Saturday, February 26, 2011

Isle Royale Circumnavigation

"On Friday, August 6, 2010, I will begin a 115-mile circumnavigation of Isle Royale in my 17-foot sea kayak.  Protected as a national park, this 50-mile long island is located in the northwest part of Lake Superior, the centerpiece of a wilderness archipelago described by the Park Service as “a roadless land of wild creatures, unspoiled forests, refreshing lakes, and rugged, scenic shores accessible only by foot, boat, or floatplane.”  With five kayaking friends from Iowa (Brian Lange, Rich McKnight, Steve Parrish) and Nebraska (James Keyes, Bret Ensor), I will board the Isle Royale Queen IV, a 100-foot passenger boat, at Copper Harbor (at the tip of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) for a 3-hour cruise to Rock Harbor on the southeast edge of Isle Royale.  We intend to pack and launch our kayaks that very afternoon, hoping to shave several miles off of the three-digit distance that we hope to cover during the following week...The three most challenging localities that we anticipate are Blake Point (a rocky peninsula extending into Lake Superior on the northeastern tip of the island that is widely exposed to wind and waves), "The Wall" (a 9-mile-long cliff along the northwestern shore with no landings), and the crossing of Siskiwit Bay (five miles of continuous open water on the south shore fully exposed to the vagaries of weather)...We have allowed six full days and two partial days for the trip. With eight days of perfect weather, we could hypothetically complete the 115 mile loop if we paddle at a moderate pace of only 15 miles per day. However, a run of eight continuous days of perfect weather is unlikely in Lake Superior..."
- Excerpt of trip preview that I wrote to friends prior to leaving Iowa

Approaching Blake Point

Friday August 6 - Arriving on the island at the Rock Harbor Ranger Station, we filed an itinerary with the National Park Service and then promptly packed our gear into the kayaks and paddled away toward Merritt Lane campground, four miles away. We reached it in water so calm that we ventured the remaining quarter-mile to Blake Point, the narrow, rocky tip of the island. Exposed to wind and waves from nearly all directions, this point has earned a reputation for rough seas among boats of all sizes, so we approached it cautiously. We crept slowly into the zone where we expected to encounter adverse seas that would send us scampering back into the shelter of Merritt Lane, but it became obvious that conditions were benign. We forged ahead, rounding the point whose lionine reputation was belied by today’s kittenish calm, our first stroke of good luck.


Giddy with unexpected success, we hatched a revised plan to push all the way to Belle Isle, nine more miles down the coast. But shortly after passing Locke Point, we encountered a stiff headwind. Choppy waves washed across our decks, slashed our pace, and sapped our strength. Slogging across Five Finger Bay, we eventually reached Hill Point, but found that the wind was blowing strongly down the axis of the island-bounded corridor where we had hoped to find relief from its debilitating force. Just before sunset and well behind our optimistically revised schedule, we finally staggered into the protected bay at Belle Isle campground. It had been a long half-day, but even with the setback from the wind, we were already several miles ahead of our original itinerary.

Saturday August 7 – Following advice from other kayakers camped nearby, we paddled deeper into Belle Harbor, which segues into the long, narrow, dead-end cove of Robinson Bay. Two miles later, we spotted the tiny opening in the north shoreline and slipped through it into Amygdaloid Bay, which we followed southwestward into the open expanse of Lake Superior. The day was still, so we glided effortlessly across glassy water past McCargoe Cove and Todd Harbor, pausing only for short breaks on shore, where we splashed in cool water to overcome the heat of this windless day. Following yesterday’s contrary wind, today’s stillness counts as our second stroke of good luck.
Coming to the site of the Kamloops, we peered into the depths but despite the clear, aquamarine water, we saw only the disappearing length of a yellow rope descending from a float to the deeply submerged 1927 shipwreck. We paddled all the way to Little Todd Harbor and crossed its long length to arrive at our next campsite, finding two backpackers also camped there.
"The Wall"
Sunday August 8 – We started paddling today with apprehension about the long set of cliffs we needed to pass: 13 miles to Hugginin Cove, the last nine of which were devoid of even small, rocky landings. Good weather was imperative for getting through this reach and weather is fickle, especially on Superior. Getting caught by a storm or capsizing in waves along here could be disastrous, but we now experienced our third stroke of good luck on our journey: not only were conditions safe, mild following winds actually assisted our passage with a gentle push from behind. Tension drained away, replaced with a sense of exhilaration as we watched waves splash onto rock faces that we easily passed by. I even frolicked along the way, carving S-curves around rock gardens and approaching sea caves for closer looks. When we finally entered Hugginin Cove, it was with a mixture of relief of a danger passed, satisfaction from a successful passage, and a slight disappointment that it ended a bit too soon.

Beaver Island, Washington Harbor
After a break in Hugginin Cove, we rounded the final western bend of the north shore and paddled south toward Grace Island, our intended camp for the night. Arriving at Grace, we discovered that all of the wooden shelters there were occupied, so ended up paddling another three miles to Beaver Island in Washington Harbor.

Monday August 9 – We rounded the southwestern corner of the island and paddled northeast for the first time since leaving Rock Harbor. The character of the southern shoreline contrasted sharply with the northern shoreline we had been following for the past several days. Forbidding basalt cliffs with scant, rocky landings were replaced with long, accessible beaches of red sand, pebbles, and cobbles with abundant soft landings. Our fourth stroke of good luck was the following wind that accelerated our pace along this reach. To receive following winds on consecutive days going in opposite directions on opposite shores seemed too good to be true. We even surfed on moderate waves that pushed us along our way. We landed on Attwood Beach, a lovely red beach bordered by spruce-fir forest and decorated with tracks of moose, fox, and wolf. The sky was clear when we landed and set up camp, but fog engulfed the beach just before sunset.

Tuesday August 10 – Awakening in fog, we broke camp and paddled toward Houghton Point, the tip of a peninsula that formed the southern boundary of Siskiwit Bay, a large embayment of Lake Superior along the south shore of Isle Royale. Due to its east-facing orientation, we needed to decide whether to follow its U-shaped shoreline (which would add 15 miles to our journey) or cut straight across its 5-mile wide mouth (which would expose us to the dangers of big waves and high winds if the weather was poor). We needed to choose between the alternatives when we reached Houghton Point. The lake was calm as we paddled through fog for the eight miles between Attwood Beach and Houghton Point.
It was still foggy when we reached Houghton Point and began our final debate on the impending route. Calm water supported the direct route, but dense fog and unpredictable changes in weather made that choice equivocal. Finally opting for the direct crossing, we extracted compass headings and GPS coordinates from the map that would take us to Spruce Point on the distant and unseen north shore, then struck out into the fog-shrouded bay. Quickly losing sight of land, we were now committed to a blind crossing of the big bay. We paddled in close formation to keep each other in view at all times and maintained a brisk pace to minimize our time on the open bay. Our fifth stroke of good luck came in the welcome form of calm seas across Siskiwit Bay. The jagged, rocky silhouettes of islets near Spruce Point eventually emerged from the fog, soon followed by the hazy forested form of the main shoreline. We all felt relieved to have Siskiwit Bay behind us. As we started eastward along the shoreline under the lifting fog, a squall of wind suddenly burst over the treetops and swept across the water into Siskiwit Bay. We wondered aloud what effect that squall would have had on our crossing had we still been in the bay.

After weaving through a maze of small islands in Malone Bay, we reached the beginning of an exposed coastline that would lead us to Chippewa Harbor, a sheltered bay where we would camp tonight. Looking back southwestward, we recognized the faraway form of Houghton Point and marveled at the long distance we had come. We now paddled past gigantic slabs of steeply tilted basalt thinly vegetated with grassy savannas of jack pine and lichen-covered rock outcrops, mile after mile of beautiful wild shoreline. Reaching the bluff-bounded entrance to Chippewa Harbor, we turned inland to the campground and beached our kayaks next to huge cabin cruisers tied to high docks.

Wednesday August 11 – We paddled tentatively to the mouth of Chippewa Harbor and scanned the open water bounding the rocky shoreline. This morning’s weather report on our radios had warned of wind at 15-20 MPH from the southeast. If true, this would expose our kayaks to aggressive, broaching waves as we attempted to paddle northeast toward Rock Harbor, seven miles around a stark, rocky shoreline. Now bobbing gently at the mouth of Chippewa Harbor, no significant wind or waves were evident to us, so we progressed slowly out into the open lake, wary for sudden changes. We extended our distance from the harbor, finding that the ominous weather report just did not jive with our more benign, local conditions (and sixth stroke of good luck).  Only upon reaching Saginaw Point, the most exposed segment of this morning’s arc around the final peninsula, did we find big, rolling swells. We rode them like miniature roller-coasters for the remaining distance to Middle Islands Passage, the lighthouse-guarded entryway to the sheltered waters of western Rock Harbor. Although the Rock Harbor Ranger Station was still several miles away, we celebrated the virtual completion of our circumnavigation because that would now be an easy paddle through placid water.

Celebrating our entry to Middle Islands Passage (photo by Steve Parrish)

Remembering the impressive display of moose skulls from a 2003 trip here, I led the group a short distance westward to the Bangrund Cabin, the wolf-moose research station on Isle Royale. Hundreds of carefully labeled skulls collected from throughout the Park have been placed on racks here for scientific storage and interpretive display. 

Meeting Dr. Rolf Peterson (right) at Bangrund Cabin
(photo by Steve Parrish)
As we paddled up to the lakeside cabin, we were greeted by a man erecting an antenna on the beach. Steve called out to ask if this was the wolf research station run by Dr. Rolf Peterson; the man quietly replied “yes, I’m Rolf.” I was stunned to encounter this famous scientist and waded ashore to shake his hand; for me (a professional ecologist), this was the equivalent of a space tourist visiting the moon only to have Neil Armstrong step out from behind a rock! He was very gracious and even served us freshly baked zucchini bread as he answered our questions about moose and wolves. Both are presently in dire straits with very low populations, likely due to the linked effects of warming temperature, shorter winters, and a debilitating explosion of ticks on moose.

We paddled the final length of Rock Harbor at a fast, steady pace through calm water and arrived at the ranger station in time to catch the Isle Royale Queen ferry back to the Michigan mainland at Copper Harbor, a final stroke of good luck. As the Queen churned out of Rock Harbor and Isle Royale receded into watery distance, we reflected upon our successful circumnavigation of the big island. We had covered 107 miles in six days and, aided by incredibly benign weather, had passed the challenges of Blake Point, The Wall, and Siskiwit Bay. Above all, we had experienced a long, wild coastline bursting with the heady mix of natural beauty and personal challenge. We are fortunate for the opportunity.