The Emerald Isle; 5 days paddling Isle Royale National Park

When a good friend invited Alyssa and I out to Isle Royale to assist in a backpacking/paddling photoshoot we could think of no other response other than, “uh, yeah!”

Isle Royale National Park is a place that has a special mystique. Located 50 miles off the top of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, Isle Royale is the most remote and least visited national park in the lower 48. The fact that one must either take a ferry from the mainland or a float plane to get there weeds out the car touring family trucksters and subsequent day trippers. The island extends 45 miles from southwest to northeast along which a series of backpacking trails and portages connect Rock Harbor on the northend with Windago at the south end. These are the two settlements with the only sampling of civilization you see on the island.

Along with the sheer remoteness and rugged beauty, Isle Royale is well known for its interaction of wolf and moose populations. The subject of the longest ongoing predator/prey study in the world (50 years), the interactions of the two populations has been well documented. The reason it is so unique is because the isolation of the island means no human intervention or other predators or prey to interfere with the wolf/moose interactions. Many folks come to the island with the hope of spying a moose, or perhaps hear a wolves howling at night.

Alyssa and I had just wrapped up the UP Overland trip Sunday evening, unpacked, repacked on Monday and hightailed it up to the Keweenaw Monday night so we could catch the Isle Royale Queen out of Copper Harbor at the crack of dawn the next day. Our friend Aaron Peterson, an accomplished writer and photographer based out of the UP would be meeting us over on the island as he was catching a ride over on the float plane in order to catch some shots of the island from the air on the approach.

We were at the ferry to load bright and early. Since Aaron was taking the plane over we were bringing his sea kayak and the brand spanking new Wenonah canoe we would be using on the ferry with us.


Getting ready to board the ferry.


Pulling away from Copper Harbor with Brockway Mountain in the background.


The ride across from Copper Harbor to Isle Royale is 3 1/2 hours and has a reputation for being a somewhat wild ride at times. The ferry is affectionately known as the barf barge but lucky for us the weather was cooperative and we only had 4 foot seas.

When we arrived on the dock Aaron was waiting for us. He had grabbed a lean-to for us in Rock Harbor where we would be spending the first night. Our plan was for an evening hike to Scoville Point to catch good light for a backpacking photoshoot, the following morning we would be moving to a new location.


The view along the trail


Taking a break along the trail.


Pano shot of the shoreline along Scoville Point


It was a gorgeous evening. We headed back to Rock Harbor, made some dinner and walked the short hike over to Tobin Harbor to watch the sunset from the dock. Tomorrow we would set off via kayak and canoe to explore the Tobin Harbor and make camp at Merit Lane near Blake Point, the northernmost point of Isle Royale.

Day 2 started off with a mellow morning. The nice perk of staying in a lean-to versus a tent is that packing up is quicker. Having such amenities such as a table outside to hangout on, plus my hammock add a nice element of comfort as well. Today was a bit cloudier day. The forecast for the next few days was of high winds with scattered Thunderstorms today. The great thing about the north end of Isle Royale is that the narrow yet long bays and barrier islands offer protection from most wind directions making for safe paddling routes when the weather isn’t ideal.

After stocking up on some last minute supplies from the general store at Rock Harbor we hauled the canoe and kayak over to Tobin Harbor which around a 1/4 mile from the dock at Rock Harbor. Our plan was to head up to a boat only accessible camp spot in Merrit Lane. This is the northernmost camp spot on the island. While disersed camping is allowed, typically finding a good spot to do it is tough due to the rugged landscape and dense growth where there isn’t solid rock. Because of this, designated campsites are popular with the majority of folks.

The canoe we were using was a brand new Wenonah 17′ Classic. Basically it is a modern reissue of the first canoe they produced with upswept bow and stern. Finished in a deep red, it was a beautiful boat. Something about the combination of the curvaceous lines on a canoe, combined with the simplicity, efficiency and utility that make them one of the most perfect modes of transportation that exists. There is a reason that Native Americans and even the French voyageuers and fur trappers used them, they are a great tool. What moto riding is to driving an overland rig, backpacking is to canoeing. With a boat you can haul more gear with little more effort, therefore it is more manageable to bring more luxuries along that you might not if shouldering the load the whole time.

We kept things pretty basic with our packing though. We simplified down our gear so that it was a one trip portage. I would have my loaded backpack which was 38 pounds when I weighed it at the beginning of the trip, then carry the canoe via the center yoke. The canoe weighed in at just a touch under 50 pounds. Alyssa would have her backpack which weighed in around 34 pounds plus the paddles (2 nice featherlight carbon fiber Wenonah bent shaft works of art plus one sturdy aluminum shafted reserve paddle), and her pfd. We could have easily gone lighter with our packs but we were using two synthetic fill sleeping bags of mine that aren’t the lightest things, a bulky but spacious EMS Scout tent, and I still rock my Lowe Alpine Countour IV that could work as a shelter itself if needed it has such enourmous capacity. While endlessly volumous, it is heavy. Regardless though, we could do a fairly easy portage carrying everything in one load without too much swearing or whining on my part. 😉

Another point on this type of camping, nothing removes you from camping reality more than car camping (overlanding) with all of our amazing modern amenities available. Heck, I kind of rough it with my Land Cruiser’s setup since I don’t have a fridge or a Snow Peak Titanium Elite series toilette paper dispenser. Backpacking, or canoe camping forces you to reevaluate your priorities since you are physically carrying all the junk you bring along. Quickly you learn that you can have a comfortable, enjoyable time condensing down everything you need to the bare essentials with good planning. Is it as comfortable as sleeping in my rooftop tent? No, but not MUCH less honestly. There is a great feeling of satisfaction in being self contained, self reliant, and travelling via your own power. Yet at the same time, a sense of continous awe falls upon me, especially in an area like Isle Royale as I ponder the amazing feats these early settlers and natives did in the name of commerce and just plain survival.

Interesting trivia piece that I learned from Aaron, strangulated hernias were the number one cause of death to the French fur traders. Apparently they hauled and portaged so much weight that their bodies would frequently fail catostrophically. The grit and consitution of these people is something I could hardly fathom.

Despite this long winded, rambling diatribe, back at the dock at Tobin Harbor, Aaron is still packing his sea kayak. One of the items we brought over for him on the ferry was a duffel bag with a dead body in it. He was now fitting all the pieces of that dismembered body into the carvernous holds of his Current Designs sea kayak. His boat is a large, Norwegian style boat that can haul alot of gear without breaking a sweat, which is good since being a photographer, he had alot of gear. Soon though we had the canoe and the kayak loaded up and ready for the paddle north. A strong south wind pushed us effortlessly up the bay at a fast pace. I was immediately in love with this canoe, versus my smaller canoe back home with much less freeboard, stability, hauling capacity, and uh… speed. This Wenonah just cruised, unfazed by the rough chop.


This shot gives a bit of a feel for how strong our tailing wind was. We took our time checking out the islands and inlets on the way to down Merrit Lane. This part of the island still has privately owned fishing cabins that have been grandfathered into the park. There aren’t many but they are sprinkled around on rocky points and islands, sitting quietly most of the time.


Getting into the narrows of Merrit Lane. Aaron is visible in front in the faster kayak. The fact that I was poking around taking pictures wasn’t helping our pace.


Pulled up on shore at the camping area. There were two spots, one with a lean-to that some fisherman with a powerboat were occupying and another with two tent spots. We got to work unpacking, setting up the tents and getting a snack. No sooner did we get the tents going before it started raining. We retreated to the tents and grabbed some sleep.


I have no idea how long we napped. While I do carry a watch, time kind of looses its importance when camping. I use my watch at pre dawn to see how much time I have before sunrise because I have the inability to miss a sunrise when camping, much to the displeasure of my sleeping companion, and the other time I look at it is to judge how much daylight is left in the evening. The rest of the day just ebbs and flows.


Well the rain did let up, but the grey skies and winds remained. We still needed to shoot the boats for part of Aaron’s assignment so we grabbed an early dinner then set out to explore the islands and terrain around this end of Merrit Lane and Tobin Bay. Aaron has his marine/weatherband radio so we were able to check the forecasts often to help facilitate our plans.


View looking out from our camp at Merrit Lane


Evening paddle, and scouting session.

With the day starting to fade we headed back to camp. Aaron paddled out to the point to check the conditions to help aid a decision to paddle around the point in the morning. He was back soon after us and we sat around talking about life and all the important things that matter when hanging out in the woods with no distractions but that of the stories being offered in front of you. Soon we crawled into our tents and called it a night, falling asleep effortlessly to the sound of the wind blowing through the pines and water lapping rocks on the shore.

Day 3:

Sunshine greeted my eyes as I peered out of the tent through the pines. It was a welcome sight after yesterday’s grey skies and rain showers. We wasted no time getting up and moving. Our objective today was to get some photos and video of the canoe and kayak while the light was good then head off with no ties and no plans.


Calmer waters beckoned.


We paddled out and around some islands to find a good place to shoot. Have I told you how epic the islands and inlets are on this end of Isle Royale? Iphones just don’t do it justice.


Aaron in his craft


Pulling off to switch Alyssa into the sea kayak. Aaron had already shot the canoe as we were paddling and a bit the night before.


Pano perspective that shows the shoreline a bit.


Alyssa in the yak


Its great getting a perspective other than the back of someone’s head from the back of a canoe!


Aaron doing his thing.


Life clinging to rock.


The lichen on the rock is an intense orange, again, my iphone doesn’t capture it too well.

We wrapped up the shoot and paddled back over to camp. We made lunch and packed up. Aaron was supposed to stay one more day then head back on the ferry. We conviced him he needed to stay out an extra day with us to adventure a bit. Only issue was, we had to make sure the ferry would have room to come back on our return day, Saturday. We made a decision. Aaron would make the push around Blake Point, the northernmost tip of Isle Royale in his kayak and head for Duncan Bay, the spot we chose to camp for tonight. While the forecast had been correct with the strong nortwest winds turning to southwest, it was still a bit too exposed paddling around the point for a canoe. Aaron had scouted it after the photo shoot and with 3-4 seas, clappotis, and all the fun things associated, we decided it would be in our best interest to paddle back southwest down Tobin Bay and do the 1 mile portage over the Greenstone ridge with the canoe. Since we were going that way we offered to walk over to Rock Harbor and check with the ferry boat captain about Saturday’s status for changing Aaron’s return.

We were packed up and loaded in the canoe and on our way before Aaron, who had an easier itinerary for the day, well besides rounding Blake Point. He would head over and secure us a campsite, hopefully a lean-to if possible in Duncan Bay. As we paddled back up Tobin Harbor we had the full force of the wind in our face, battling us the entire way. We used the islands and inlets the best we could to stay out of the wind and find the path of least resistance.


Taking a break at Red Rock Point.

We got back to Rock Harbor in a couple hours of fierce paddling. We stopped briefly to check out Hidden Lake in the hope that we would spot a moose immersed in the marshy ends of the lake but no luck. The ferry which usually arrives by 10:30am still hadn’t arrived due to heavy seas. We had to wait another hour before it would get in. Now this is where a trip report gets real, sure we could say we suffered off of freeze dried, meals, trail mix, and hard tack, but never one to miss an opportunity…. we walked over to the Rock Harbor lodge, the only place with any sort of service on this entire side of the island….. walked inside…. and I ordered a giant hamburger and a Coke. And yes, it was delicious….. After lunch we managed to corner the busy captain on the ferry to inquire about our friend’s departure status. We came to find out that Saturday’s ferry was COMPLETELY booked on the way to the mainland so he would have to be making an epic return journey tomorrow morning. When paddling, you always want a weather day or two throw into the plan in case mother nature puts the kabosh on your plans. He was now committed, weather be damned, to round Blake Point, cross Tobin Harbor and get to Rock Harbor for the ferry.

We hiked back to the canoe and our gear and crossed Tobin Bay to the portage. We had a system figured out where we both had everything we needed in our backpacks and I carried the canoe in addition to my pack.


Alyssa on the trail leaving Tobin Harbor behind, while I should have been huffing it I managed to snap a shot while still having the canoe on my shoulders…… We climbed up to the top of the Greenstone and man, my shoulders were screaming! The weight was manageable but the way my shoulder straps were cutting into my shoulders was searing…. We took a break and upon continuing, a simple adjustment to my pack made the all the difference needed. Now we descended a steep trail with rock and some switchbacks down to Duncan Bay. Much to my dismay the landing on Duncan bay was a rock garden that made it no easy matter to take down the canoe and reload.

Paddling down Duncan Bay was a breeze, with the wind to our backs, we just coasted the 2 miles down to where we met Aaron, Duncan Narrows. There were two lean-to’s and we had the place to ourselves. What a great spot. Loons could be heard calling as the evening dwindled down. The forest was packed with ripe thimbleberries, it was a nice spot for sure.


Evening at camp looking down Duncan Bay as it widened out into open water.


Playing with the sun… on the dock in front of one of the lean-to’s This was another boater accesible-only campsite.

We had another wonderful evening, making dinner, swimming, telling stories, Aaron snapped some star trail shots. Places such as this with zero light pollution make for unreal views of the Milky Way. We got a nice view of the international Space Station crossing overhead as well.

Day 4:

We got up bright and early, to say farewell to Aaron. He had to make the dash over to Rock Harbor to catch the ferry in the afternoon. The forecast was for big wind today so getting on the water early to round the points was important. The wind didn’t fail us either, in fact by mid morning it had filled in strong blowing down the pay with tremendous force. We were planning on spending another night in our campsite but thought we could day trip over to the Five Fingers area and explore around Lane Cove via some portages. We started the paddle up Duncan Bay but with the intensity of the wind we were making zero to little progress despite hugging the shore and trying all of our tricks. After a good deal of effort and maybe getting a 1/4 mile of the 3 mile distance we need to the portage we decided to head back and see if the wind let up at all. In addition to this wind a very large storm cell was moving in from the NW. We retreated back to camp and took shelter as the thunderstorm rolled through.

Not having a place to be or a schedule is a good feeling. We took full advantage with a siesta during the thunderstorm and rain, a leisurely lunch, and appreciated the lack of movement and quiet. A few hours later we decided to go explore down the bay more as it opens up into Lake Superior. There are some protected inlets and bays and despite the strong wind still, would be much more doable.


Taking a break behind a point.

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When the water is calm, it is shocking how clear it is.


Looking out from a sheltered refuge.

As we headed back up to camp we saw three boats coming in. The first one, a fishing boat pulled up to the dock at the lean-to next to our camp right as we were getting back. It was a father and son from Duluth, MN doing what sounded like their annual pilgramage to Isle Royale to camp and fish. They were very friendly.


More hammock time, taking an appreciation for the black spruce which seem perfectly suited for the harsh habitat of the island.


Early evening brought a calming of the winds and we decided to paddle out of the bay and explore the palisade cliffs on the shoreline towards Blake Point.


As the sun was approaching the horizon, the palisades were drenched in rich color. It was amazing.


Taking a moment to appreciate the works of art that these carbon fiber, bent shaft paddles are. They are a revelation.


This is what it is all about.


Heading back for camp at last light.


What an amazing evening yet again. Something about seeing such a spectacle of color and serenity from a canoe that makes it both surreal and primal. This goes down as one of the great experiences etched into my cerebral cortex in the folder labeled… “life is good”

Upone arrival back at camp, our fisherman neighbors brouht over some lake trout they had caught and pan fried… it was amazing. Definately some perks to camping next to fisherman.
We called it a night early as we wanted to get on the water early tomorrow, for our last day on the island.

Day 5:


First light.

We made breakfast and got to work packing up. We had to catch the ferry today and we still wanted to peek into the Five Fingers area before we headed back since the previous day’s weather wasn’t cooperative. After that it would be the semi-hellish mile portage back over the Greenstone, crossing Tobin Harbor and portaging back to Rock Harbor.


My slow-rising companion


All loaded and ready to roll out.


Yours truly

It was a great paddle up to the portage to Five Fingers. The water was calm, we spotted a bald eagle soaring over the bay in search of an easy meal. We passed a sailboat that had moored in one of the inlets to seek refuge from the weather the last few days.


Pulled off at the portage to Five Fingers. We left the canoe and gear behind and walked the perfectly flat, wide, and .1 of a mile long portage…. jeesh, why couldn’t the ones we were carrying the gear over be like this one??


Taking in the view of the Five Fingers area, wishing we had more time to continue exploring.


On the trail back to the canoe


Back at Duncan Bay getting ready to head it back across for the big portage.

We paddled around a couple of islands and had a close encounter with a loon that just hung out as we paddled by closely. Probably the closest I have ever seen one, it started getting agitated and doing its call over and over as we got close so we kept some distance as we went by. The loon is really the symbol of north country wilderness and hearing them call across the water always brings me a feeling of content.


We found the semi hidden portage and effortlessy made the transition to portage mode. Ironic how at the end of a trip you become so efficient and work together so well. Wish we had 5 more days! Me doing the big “carry” back over to Tobin Harbor.


Still going.

It was a gorgeous, calm, and warm day. At the other side of the portage we took a dip in the clear cold water to cleanup a bit before encountering people again.


Approaching the dock on Tobin Harbor and reaching civilization again. We portaged the gear over to the dock at Rock Harbor and went to the cafe at the Rock River Lodge once again to enjoy a leisurely lunch. It always tastes so good after trail mix and freeze dried fare. Honestly though, our food for the camping really was pretty good. Its amazing what modern freeze dried meals taste like and in no way to you feel like you are roughing it when you are having lasagna for a camp dinner.


They weren’t kidding when they said it was a full ferry. The canoes and kayaks alone filled the entire upper deck of the boat. We managed to grab one of the two seats on the back of the ferry outside where we would spend the 3 1/2 hour ferry ride back over.


Sad seeing Isle Royale dissapear over the horizon. We had plenty of time to reflect on the trip though.


Approaching the light house at the entrance to Copper Harbor. As we passed the Harbor House restaraunt on the approach to the dock, the wait staff all come out and line dance for the ferry, a longstanding tradition.


We loaded up Alyssa’s Outback and began the drive back. This was on top of Brockway Mountain Drive. Taking in the views on the drive along the coast was a great way to unwind, as was stopping in Houghton at Keweeanw Brewing Company for a beer and pizza.

In the end this trip proved to be one of those experiences we will likely hold dear for some time. It was amazing seeing the park via canoe this time and I am convinced that is the best way to do it. Like I alluded to earlier, getting away from the truck, the RTT, and all the junk that we tend to haul around “overlanding” is a great way to hit the refresh button and reevaluate what is needed to have a great experience in the outdoors. It proved yet again to me that a canoe is a nearly perfect mode of transportation. We look forward to visiting the Emerald Island again sometime soon.

Special thanks for the folks that made this happen, Aaron Peterson, a writer and photographer based out of the UP who shares a real passion for the region that is reflected in his photography and stories shared in regional and national publications.

Alyssa Summers who made the bold move from her homeland of Utah to the UP this summer and has embraced it to its fullest. She is a travelling yogi and life coach when she isn’t doing her corporate gig.

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Categories: camping, Isle Royale National Park, kayaking, Lake Superior, Subaru, Upper Peninsula | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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