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  • Mikah Meyer

Untamed Wilderness: Your Ticket Back to Summer Camp

Unit #20 / 412 - Isle Royale National Park

Looking down upon an island covered in thick trees and cut off from the rest of civilization, I wondered what I was doing by agreeing to take this flight by myself.

Two hours later, hiking through those thick forests and singing outwardly to ward off the wolves I heard existed and the moose I heard somewhere in the forest around me, I wished I had delayed my arrival for the boat Andy and I were planning to take one week later.

But life doesn't always work out the way we plan, so when the chance came to use the leftover space on a chartered flight--saving the $150 of a normal boat fare--I jumped on it...even if that meant leaving behind my travel companion who decided it wasn't worth flying in a 4-seat seaplane.

Before that plane took off, I too had my doubts: instructing Andy who to call and what to do with my stuff in case I was "one of those small planes you hear about on the news" as Andy so appropriately pointed out on the drive to my flight.

But as the plane took off without me hardly even noticing, all those fears wafted into the clouds which were now floating serenely beneath me.

Isle Royale Seaplanes taking off for the 35 minute flight from Houghton County Memorial Airport. It's the fastest way, by 3-5 hours, to get to Isle Royale National Park.

There's a phenomenon I read about once. Maybe it's not scientific, but the writer captured it so authentically I know it's real. I wish I could find the exact text (and if this sound familiar, please comment with the link!) but it went something like:

"There's a phenomenon that happens at 35,000 feet. Where all your cares and concerns at take off are lost somewhere in the clouds, transforming you before you land in your new reality."

It's such a perfect description of Isle Royale National Park.

When I landed, I was swiftly escorted to Windigo's main dock where the Voyageur II had just arrived full of passengers from Grand Portage, Minnesota.

Standing there listening to the Ranger's orientation about what to do if you encounter a wolf, I felt the same mix of excitement and uncertainty I hadn't felt since attending summer camp as a tween; ready for the unknown to come!

That's the draw which has made Isle Royale National Park the unit to defy the average 4 hour visit of the 412 national park sites, with the longest average stay of 4 days. Visitors, especially adults past the age of summer camp, can experience that "away from it all" feeling in a place that, with no cell phone reception or Wi-Fi to even tell Andy I'd landed, provides a rare feeling of true wilderness abandonment in our ever connected world.

It's so true that on my 5 hour hike around the Huginnin Cove Loop, I only saw two people. Even then, in that 10 mile stretch, the only reason I found them was because they were staying at the trail's anchor and mid-way campsites and I waved to say, "Hi."

Having sworn off solo-hiking four years earlier after running into a brown bear and her cub on a trail at Grand Teton National Park, I was cursing myself for deciding to attend this untamed wilderness by myself. At first it was because I was tired of pushing my way through the head-high branches that covered 1/4 of this trail, but once I heard moose calls only 30 minutes into the hike, I began to loathe it for other reasons.

Rushing my way through these high thickets of shrubs I couldn't help but imagine Isle Royale's two remaining wolves tackling me at the ankles without even the slightest clue they'd been stalking.

Breathing easier after making it through the hike, I stumbled upon Ranger Kennedy, who'd greeted me after my arrival, and informed her of my tense walk through the forest. She pointed me toward the above recreation of Isle Royale's "Lone Wolf," which died in 1991, but whose island-end concentrated dwellings included seven dots on the trail I'd just taken!

Presuming my fears were entirely justified, Ranger Kennedy was quick to note:

"We've never had an attack on humans in all the time Isle Royale has been a national park. The wolves are afraid of humans, and we try to keep it that way by encouraging people to look big and scare them off if they see one. But really, it's a treat to encounter one. Even just seeing their paw prints is a rarity."

Her words were a slight encouragement when I set off for a sunset hike to the Grace Creek Overlook, a round-trip of four miles in which I once again saw no other human.

It reconfirmed for me what I'd been thinking earlier: this truly is an opportunity to be in untamed wilderness.

That chance had its low points when I was hiking through thick trail overgrowth and couldn't see my feet in the muddy terrain below, but with those struggles came many high points:

Turning a corner to discover this meadow and having a duck take off simply from the vibrations of my feet--likely assuming he was just as alone as I was.

Emerging from the thick forest to have lunch on the rocky coastline with views of Canada's Thunder Bay in the distance.

Breaking in my Borealis camera backpack and testing my tripod/timer skills!

And reaching the top of this overlook, being so taken by my solitude that I felt for a moment like Christopher McCandless of "Into The Wild" fame; almost instinctually screaming into the abyss at the sense of wonder.

Though I'll admit I was initially not so excited about going to Isle Royale, it really had everything to do with the logistics of getting there via a $150-minimum boat ride (on a tight-budget trip) and a need to make early reservations (on a trip designed to be flexible). Once those were hammered out, I was thankful for the few options to reach this wilderness.

It was that reality that allowed me to witness a mother duck teaching her chicks how to dive for food.

That found me waking up in the middle of the night to sounds of a moose walking his way up the river just ten feet from my sleeping bag.

And that let me know the whooshes and wisps of wind above me really were caused only by the wind and not commercial airplanes.

After all, the only plane scheduled to fly above was the one coming to take me back to reality.

5 Isle Royale National Park Highlights (You Can Do)!

*Hat tip to Ranger Katie at the Windigo Ranger Station for her enthusiastic help with my time on Isle Royale*

1. Hike the Entire Island (or part of it)

A very popular excursion for many of Isle Royale's 18,000 annual visitors is taking 3 - 5 days to hike the entire 40-mile length of the island, from Rock Harbor to Windigo or vice-versa. If you don't feel like carrying your home and all your food on your back for days at a time (save for the blueberries which are a common find for hikers), try any of Isle Royale's 165 total miles of trails.

2. Camp Next to a Moose

The Washington Creek Campground is a common place for moose to eat, drink or tromp through the water. I encountered moose twice in less than 24 hours in the area, and with campsites just feet from the water like mine in the photo below, your odds of a moose sighting are just as high!

3. Take to the Waters

What's an island without the water to make it one? Canoe, kayak or paddleboard one of Isle Royale's many coves sheltering from the strong winds/waves of Lake Superior. Or if you're really bold, scuba dive the most intact collection of shipwrecks in the National Park System.

There is no phone service and no Wi-Fi here. You are so isolated that you have no choice but to immerse yourself in nature. If the kids, or let's be real, adults can't pull themselves away from technology, this is the perfect place to force your family to play that game of Sequence you've been waiting on.

Washington Creek's orange waters

5. Make the Journey the Adventure

I had never flown in a seaplane before this trip, however, my flight at 2,500 feet was way smoother, in both take-off/landing and cruising, than most commercial jets I've taken. And I got to talk to the pilot and ask questions about the surrounding sights whenever I wanted.

If Isle Royale Seaplanes isn't your thing, there are four boats (two from Michigan, two from Minnesota) that allow for a more leisurely crossing of Lake Superior. The NPS lists all their options here, however, if you get seasick easily, opt for the NPS-operated Ranger III. It's the largest piece of equipment in the entire Park Service, and that large size lends itself to a smoother ride than the other boats.

Regardless of what you do, make your transportation reservations as far in advance as possible. My original travel plans changed multiple times due to full boats. The good news, individual campers on Isle Royale (or groups under 7) don't need reservations to camp, so once you arrive, feel free to explore at whatever pace you want!

Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations please! What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)

(Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota)

-Keweenaw National Historical Park

-Grand Portage National Monument

-Mississippi National River & Recreation Area

-Pipestone National Monument

-Voyageurs National Park

-Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

-Theodore Roosevelt National Park

-Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site

-Apostle Island National Lakeshore

-Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway

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