Isle Royale

With a few solid days of touring Grand Marais under our belt, we were up early and raring to go the day of our scheduled ferry ride to Isle Royale National Park.  This was it, the main attraction that brought us up to the Minnesota North Shore!  The ferry departed from Grand Portage, about 35 minutes north of our campground.   Continually appearing on “Least Visited US National Parks” lists each year, this remote island wilderness in the middle of Lake Superior, close to the Canadian border, is only accessible by boat (or seaplane) and is made up of over 450 islands.  There are a few ferries that shuttle day hikers and overnight campers to the largest island, with ports on both east and west sides of the island.  As soon as I learned about this park, it made my list of places to visit.  And with Missy’s experience as a kayak guide, primarily on the eastern side of the island, it made sense that we would explore the western side together.  

The Sea Hunter III, a 65 foot passenger only ferry, shuttles day-trippers and overnight campers to Windigo on the southwest end of Isle Royale.  It’s a little confusing, because the ferry and Grand Portage are in the central time zone (as is the ferry schedule), but Isle Royale National Park is in the eastern time zone.
I was there at the perfect time of the year for blooming flowers! This was at the ferry port in Grand Portage.
Our ferry captain paused our journey and pointed out what’s acknowledged as Minnesota’s oldest living landmark, the Spirit Tree (aka, Spirit Little Cedar Tree and Witch Tree), a 300-400 year old northern white cedar on the tip of Hat Point (tree on rock outcropping, center of photo).  “For centuries, the ancient tree has been sacred and of spiritual significance to the Ojibwe people of Grand Portage.”  The tree can only be accessed through the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe in order to protect the tree. -Northern Wilds
A northern white cedar tree normally grows to 50-80 feet tall; this one is only 15 ft. Its stunted growth is a manifestation of the hardships endured during its time in the harsh conditions of Lake Superior.  -Northern Wilds  

Our morning ferry dropped us off at the Windigo Visitor Center on the west side of the island.  We only had four hours before the ferry would return us to Grand Portage, so we had to be realistic about how much of the 45 mile long, 9 mile wide island we would be able to see on foot in that time.   We viewed the educational exhibits at the visitors center, did a couple of short hikes along the lakeshore, and attended a ranger-led talk on moose and wolf populations- the time flew by!

Missy and I starting our day on Isle Royale. Can you tell who’s from the north and who’s from the south?!
The average moose stands 6-feet tall and weighs around 1000 lbs.  The moose population on Isle Royale has fluctuated between 500-2400, depending on vegetation and the wolf population- the moose’s only natural predator on the island.  Both the moose and gray wolf populations are closely monitored and regulated on the island for the health of both herds. NPS website
I learned at the Ranger-led talk that male moose shed their antlers once a year, at the end of mating season, so there are plenty of antlers around the island!
Missy and I hiked down to the Washington Creek Campground and then a little of the Feldtmann Lake Trail- so tranquil and lush.
I love the way paper birch tree bark looks!
Wildflowers sprinkled along the trail.

Before we knew it, our time on the island had come to an end and it was time to board the ferry for the 1.5 hour return trip to Grand Portage.  By then, the wind had picked up, causing a bit more turbulent return transit.  All that was forgotten however, as soon as the ferry boat captain slowed near the Rock of Ages Lighthouse for us to view the restoration efforts underway.

“Situated five miles off the northwest tip of Isle Royale in Lake Superior, Rock of Ages Lighthouse stands as one of the tallest and most powerful beacons on the Great Lakes.  The steel frame and brick masonry tower was completed in 1908.  It rests on a 50 ft diameter steel crib filled with concrete and anchored to a narrow rock outcropping [Rock of Ages reef].” NPS website

We pulled into port with just enough time to scurry over to the Grand Portage National Monument a couple miles down the road.  The monument is on the homeland of the Grand Portage Anishinaabe and tells the story of these original peoples, both before and after the arrival of Europeans, as well as the impact and interactions of the fur trade starting in the 1600s.  “Because of the area’s geology, topography, natural resources, and strategic location, [this location] was part of an ancient transcontinental trade route connecting the Great Lakes to the interior of the continent.”  “It would become the headquarters and central hub for the North West Company.” NPS website

The summer headquarters for the North West Company, this depot was where buyers of furs from Montreal and Scotland met with leaders from nearby Native American tribes to formalize trading relationships.  Within the walls of the depot was a fully functioning town, complete with stores, shops, eateries, and lodging.
Picturesque summer gardening with a voyageur scarecrow.
Educational canoe exhibit.  These were used to transport people and goods, and were carried, or portaged, across land along the trade routes.
A birchbark dwelling in the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) Village.  The North West Company built its depot next to villages like these to establish partnerships for its fur trading.  The reconstructed village has exhibits about canoe building, basket weaving, wild rice and maple syrup processing, fish smoking processes, and heirloom gardening. 

I was fascinated by the distinction made between the two basic categories of “voyageurs” throughout the museum and exhibits.  According to the educational placards, what separated the two was experience and job duties.  There were the “pork eaters” who were hired every spring in Montreal to make the long summertime canoe treks across the Great Lakes and then return before winter set in.  Then there were the “winterers” or “North men” who took the freight into the backcountry and wintered over at posts near Indian villages.  For the most part, all voyageurs were peasant-stock French or French-Canadian men, although some were of British, Indian, or mixed-blood origin.  They wore their hair long, their faces unshaven, and almost always decked out in a brilliantly colored woven sash or leggings.

Unfortunately, the museum was closing not long after we had returned from Isle Royale, so we didn’t get to spend as much time enjoying the exhibits as we would have liked.  But, that’s part of what this trip is all about.  Seeing as much as possible to spark a desire to learn more about a particular topic and/or to revisit a place.  So many cool things to see and do!!

My time on the Minnesota North Shore had come to an end, but not my time with Missy.  Next stop- further inland to the boundary waters and beyond!

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