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A True Wilderness Experience on Isle Royale

Posted on June 2nd, 2020

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In this coronavirus summer, Isle Royale National Park will either be closed or partially closed with no ferry transportation to it. In this Trail Talk blog from MichiganTrailMaps.com Jim DuFresne writes about the impact of whatever decision the National Park Service makes in regards to this special island in the middle of Lake Superior.

Need to get out? Who doesn’t? We have more than 300 digital, downloadable maps on the MichiganTrailMaps.com web site, including our newest the Treat Farm Trail in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

By Jim DuFresne

This will be a season like no other at Isle Royale National Park. Ever.

Jim DuFresne

The park has delayed its seasonal opening until further notice and there is a chance that for the first time since being designated a national park Isle Royale might not open at all. In other words, more wolves could be transported to the island this year than visitors.

It is also possible that the park will open in late June or early July but with limited transportation and services. Already closed for the year are the ferries that service it from Michigan and Minnesota; the Ranger III, Voyageur II, Sea Hunter III, and Isle Royale Queen IV. The park’s concessionaire services – Rock Harbor Lodge, other overnight lodging, the dining rooms, stores, marina services and boat rentals –  will also not open in 2020.

If the park does a limited opening, there will be two ways to reach it; a private boat large enough and with somebody piloting it experienced enough to cross Lake Superior. Or in a floatplane.

A backpacker retrieves his gear from the Isle Royale Queen IV ferry. This year none of the ferries that service Isle Royale will be operating.

Buried in the National Park Service press release was that Isle Royale Seaplanes will be allowed to provide transport if the park opens. The floatplane company, which offers service from both Grand Marais, MN and Hancock, MI, says it could handle a total of 2,000 passengers during a shortened season of 10 to 12 weeks.

In the past, a round-trip flight from the Hancock Portage Canal Seaplane Base in Michigan to either Rock Harbor or Windigo was $330 per person. Who knows if they will raise that rate if the park opens this summer.

Even if they do, it would be a small price for an amazing opportunity. At a national park that only draws 17,000 visitors during a season to begin with, or what Yellowstone attracts on a good weekend, there would be a tenth of that this summer. Don’t worry about getting that lone shelter at Todd Harbor if you go.

“If you are one of (those) very few visitors to the park, you will enjoy the unique experience of being on this isolated island with even fewer people than normal,” wrote Jon Rector, director of operations, on the Isle Royale Seaplanes website.

For backpackers, this would be the truest wilderness experience Michigan could possibly ever offer. You’d not only be in a place without cars or roads or strip malls. But you’d be there without a whole lot of other people.

Hike the Minong Ridge Trail in late August or early September and there would be a good chance you would not encounter anybody for days at a time. In this day and age, what’s that worth for those of us who shoulder a backpack to escape?

But what is sad is that more than anything else, Isle Royale is often the place where people discover the joy of extended, non-motorized travel. They might have an overnight hike to a walk-in campsite under their belt or maybe even a weekend trek on the Jordan Valley Pathway when they plan a week-long adventure to the island.

A floatplane takes off from Tobin Harbor. Seaplanes might be the only way backpackers will be able to reach Isle Royale this summer.

They arrive with a good supply of Moleskin and often an overloaded backpack and for five days or so live along the Greenstone Ridge Trail, moving from day to day. They learn they don’t need Facebook, a credit card or even cell phone reception.

They marvel at how entertainment at night can simply be watching a pair of loons on Lake Desor or what a five-star meal macaroni-and-cheese can be after an eight-mile day or how well they snooze on a sleeping pad that is only two inches thick.

They finish their first long-distant trek in Windigo regretting it ended so soon but enlightened to how the daily physical challenge of a trail and the simplified lifestyle it requires is so invigorating. They now know you can live for a week with everything you need stuffed in a backpack. And they depart already planning their next adventure. Maybe someplace out west, maybe Alaska or maybe just back to Isle Royale.

Thanks to this island in the middle of Lake Superior they are a better person because of for the rest of their lives they will be more environmentally conscious and place a higher value on our public lands and wilderness areas.

We need more people like that. But this summer there will be less because Isle Royale will be closed to many who otherwise might have gone there and learned those lessons in life.

If Isle Royale National Park does partially open this summer Isle Royale Seaplanes will begin accepting reservations on June 27.

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