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Isle Royale National Park

Seaplan Dock, Tobin Harbor

September 2017

I spent two consecutive summers making the 6 hour voyage across Lake Superior to camp, hike, and explore one of Michigan most remote and magical places.

The Journey North

Michiganders debate whether “up north” means the northern part of the lower peninsula or the upper peninsula (affectionally referred to as the UP which is pronounced You-Pea). Like most who have crossed the Mackinac Bridge, I love that magical feeling of freedom as soon as I arrive in the UP. But there’s a much less-frequented place in Michigan that is even more magical, and the sense of remoteness is immense. I’m referring to Michigan only National Park Isle Royale (IRNP).

But to get there, you first need to make your way to Michigan’s left thumb also known as the Keweenaw Peninsula which is beautiful all by itself. As one of only three Wal-Marts in the entire UP, it’s a bastion of civilization thanks largely due to it being the home of Michigan Tech.

The Portage Lake Lift Bridge connects the cities of Hancock and Houghton; when The Ranger III leaves port, the entire thing rises up to allow it to pass underneath!
Images from my drive up to Hancock.

The Island - Rock Harbor

On the ship ride over, one of the Park Rangers shared some interesting facts:

  • The ship we were on - The Ranger III - is the Park Service’s most expensive asset at $1.16 Million
  • IRNP is the least visited park in the contiguous US
  • But it is also the most re-visited park.
  • And it has the longest average length of visitation; 4 days compared to the average of just 7.4 hours in 2020.

While that last stat is impressive a big part of that is owed to the fact that The Ranger schedule requires you to stay at least one night unless you use a seaplane to fly home.

I was inspired to visit the Island because the Isle Royale & Keweenaw Parks Association (IRKPA) was hosting a Night Sky Photography Workshop. I had always been interested in learning how to shoot the Milky Way and Northern Lights, and this seemed like a great opportunity to learn and practice. So, don’t judge my photos here too harshly since they were some of the first I ever took.

Even though most of the island is certified wilderness, the area right around where the Ranger III docks is relatively developed with a very small restaurant, a lodge, as well as group campgrounds, and some wooden shelters that are first-come-first-served.

We spent most of our time relatively close to Rock Harbor. There’s a nearby seaplane dock that looks north over Tobin Harbor which is great for northern lights. We also had a moose sighting! The Rangers had named him Bruce (the Moose) and suspected he stays close to people because he’s quite old and knows that the few remaining wolves don’t like to get too close to the areas of the island people inhabit.

Dawn with the early sunlight reflecting off the windows of the Lodge.
Images from the drive to Hancock, the journey over, and Rock Harbor.

The Island Wilderness

During my first trip, we took a water taxi over to visit the Wolves and Moose Study which is the longest continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world! Volunteers comb the woods each year to identify moose remains, and then they’re taken here for analysis and safekeeping. There’s also a nearby lighthouse known as the Rock Harbor Light that was used during the island’s brief mining booms. That image was licensed by IRKPA for a postcard run, so if you visit the island, you might see it in the gift shop!

For my second trip, a friend I had met the previous year at the workshop planned a more remote journey, and we hiked over to the Lane Cove campground. We learned that hiking with an extra 25-30 pounds of camera equipment makes the rustic trails difficult especially with the significant elevation change. But it was remote, and listening to the songs of the loons each evening was a highlight. I also got up in the middle of the night to take a few photos of the Milky Way.

If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend a visit!

The 50' tall Rock Harbor Light with a 193-second exposure to calm the furious Lake Superior.
Some of the more remote areas of the island.