It’s not easy to get to Isle Royale, but it’s part of the adventure
Visitors have two options if they want to get to the island of Michigan in the middle of Lake Superior: by boat or by seaplane.
So, compared to other parks, the total number of visits is lower.
In 2019, Isle Royale was the least visited national park of the lower 48 states, with just under 26,500 recreational visitors.
But visitors who make the sometimes nauseous crossing stay longer in the park. That year, visits to theme parks lasted more than four days on average. For comparison, the 4.5 million visitors to Zion National Park in Utah spent an average of half a day in the park.
The lack of crowds helps visitors experience the wilderness of the island.
âThere is something in the water, I tell people,â said Ben Silence, captain of Grand Portage Isle Royale Transportation Lines, which has two ferries to and from the island and Minnesota. “It’s so remote and everyone you meet – for the most part – is always so friendly and having a great time and it’s just a beautiful place.”
One Sunday afternoon in early August, Jonathan Ringdahl got off Voyageur II in Grand Portage and was greeted at the end of the wharf by his dog, Maple.
Jonathan Ringdahl returns to Grand Portage on August 1, 2021, after a stay on Isle Royale. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Ringdahl, of Galesville, Wisconsin, had just returned from a volunteer trip to help restore the park’s Rock of Ages Lighthouse.
His ferry ride to the island was in a storm. Passengers waited to board in the pouring rain as the waves on the lake made a “bumpy” ride, he said.
But it’s all part of the Isle Royale experience, he said.
âIt just adds to the adventure of getting out and part of what makes it special is getting out of the boat and then talking to the people on the boat,â Ringdahl said. âAnd that’s when you start to bond with the people here. So I love it, I love it. And then you meet people you met on the boat on the island.
There are several ferry options for people wishing to travel to the island.
A seaplane descends for a landing in Washington Harbor, Isle Royale National Park, August 17, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
From Grand Portage, passengers can take the Voyageur II and reach the Windigo Visitor Center in approximately two hours. The boat then follows the northwest side of the island to Rock Harbor, where it spends the night, stopping at the docks en route to pick up or drop off backpackers and sea kayakers. Then, the next day. In the morning, it descends on the south-east side, stopping again at the docks en route, until it reaches Grand Portage.
The company also operates the Sea Hunter III, which offers day trips from Grand Portage to the Windigo Visitor Center and can complete the trip in around 90 minutes.
From Michigan, passengers can board the Ranger III, operated by the National Park Service, from Houghton to Rock Harbor in the northeast corner of the island in six hours. Further up the Keweenaw Peninsula in Copper Harbor, the Isle Royale Queen IV makes daily trips to the island.
Private fishing boats and sailboats are also common.
If boating isn’t your thing, Isle Royale Seaplanes flies passengers from the Cook County Airport near Grand Marais or the seaplane base in Hancock, Michigan, and Rock Harbor or Windigo. Flights take approximately 45 minutes.
A notice for those who must leave Isle Royale National Park by seaplane can be found outside the Rock Harbor Ranger Station on August 7, 2021. Adverse conditions may delay or cancel flights between the island and mainland. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Grand Portage Isle Royale Transportation Lines co-owner Don Szczech said the ferry service he bought in 2005 was created in the 1960s “as a necessity, not a plan”.
The Sivertsons, a family of commercial fishermen since the 1890s, needed a way to transport fish caught in the waters surrounding the island to mainland customers.
But the boats that circled the island were no longer in service.
So they bought one, the Disturbance, to transport the fish, and later, the First Voyageur.
âAnd that sort of evolved into passengers,â Szczech said. “People were looking to get out, (but) there really was no way to do it – at least not from Minnesota.”
Captain Don Szczech, co-owner of Grand Portage Isle Royale Transportation Lines, brings the Sea Hunter III to Isle Royale National Park on August 17, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Around the same time, the invasive sea lamprey had decimated the lake trout population, harming the Isle Royale fisheries that depended on it.
âAs the fishing industry declined, the tourism industry recovered,â Szczech said. Jennifer Sivertson, whose family ran the fishery and started the ferry company, is also a co-owner.
At this time, Roy Oberg, a legendary and longtime captain of the Isle Royale boats, was at the wheel. An autographed photo of him is still in a frame in the window of the Voyageur II’s wheelhouse.
Today, his great-grandson, Ben Silence, is both captain of the Voyageur II and the Sea Hunter III. The Daughter of Silence is also a deckhand on the Sea Hunter.
âIt’s very cool,â Silence said of the captain of the same boat as his great-grandfather. “Especially the Voyageur II … he found this boat and that it was his last boat that he pulled out of so that we could hold a somewhat special place.”
On a stormy or wavy crossing, Silence, who worked on boats for 10 years first has a deckhand and now as a captain can be found roaming the cabin or decks to watch over the passengers and reassure them, everything will be fine.
âIt’s fun. It can be dangerous sometimes,â Silence said. “There are more things underwater that you cannot see that are sometimes more dangerous than over water.”
Modern navigation equipment helps crews move between underwater obstacles that can quickly change the depth of the lake beneath them from hundreds of feet deep to just a few feet deep.
Experience is crucial.
Traveler II recalls this every time he enters and leaves Washington Harbor, where the Windigo Visitor Center is located.
Two white buoys mark the last resting place of the liner America.
The America spent the early 1900s transporting passengers along the north shore of Lake Superior between Duluth and Thunder Bay (then called Port Arthur), with a stop at Isle Royale. But on June 7, 1928, the captain handed the wheel to an inexperienced first mate.
A photo from the June 8, 1928 issue of the Duluth Herald at the Duluth Public Library details the sinking of the America after striking a boulder while leaving Isle Royale. Jimmy Lovrien / Duluth News Tribune
The second hit a rock, puncturing the America’s hull. And while the captain tried unsuccessfully to run aground the boat, it got stranded on a reef not far from shore and all the passengers and crew were able to escape before it sank.
The wreck is now a destination for divers.
Inside the paneled interior walls of the Voyageur are photos of the America’s wreck taken by divers, a reassuring presence for passengers facing an angry Lake Superior.
Before the steamboats, getting to and from the island was even more laborious and risky, although it was not uncommon for the Native people of the North Shore.
In his 2009 book âMinong – The Good Place: Ojibwe and Isle Royale,â Tim Cochrane, a researcher at Isle Royale and former superintendent of the Grand Portage National Monument, dispelled the myth that the Ojibwe were âafraidâ of the long crossing. ‘water.
The Ojibwa, and later the fur traders, regularly made the 12- to 15-mile crossing in bark canoes from what is now Grand Portage and Thunder Bay, Ontario, to the island, Cochrane wrote. .
“To contradict the view that the Ojibwa of the north coast were afraid to cross the lake to reach Minong (Isle Royale) is a more sophisticated view that these were maritime peoples who lived in and on the lake” , wrote Cochrane. âThey traveled the water frequently and knew it well. The village of Grand Portage faced the lake to provide easy access for residents.
But even with all the new technologies, certain practices on the Voyageur II are reminiscent of past generations. The crew transported canvas bags containing mail and packages to and from Grand Portage, Windigo and Rock Harbor for the US Postal Service. They also deliver supplies to the National Park Service.
Supplies for Windigo on Isle Royale are unloaded from Voyageur II on August 8, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
And the trips are still long.
Lee Dassler, whose family had a life lease in a cabin in Tobin Harbor on Isle Royale until the early 1990s, prefers the slow boat return to civilization rather than the much faster seaplane option.
She described the six hours on the Park Service Ranger III as a mental and emotional “transition” from the island to the mainland.
Szczech sees it on his boats.
âOn the way, everyone’s eyes are wide open,â Szczech said. âOn the way home, 60% of people are sleepy, are sleeping. “
The Isle Royale Queen IV is docked at Rock Harbor on Isle Royale on August 5, 2021. The ferry brings passengers to the island from Clopper Harbor, Michigan. Visitors to the park from Michigan can also travel aboard the Ranger III from Houghton. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
A passenger waiting to board the Voyageur II at Grand Portage for the trip to Isle Royale holds a park guide on August 2, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune