The Outside World, In and Around Duluth

Isle Royale – Day 1

I’m back from the Island. It was a great trip – very interesting, great weather, and a lot of learning.

I’m going to spread my Isle Royale trip report out over a few days. This will prevent overload, and allow me to do other things in the meantime.

So before I even left – as I was packing and deciding what to bring and what to leave – I REALLY dithered about whether or not to bring the nice camera. In the end, I brought the little waterproof camera, and ended up regretting it the entire time. There are so many wildflower pictures that you won’t get to see… so many vistas that ended up so underexposed as to be invisible… Even the couple of moose pictures I took ended up looking grainy and blah. Sigh. Oh well. At least I have some pictures to share, even if they aren’t quite as good looking as I would have hoped.

We left Duluth late Friday afternoon, May 21st. We drove up Highway 61 to Grand Marais and stopped for pizza at Sven and Ole’s (thick crust – yum!):


After dinner, we drove up to and camped at Judge Magney State Park.

We woke up at 5:30 the next morning, drove up to Grand Portage and got ready for an 8am start.

Voyaguer II

The Voyageur II is a 60′ aluminum boat that hauls passengers and mail to and from the island. She sails in the morning, circumnavigates half the island, berths overnight on the North end of the island (at Rock Harbor), and the next morning circumnavigates the other side of the island and ends up at home the next afternoon. All summer long. I wouldn’t want to be captain a ship like that.

As we headed out from Grand Portage, we sat in the the boat, on one of the engine housings, and ate lunch:

Andrew, Tom and Nathan Digging In

This past winter, they apparently replaced the engine mounts with rubberized gaskets, so the boat is supposed to be quieter than ever. May be, but if I ride it again, I’ll still be bringing ear plugs along.

After a relatively quick 2.5 hour ride across Lake Superior, we arrived on the south end of Isle Royale. Grand Portage is right about on the Minnesota/Canada border. The red dashed line is our approximate route:

The Crossing

Here’s a small section of the map of Isle Royale:

Windigo and Washington Creek Camp

The purple asterisk is where we landed, at Windigo.

Once we made land, Ranger Val gave us a quick leave-no-trace chat, as well as the usual reminders of how to behave while camping:

Ranger Val

Apparently, Ranger Val is a well-known and popular ranger, and has been working at Isle Royale for more than a decade. This is the first year she will not actually be an NPS employee, as she has been for the past decade or more. This year, she’s volunteering for the NPS as needed, but is otherwise working on some personal projects at the park.

Here’s the view from the dock, as we’re about to venture onto the island:

Windigo Dock

Everyone arriving to the island had to go up to the ranger station (the highest building in the above picture) and register. Many passengers registered, then re-boarded the Voyageur II to travel around the island to other campsites.

Because we were in a group larger than six people (we were seven), we were required to use group campsites. Smaller groups could either pitch tents or use screen shelters. The group campsite nearest Windigo was along Washington Creek – only about a half-mile away. We were staying close to Windigo because Tom (the instructor) had arranged for a couple of program/meeting opportunities for us on our first day.

At every campsite, the first order of business was setting up a tarp – just in case it rained:

Tarp Hanging

In fact, the only rain we received was that first night, and even then, it was only a little.

They weren’t everywhere, but the gray jays, or ‘camp robbers’ did come visit many of our campsites. They had no problem stopping by to see what we were doing.

Gray Jay

This is an adult gray jay. We were briefly stumped by a juvenile gray jay who stopped by – it was an even charcoal gray.

Once camp was set up, we went back to the ranger station (half a mile) for an ‘Island Survivor’ presentation Val did for us and another pair of campers. Here she is showing the size difference between the skulls of fox, coyote and wolves. Fox and wolves are the only two canid species still on Isle Royale. Wolves and coyotes cannot live in the same range.

"Isle Royale SURVIVOR!"

We also talked about the difficulties that animals have finding their way to the island, and how, if there’s not enough genetic diversity, species will find themselves in an extinction vortex – not enough genetic variety to survive, as a species. Val does a nice job on her presentations.

After that, we headed back to camp for a dinner of rotini pasta and sun-dried tomatoes, and another presentation by John and Leah Vucetich, a husband/wife team of wolf/moose researchers. The dinner was good, but for some reason, I had been feeling a little queasy, and only had about half a cup.

John and Leah were very engaging, and shared a lot of their research and asked us how we, as educators, thought they might be able to more effectively get the wolf/moose story out to a broader audience. It was a very cool conversation, and as they were talking, a cow and yearling walked through our campsite!


Talk about super cool timing! You can also see the corner of one of our tents in the lower left of the picture.

One of the things John and Leah asked us to do was to take photos of any moose we saw (I know, what a burden, huh?). They especially wanted side-view pictures, so they could study the fur loss of the moose. Apparently, moose on Isle Royale pick up ‘winter ticks’ (which are not interested in humans) and they can be so thick that a single moose will be carrying tens of thousands of them. Yeah, pretty gross. The moose will either rub or bite themselves, in an effort to provide some relief. When they lose too much fur, they have to spend a lot of energy over the summer regrowing the fur in order to stay warm enough the next winter.

Anyway, because it was evening, the little camera I brought struggled (as you can see) to take a decent picture. I even cranked up the light-gathering setting,but that just made for a noisy picture. If you click on the above picture, you might be able to see that this moose is looking pretty good. That’s because this is the yearling, and momma might have been able to help control the ticks.

I have another picture you’ll see later that more clearly shows some of those patches where the hair has been rubbed off.

I mentioned that I was feeling queasy, and in fact, I wasn’t able to keep dinner down. The water crossing was pretty calm, but maybe it was a combination of sun and waves that did it. Or maybe, as Vickery has suggested, I’m just allergic to nature.

That’s it for Day One. Next up: Hiking to Island Mine.


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