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Ah, Isle Royale! Could it be the ultimate Midwest wilderness frontier? An ultimate sea kayaker's challenge for local enthusiasts, perhaps? We both wanted to experience conditions beyond the relatively protected waters between the islands of the Apostles in loaded boats on a longer trip. After multiple days of play in the surf of southern Lake Michigan we felt ready. The distant relentless call of the open water along the wild rugged coast was unmistakable. We had no other real choice but respond. How could we resist the mystery surrounding the biggest island on the biggest fresh water lake in the world? Isle Royale offers unique topography that is as close as one can get to mountains without going toward either of the coasts. Add to that pristine nature, inhospitable rocky coastline, and the natural wonder—a moose-versus-wolf experiment going on the inside this closed lab for several decades… The promise of awesome sights from the water, exciting hikes on the interior of the island, combined with notoriously capricious weather that will test our locally brewed skills and endurance as well as the opportunity to really get away from the daily routine—these were the things that made the choice to make the trip easy.
The dreams turned into vague plans as the year unfolded. Dates were thrown around and schedules periodically re-assessed … next thing I knew, the tickets for the Copper Harbor ferry with a mid-August date showed up in the mail. There are three ferries that will take you to the Island: two from Michigan and one from Minnesota. There are also sea planes.
We picked the ferry departing from Copper Harbor, MI because it seemed to offer a good compromise between driving and sailing time. The one from Houghton, MI is over an hour closer by car but takes several hours longer on the water. It is also the biggest one of the three and even takes smaller motor boats for transport to the destination.
The one from Grand Portage, MN only takes a couple of hours to reach Washington Harbor but is a much longer drive around the SW extension of the Lake. Additionally, the big island is only 15 miles from the northern shores of Lake Superior in MN and Canada. If one is willing to commit to the open water for that long, a crossing from the mainland is quite reasonable as long as Poseidon is appeased.
We considered it seriously. That would have been by far the longest crossing either one of us has attempted in a kayak. I was eager to try while Russ, old sea wolf that he is, was weary of the drive and much less than thrilled by the monotony of paddling a loaded kayak for half-a-day with nothing but water around. In the end we voted against it. I must admit that, after the 9-mile crossing of the Siskiwit Bay on day two of our trip, I am much less enthusiastic about doing crossings of that length when there is an alternative.
Here are some general statistics about the trip as well as some of its highlights. More detailed day-by-day account which is intended as a reference for someone planning a trip to Isle Royale can be accessed via the links at the end of this article. The rest of the account also may work as a surrogate virtual journey for an ice-locked paddler without access to real water.
First of all—the plan was to circumnavigate the island and we made it! The entire trip took us 5 full and 2 half-days of paddling during which we covered a little over 110 statute miles along the shoreline of the island, in its bays, and tracing the labyrinths around the off-shore islands. The longest day of paddling was just short of 30 miles in about 11 hours from launch to landing including a hefty 2 hour lunch. The shortest was just over 10 miles in about 5 hours including a short snack stop—that's a meager 2.5 MPH progress with the throttle open pretty much all the way! Two reasonably fit guys in Valley Nordkapps H2O and a Classic HS with a built-in skeg. The trip cost us just under $400 each. This includes all the fees, tickets, camping, motel and travel expenses. It does not account for the thousands of dollars in capital equipment investments or another $100 or so for food supplies.
The trip started in Rock Harbor. From there, we paddled southwest around the island in the clockwise direction. The decision was based on the prevailing westerly winds. We wanted to have following winds for the 13-mile NW stretch of shore from Huginnin Cove to Little Todd Harbor where there are no landing sites. As it turned out, the choice carried mixed blessings with it. On the Murphy's Law side of things, we paddled into stiff head winds up to 25 knots the majority of the time, save for one day. SW winds were promptly replaced with NE as we rounded the west side of the island and changed our course to the NE. To compensate for this, though, the most scenic and visually diverse areas around the island start with the Amygdaloid Island and stretch all the way through Blake Point. These we saved for the end of the trip. This promised land was our beacon and provided motivation as the going got tougher with each day and weather deteriorated. Getting there was worth every stroke of the paddle along the way. In retrospect, we could have easily spent the entire week day-tripping from a base camp on Belle Island.
The temperatures for the entire week were in the 50s for both water and weather, daytime and night. More than half of the trip was rain—both when we were on and off the water. At one point, the rain did not stop for any significant amount of time on two consecutive days and nights. We camped in two designated campsites, two wilderness sites (cross-country permit required) and we were extremely lucky and relieved to get shelters on two consecutive rainy nights at the end of the trip. In order from start to finish the camps were at: Chippewa Harbor (campground), Atwood Beach and Rainbow Point (both wilderness), Todd Harbor (campground), Birch Island and Duncan Bay Narrows (shelters). The Todd Harbor site was the only one that I would characterize as "ordinary." Of course, it was also the one where we had to make and take down our camp in pouring rain. All other sites were as good as wilderness camping gets in the Midwest. The views and the solitude they provided left little to the imagination.
The trip itself was a success in many different ways. One of the stronger emotional reactions for me was the very first glimpse of the rocky isles off the main island as the ferry was gliding into the Rock Harbor through 2' wind chop on a misty and chilly August morning. We spent the ferry trip chatting to campers inside the cabin. Then, as I stepped out on the deck of the Isle Royale Queen IV to face our destination, all the mysticism about this place that built up in my head during the months before the trip reached the climax in this single moment. Everything was covered in gentle white mist and the view was accompanied by rhythmic sounds of wind and breaking waves. I happily admit that I choked up in the presence of this idyllic sight and all the promises it held for the week to follow.
Personally, I came to Isle Royale to paddle in rough conditions. Rough conditions we got! Except for one calm day, the waves were at least 2 feet and the winds were at least 10 knots, usually in the wrong direction. The last full day of our trip the ferries from Michigan mainland did not run due to gale-force winds from the north. That happened for the first time in two years.
The roughest day was day 3 of the trip as we launched into 2-4 foot seas from Atwood Beach. The forecast said the seas will grow to 5-8' rollers. The weather radio said the wind at the Rock of Ages weather station was already 25 knots at sunrise—head wind from the SW, of course. The forecast had fully materialized. Both Russ and I capsized and rolled our kayaks on that day and neither one of us are strangers to chaotic surf of the Great Lakes.
I will never forget a debriefing as Russ and I were talking over how to tackle the shoal extending from the Head-a headland off the SW corner of the island. With the power of breaking waves on full display in front of us and the howling wind we had to get very close to each other just to be able to talk. I was looking at Russ eye-to-eye with no more than 10' separating the boats. Mid-sentence, Russ's kayak was suddenly hoisted straight up out of the water and the next instance I was looking at the white bottom of his Nordkapp, head cocked way up. Another split second and there was no more Russ or his kayak—just a wall of greenish-blue water moving my way. Another eye blink and I was swiftly riding an escalator on the face of a steep wave cresting at least a paddle length above the deck of the kayak. Lugging the loaded boats at launching and landing elicited plenty of groans and an occasional expletive from us. The Lake send our vessels into chaotic dances like they were dust bunnies that scatter in the draft of the passing feet without as much as a second glance. This kind of silent power never ceases to evoke pure awe!
Passing over the remains of the sunken America wreck was unexpectedly eerie. Serendipitously, had the storm of the previous day raged some longer, we probably wouldn't have even found it. And even the smallest waves would have injected some life in the the sight and altered the entire experience. As if following some treaty, the Lady, as Lake Superior is known, was almost mirror flat when we approached the buoy marking the spot. I am not superstitious by any stretch of the definition but floating several feet above the bow of the sunken giant ship sent some cold shivers down the back. I guess even Pisces are naturally afraid of the monsters that reside in the darkness of the depths. A gigantic metal structure shooting up from the abyss definitely had an effect well beyond what cold facts of the matter would entail.
The infamous NW section was all that it was supposed to be—questionable landing spots few and far in between. Even those that we did see would not be suitable if the waves picked up any higher than a couple feet. Most of the shoreline along this stretch was vertical rock cliff. The supposed landings were just pockets in this vertical wall with barely enough space for a boat or two. Getting up the ledge would surely be tricky if not impossible in conditions. We were lucky and paddled the distance in calm water with the remains of yesterday's storm providing a minimal push from behind in the form of swell and wind.
It was on this stretch that we were treated to a spectacular display of a hunting bold eagle. Now, I had heard rumors that bald eagles are strictly scavengers. So, when I saw a large raptor retract its wings and dive into the water from the heights, I thought it was an osprey. Not so! The magnificent creature emerged from the water with heavy flaps of its powerful wings and with a good-sized fish in its talons. The fish was clearly visible from several hundred feet away. I breathed a sigh of relief—America's national bird is not just a scavenger after all!
Toward the end of the trip, NE winds washed the vertical cliffs of the northern coast for two straight days. When paddling next to shore, wind from this direction meant rebounding waves with no discernible rhythm, pattern, regular size, or direction. One wave hits the boat from the port and the next one can be from starboard twice or half the size of the first one. Not sure if this qualifies as a highlight but it was definitely an experience I will not soon forget. Darting in and out of the rebounding waves next to embankment-fortified shores of Chicago is one thing. At home you always have a choice of paddling out or turning around. Hour after hour of going up and down, left and right and every-which-way without an alternative was something else altogether. Turning around was not an option with our goal in mind. Paddling away from shore would have exposed us to the full force of the east wind from which we were partially sheltered by the island. Therefore, staying in the chop closer to shore was the lesser of two evils.
The need to stay loose in the hips is a lesson one needs to learn early in sea kayaking life. I thought I've had it under my belt. There's nothing like a hour after hour in rebounding waves up to 5' high or more on consecutive days to reinforce the message. Adrenaline is a limited resource. You can only meet the incoming waves by counter-attacks for so long. Then there is the mental energy required to stay perpetually vigilant and it was also draining quickly with the clicks of the clock. You have to make friends with the waves and trust the boat. Let the water come and toss the boat. The kayak will stay up if you just let it do its balancing thing. If you fight the sea, only two things can happen: first, you will certainly lose in the long run and, two, the pleasure of being on the water will be sucked right out of the experience. I imagine that wrestling with a grizzly in a circus show should be similar—a thrill to be in the presence of that tremendous power but one small mishap and the one with the short end of the stick is not going to be the wild beast.
Our only side-trip of the voyage on the water involved the exploration of McCargoe Cove. We unloaded the boats at Birch Island shelter and took now empty kayaks into the heart of this pristine bay. Ahh! Paddling flat water had never felt so good after a day in rebounding mess still raging less than a mile away. The contrast only served to amplify the serene nature of this inlet. The boats felt so lively and cooperative without the load of supplies we left behind. It was almost like no effort was required to move them forward. Several loon couples welcomed us to their sanctuary. At the southern end we met a very social and playful otter. It amused us for quite some time but, after a while, we paddled off to explore a picturesque creek leading to Chickenbone Lake and to search for moose there. To our surprise, the otter was bobbing right where we left it when we came back 30 minutes later. My son is an avid fan of sea otters. I could not wait to tell him about this friend we made!
A trek to Amygdaloid Lake was short and absolutely wonderful. Yes, the satellite islands next to Isle Royale have legitimate-size lakes of their own. There is also an arch along the way. The view of the channel between the two islands from the top of the Amygdaloid was just priceless. So were the blueberries we found—tiny, ripe, sweet, and delicious. The next day, another elevated lookout—Louise—surpassed the views from the top of Amygdaloid and improved on what was already pretty much perfect. On the last day of the trip we hiked the mile from Tobin Bay up to the top of Look-Out Louise. From there we could see the maze of land and water on the NE side of the island from the bird's point of view. It's like looking at a cool topographical map just one hundred times better!
Multiple headlands around Isle Royale cast spits of shallows into the lake. Some can be up to ¼ or even ½ mile long depending on the height of the waves that expose them. Any time you have shoals like that, waves would break much farther off-shore relative to surrounding deeper areas. We witnessed that most memorably on day three as we rounded the Long Point and the Head. There, however, we only had to keep paddling further off-shore and avoid the breaking waves.
Locke Point on the last full day of the trip was different. It's a finger that jots out into the lake and protects the entrance into the Duncan Bay from the northwest. Duncan Bay Narrows was our last campsite of the trip. After a long day in exposed rebounding surf we were counting minutes and paddle strokes to landfall. As we approached Locke Point it became clear from quite a distance that rounding it will not be a linear affair. The breakers were having their fun as far as half-mile to the NE which could have added another hefty mile to our day. Tired at the end of the day with a full boat is no time to try to dart through a surf zone. We never even entertained that option seriously. Luckily, we did not have to paddle all the way around the buoy marking the end of the shoal. About half-way we found a deeper channel free from the breakers and wide enough for the nimble kayaks to squeeze through. From there to Duncan Bay Narrows we had 2' following swells. They were too small to catch any rides but what a joy to paddle the following seas for a change, nevertheless.
And finally, the best for last. An absolutely critical ingredient of success on this trip had to be brought from home. It was the company. Hefty portion of our communications did not get beyond the necessary course adjustments and the inevitable comments on the awesome sights. There were no deep existential discussions by the campfire at night nor did any dramatic rescues or spectacular displays of skills take place. At every moment along the way, though, I knew that my partner was always there. With that trust, every unsteady dip of the paddle and every jolt from the breaking wave on the beam just did not feel the same way had I been alone. I can't point to anything specific. Maybe the presence of a good paddling partner is like the comfort in a good chair—it's not what you feel when you sit on it that makes it so; it's what you don't! During the trip there were no awkward silence moments when you feel that something needs to be said but nothing worth saying comes to mind. When we had something to say we said it, when we did not we didn't. Not everybody can set out on a trip with a definite destination but a limited schedule and feel comfortable to proceed from one day to the other without worrying about hours, miles, speed, and all the 'what ifs' that could be. We traveled as if there was no agenda to be met, no schedule to be adhered to, no wake up calls or time-limits for lunch. We just naturally fell into some sort of synchronicity except for the fact that I was the one looking Russ in the back for most of the trip. We were definitely on a pretty tight schedule but somehow completed the trip without the accompanying sense of pressure or urgency about it. I've been on many trips were interpersonal frictions dominated the whole experience. I am glad this one was the opposite of that!
To wrap things up, the hardships of paddling a heavy boat in rough water for long hours and into unfavorable wind, cold weather and ever-present rain can be used to characterize this trip. Contrasting these, an awesome display of nature was around us and was, perhaps, even enhanced with every one of the heavy paddle strokes. Yet, in spite of these objective hardships and the wonderful sights, this journey was an inner one for me first and foremost. At the core of the experience, this excursion was about experiencing myself at the outskirts of the familiar and on the doorstep of the comfortable. It didn't quite match the acute emotional intensity of my first sea kayaking outing when a flat-water paddler met 6' wind waves on the ocean face to face. As much as the former was about excitement and thrill of the unknown, the Isle Royale circumnavigation was an exercise in savoring, endurance and perseverance of a well planned trip—a sort of coming-of-age milestone in my kayaking life. "The first cut is the deepest," they say, so the edge was not there anymore. On the other hand, the overall experience was more conscious and deliberate and not quite as haphazard. Can't wait to see what the mature years in a sea kayak are like!
I had created a photo gallery of the trip with some details on its progress a while ago. You can find it here. I have also taken down many pages of notes on the trip. The links below will take you to the day-by-day accounts which can probably be helpful for those who are actually planning a trip of similar nature.