This is another excerpt from our travel journal to Isle Royale. The first day is here. Photos by me, text by my husband.

Monday May 26
Copper Harbour to Isle Royale

Writing is often a bit behind. [No kidding.] Today’s entry starts on the day advertised, but I am under few illusions that I will finish before the light kicks out. The sun sets very late here on the extreme northwest edge of the US part of the Eastern time zone — 9:45 pm and I’m still on natural light, streaming in through our large picture window overlooking Tobin Harbour. They definitely set up the cabins right, and also gave us one great view. Of course, we are one of only two cabins in use tonight, and the lodge is closed. We’re here a little early in the season.

The earliness (okay – first weekend the cabins are open – and before the main crew of the NPS staff even arrives) has actually not eliminated all hopes of wildflowers. We took a short walk this afternoon, out through the swamp marigolds (which Alice correctly identified without the help of reference books!) and saxifrages and even some early season violets.

Marsh marigolds

Marsh marigolds

Early saxifrage

Early saxifrage, a sub-alpine flower (and cool blogger)

Sand violets

Sand violets

The forest here on the NE end of the island is mostly spruce and fir and birch covered with moss (called “Old Man’s Beard”). The birch hasn’t leafed yet, but the Old Man’s Beard covers that well, and the evergreens look as full as ever. So, unlike Keweenaw Mountain, the forest looks full and ready for viewing.

It was a wonderful (and restorative) afternoon walk, about 2 miles in two hours and tennis shoes, heading towards Scoville Point. We stopped for bird watching and photos and expressions of relief for the boat ride being done, and didn’t start walking again until the chill made us.

It’s a cold day on Isle Royale, windy and cloudy and rainy for a bit, and probably no more than 50ยบ. But cold can be atmospheric, once the feet and fingers are accustomed, and once we managed to dress appropriately.

The walk was great, many birds spotted: magnolia warbler, a white-throated sparrow, a pair of common mergansers, a pair of common loons, a blackpoll warbler (we think) and two great photo ops with an American restart and a pileated woodpecker, both caught in flight.

Redstart in flight

Redstart in flight

Flying Pileated woodpecker

Flying Pileated woodpecker

It was also good just to see the land and water — Alice agreed that despite the plurality of geographical layers, the coast resembled BC (yay!). Moose evidence (insert moose turd joke here) is, well, evident throughout the park, and we also happened upon some carnivorous droppings (definite fur in the mix) – probably only a fox, but we can believe wolf if we want to.

It’s the 50th year of wolf-moose research on Isle Royale . The moose have been here since (they think) 1905, when an adventurous Canadian moose (or, more likely 2) swam over from Thunder Bay. The wolves, since 1957, when a pack crossed the ice from Thunder Bay in a particularly cold winter. It quickly became an ecological textbook example — first a large browser was introduced, greatly changing the forest, then a carnivore was introduced, greatly changing the daily routine of the large browser. Populations of this simplest of food chains have been monitored for 50 years, with a clear and striking pattern of boom and crash. In 50 years, the timing of moose/wolf population variation has never worked out right to let them both come to equilibrium.

There are fewer wolves than moose, too – the park service handout says currently about 30 wolves and 500 moose live here. When I was here in 1997, the wolves were in crash phase, with only 13 wolves in 3 packs. They have since recovered, but whenever they get that low, the extreme level of inbreeding causes scientists to wonder if the ongoing wolf-moose experiment will end itself. At only 4 wolves per pack (the packs do not intermix), mating is almost always sibling or parent-child – neither good news for genetic diversity.

But enough of the background. We hope to see moose this week [ooooh, foreshadowing!] (almost no chance of wolves) and it is probably time to get back to our trip.

We started the day in Copper Harbour about 6:30, quick pack of the car, and a drive down the hill. The boat place didn’t open until 7 am, so we headed to the Tamarack Inn, open at 6:30, for breakfast. Four tables were filled, obviously with people waiting for the boat.

We had our ill-fated toast and eggs (Alice) and pancakes (me), had a quick talk about the dangers of stamp sand (what they spread on Copper Harbour roads in snow in lieu of salt, which cannot be allowed to run off into the lake) with the proprietor/cook, and then went to hop on the boat. It was immediately clear that we were the least hardcore of all boatriders that morning – everyone else had only the pack on their backs, and perhaps a canoe. We had a cooler. Could it be that we are the only people taking advantage of the first week of the lodge’s housekeeping cabins for the summer? Quite likely yes. We’ll have to make up for our posh sleeping accommodations with a really impressive birding checklist or really long hikes, or being the most boat-savvy and seaworthy passengers. Yeah, right.

The first half hour of the trip was fine – the fog cleared, so we could see the horizon. The waves provided some level of swell, but things were pleasant enough to allow me to write. But, as Gordon Lightfoot warned, be wary when the gales of November come early on the big lake they call Gitchegumme.

We didn’t have gales (though we found out later there was a gale warning on parts of the lake), but the waves were big enough. The captain said two feet, rising occasionally to 4 or 5 feet. That’s a lot of movement for a boat, and for our stomachs full of eggs and toast (Alice) and pancakes (me). The eggs and toast came first.

Rough crossing

Okay, I know it doesn’t look that bad, but it was the best I could do under the circs.

Two things we learned about Dramamine: 1) take a whole pill, not a half (Alice) and 2) it takes an hour to take effect – three to five minutes isn’t enough (me). It was not a pleasant ride, but after, ummm… the purge, we both found a place out on the aft deck facing backwards where we could stare at the horizon and calm our stomachs, if not the seas.

We didn’t care that it was 45ยบ, cold, rainy, and windy out there, and neither did our companion Karenna (who we later learned to be a Park Ranger). Cold and shivering was better than the alternative. And besides, we were not all that enthusiastic about facing our shipmates, who were not only better backpackers but also better seafarers. We were felling quite the imposters.

Of course, that made the housekeeping cabin that much better (after the ride, we were in no position to hike down to 3-Mile campground or Daisy Farm campground, 7 miles away, as our compatriots were planning to do).

So, as our point of pride over those others who can pitch their own tent, and avoid pitching their breakfast, I present our day 1 list of positive bird IDs (presented in the order of listing of the American Ornithologists’ Union): common loon (pair), common mergansers (pair), bald eagle, herring gull, pileated woodpecker, American crow (we know, not all that impressive), magnolia warbler (thanks go to Given who took us out birding two days last week and gave us not only the courage to try to identify warmblers but also the knowledge to do some of them without book help!), blackpoll warbler (a new one for both of us!), American redstart, white-throated sparrow.

So thus the day ends on Isle Royale, with sun still streaming into our window overlooking Tobin Harbour until almost 10 o’clock. Dinner was Indian Summer Sauce a la Trader Joe. The bed is too small, but we don’t care.

Boreal forest indeed


  1. #1 Blind Squirrel FCD
    June 11, 2008

    The “moss” on the birch is probably a lichen, Usnea.

  2. #2 yttrai
    June 11, 2008


    I grew up just due south of Isle Royale, but i’ve never been there. It’s not that simple to get to, when you consider we could just drive up to Munising or Big Bay or Michigamme in under 2 hours and have just as much isolation for a fraction of the cost.

    Anyway, love the photos and the travelogue. I’m dying inside with homesickness now ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. #3 Alice
    June 13, 2008

    Blind Squirrel – oh cool, thanks. You can kind of see some of what I mean in this photo:

    yttrai – thanks. ๐Ÿ™‚ Hope you get to go home soon…..

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