without mosquitoes.
We awoke the next morning knowing that we only had four miles back to Windigo and that we were still mooseless. After three days and nearly 35 miles of hiking, we had seen plenty of moose duds and tracks but had yet to see a live one in the wild. We left camp early and hiked quietly. About one mile later, nature finally rewarded us with a brief (but inspiring!) glimpse of what we had hoped to see for the entire trip—a small bull! He of course ran away as soon as he took notice of us, but we didn’t care. The trip could now be labeled a success. We returned to Windigo, celebrated with Budweiser and more Pringles, and then spent our time waiting for the boat by completing the Junior Ranger program, attending a Ranger program about moose bones, and taking pictures. It may not be glamorous, but that, my friends, is a couple days in the life of your favorite National Park adventurers. Anyone want to send us more Pringles?