Isle Royale Part 1 – Getting There

Isle Royale National Park (pronounced “I’ll Royal”), a pristine (99% wilderness) archipelago comprised of 400 islands and 200 inland lakes, is located way up north of where I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (the “U.P.”), in a very isolated section of Lake Superior. Isle Royale is the least-visited National Park in the lower-48 – only 3 parks in Alaska have fewer annual visitors.  Isle Royale is a trailrunning mecca, with 165 miles of pristine trails throughout the 45-mile-long island. The park is also ideal for backpacking, hiking, camping (accessed by boat or on foot), kayaking, and fishing.

Isle Royale location map from National Park Service

The rest of my family has spent significant time in the park- my brother, Marcel, helped with wolf-moose research under Rolf Peterson during grad school, which is where Marcel met his future wife, Anne, who was also doing research for her Phd; my parents have visited several times, and my sister landed her dream job there last fall, as the official Ecologist for Isle Royale National Park. Thanks to a Christmas gift from my sister (tickets for the Ranger III, the ship that takes visitors from Houghton, MI to the island), I was ready to finally make it happen.

Best Christmas present EVER!

Part 1 – Getting to Isle Royale

Isle Royale is only open to visitors from April 15- October 31 – it’s the only National Park in the U.S. to completely shut down in the winter. From what I gather, late June through August seem to be the most ideal time to visit: the trail crews have had time to complete their winter clean-up (the trails can be obliterated by the harsh conditions of snow, ice, and wind  – more than 1,600 trees had fallen across the trails this season), and the moose generally don’t start charging people until September-October.

Isle Royale is in a very remote location – for Avian and I, travelling from Truckee, CA would take more than 20 hours – including 7 hours of air travel, 7 hours of driving, plus 6 hours on a boat (we could have increased the air travel and decreased the driving time, but more than half of the flights going into Houghton are delayed or cancelled, so it seemed more logical to fly to Milwaukee and have my amazing parents pick us up there instead).

Since my sister is a park employee, and my dad is a senior citizen, we were given a state room on the ship, which was truly a luxury, considering how long the journey was.

Avian and my dad, Buckshot, departing Houghton
Avian having breakfast on the Ranger III, which has an adorable cafe with real food!
My mom and Avian in the state room
Avian on the Ranger III

The first couple hours were fairly smooth, but as we got further out into Lake Superior, the waves picked up, and I was grateful for the Dramamine AND the state room, where we all hunkered down to sleep it out.

Avian on deck, as the waves began to pick up

After a few hours, Avian excitedly announced that she could see land  again- we’d arrived at Mott Island, Isle Royale!

Most visitors would continue on the Ranger to Rock Harbor (on the big island of Isle Royale), but we got off at Mott Island, where my sister (and many other park employees) live during the season.

Ranger III unloading at Mott Island
Mom, Ranger Net, and Ave at Mott Island (she’s not actually a ranger)

The park employees were wonderful with unloading our luggage and later delivering it for us – we were really treated like royalty (thanks, Net!)

Obligatory family pic with the official sign

We walked across the small island, and through the charming cluster of park service buildings, which Lynette had accurately described as a summer camp for adults.

A dorm for employees – they also had shared kitchen areas (aka “The Kitchens”), a rec room, exercise room, and a sauna
Phone booth. Because there is generally no cell service on Isle Royale

Lynette took us for a walk to see her boats – she had a boat for personal use (thanks to Uncle Dick and Aunt Sharon; she had a lender for the island) AND she was captain of an official park service boat!

Lynette blew us away with her new knowledge and expertise.

crossing the bridge from Mott Island to Caribou Island, where the boat is parked
Net’s boat for the summer, aka the “Universal Special”, as my dad lovingly called it, after a family junkyard/auto repair shop where my brother and I had each worked for our favorite uncle and gotten our first cars (which were not in pristine condition, much like her boat)

We crossed the island (about 1/2 mile from the boat dock) and reached Lynette’s summer residence- a beautiful duplex, surrounded by wildflowers, raspberry and thimbleberry bushes, and right smack on the shore of Lake Superior. She had electricity (thanks to a generator across island that we couldn’t hear), running water, a huge kitchen, an electric PIANO, a deck over the water… does my envy come across?

Lynette’s summer home
my dad on Lynette’s lakefront deck
Lynette’s kitchen, which is the largest one in the family…
Avian serenading us on the deck, with Lake Superior lapping gently against the shore behind her

After a snack Lynette and I headed out for a lap around her island. When she’d first told me the island was only 3 miles around, I wondered if I’d feel a little stir crazy. That wasn’t the case at all. The Mott Island trail itself is a 2.4 mile loop – right out her front door. The trail is very technical, and broken up into very diverse, spectacular sections. At first, we were running on a narrow trail through thick thimbleberry bushes, then the trail climbed a quick hill and we were high above the rocky shoreline, then a quick up and down and we were running through a dark, mossy, quiet and creepy section of the forest, another turn in the trail and we were running across smooth pebbles on a different, more spectacular shoreline, then another quick up and over and this time high on a ledge above the water with wild blueberries along the trail… the scenes went by so quickly, it was impossible to get bored.

I really believe I could run this loop all day long, repeatedly, and not tire of it.

a mossy section on the Mott Island Trail
Mott Island views from the trail
Mott Island trail

Before bed, we discussed the plans for the next morning- Lynette and I would take kayaks from Mott to the big island (about a 20 min paddle across), and venture out on a 12 mile run. I was nervous (scared of crossing the water!) but excited (going running on the big island!). Avian was looking forward to spending time with her new girlfriends, who she’d met as soon as we got off the boat (kids of park employees). My dad would accompany a park service employee on an all-day boat journey around the big island, delivering groceries to other park camps. My mom was looking forward to relaxing and hiking.

I fell asleep listening to the waves crash against the shore, so grateful to be in this magical place.

up next –  Isle Royale Part 2 – Paddle-Run-Paddle

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