Our trip to Isle Royale was not starting well.
My husband, Ed, and I had come up with a plan for our first adventure on the island, a national park famed for its rugged wilderness. We’d start at Malone Bay, portage a canoe more than half a mile to Lake Siskiwit, then paddle to Ryan Island for a photo op. The draw? Ryan Island is the largest island on the largest lake on the largest island on the largest freshwater lake in the world, according to the National Park Service. We would be among a small group of people who had ever set foot on Ryan, we were told.
Yet, when we arrived at Lake Siskiwit — on a day that had dawned sunny and warm, perfect for triumphant photos — blustery winds whipped the surface into an angry froth. Whitecaps hurled themselves at our canoe from the moment we pushed off from shore, quickly filling our vessel with water. Fir-covered Ryan Island sat placidly and invitingly in the distance, clearly out of reach.
Crestfallen, we moved to Plan B: hiking the seven-mile Ishpeming Trail, which winds from the southwestern shore of Lake Siskiwit up three rocky ridges to Ishpeming Point, at 1,377 feet the second-highest spot on the island. Once there, we’d climb the lookout tower and be treated to spectacular 360-degree views.
But after three hours of bushwhacking along a trail nearly obscured by waist- and shoulder-high vegetation, our reward was an abandoned, locked tower squatting below the tree line. We faced another three-hour slog through the weeds back to Malone Bay.
“I’m not liking Isle Royale,” Ed said, clumping sullenly behind me in new hiking boots that were pressing painfully on one ankle. Since it had been my idea to come here, I remained silent.
And then, a heavy thud. The sound of something enormous rustling the brush stopped us. Before I could even process the noise, two giant moose trotted out of the woods and onto the trail, no more than 100 feet in front of me.
“Whoo-oo-oo-ah!” A low, strained stutter I’d never heard before escaped from my lips. My hands frantically clawed at my camera’s lens cap. But before I could pop it off, the ponderous pair clopped off the trail and were instantly swallowed by the vegetation.
A long pause. Then Ed erupted. “That was so cool!” he said, eyes wide. “I only saw the back of the second one, but wow! Isle Royale rocks!”
Land of the moose and wolves
Isle Royale, along with its 450 smaller sister islands, forms an archipelago that’s one of 58 U.S. national federal parks. Although one of the least-visited — more people visit Yellowstone in a day than Isle Royale in a year — its per-acre backcountry use is the highest of the bunch. Hikers, canoeists, kayakers and their ilk flock here to test their mettle against what’s said to be a great example of primitive America, filled with isolated beauty and scabrous landscape. Many are also lured by the archipelago’s resident moose and wolves.
The first moose to arrive on the island came in the early 1900s, likely by swimming over from Canada, while the first wolf to set a paw on the land trotted over via ice bridge in the late 1940s. Today some 1,200 moose can be found all over the archipelago. Only three wolves remain; the pack has dwindled largely due to inbreeding. While it’s very difficult to spot a wolf, visitors have a decent shot at catching a glimpse of a moose. Still, it’s by no means guaranteed.
“There’s no secret to spotting them,” says Carl TerHaar, a water taxi driver. “You just have to be in the right place at the right time.”
We were certainly hoping to see a moose or two during our stay, but it wasn’t our top priority. Yet after glimpsing the pair of chocolate-colored cows, we instantly became obsessed.
“What was it like when you saw them?” Ed quizzed me the following day for the umpteenth time.
“It’s hard to say. It happened so quickly. I remember being excited to see them, but shocked at their size — and scared they’d turn and gallop straight toward us.” I knew it wasn’t wise to antagonize a moose. While they largely avoid humans, annoying them can result in serious consequences.
Ed pointed to a wide, flat rock near our feet. It was covered with dozens of moose droppings reminiscent of tiny pine cones. We weren’t sure if they were fresh or past their expiration date. I leaned closer. Click!
“I can’t believe I just took a photo of moose poop,” I said.
We certainly were not the only ones keen on spotting moose. Everyone we met on the trails seemed to be on the same quest. I hailed two couples picking their way down from the ridge above us.
“Hey, did you see any moose up there?”
“No, did you?”
“No, but we saw some moose poop.”
“We didn’t even see that,” said one woman dispiritedly. “And we’ve been looking down.”
“How have we devolved into this?” I asked Ed, now pausing to snap a photo of twin moose prints pressed deeply into the mud. Our outdoor endeavors lean heavily toward the active. We hike. We kayak. We canoe. We do not generally get into pursuits such as birding or animal watching, and certainly not poop-and-hoof photography.
Ed merely repeated his new mantra: “I want to see another moose.”
Over the ensuing 2½ days, we marched about 40 miles along Isle Royale’s 165-plus miles of foot trails, with only our initial moose-sighting to our credit. It was time to take a break. While backpacking is by far the most popular activity on Isle Royale — roughly 75 percent of guests are backpackers, says Phyllis Green, park superintendent — less ambitious folks can sign up for a variety of guided tours. We chose one that ferried us to the mouth of Moskey Basin, where we disembarked to tour the historic Edison Fishery, Rock Harbor lighthouse and Mooseum of Pathology.
The fishery is a cluster of buildings that once belonged to a couple who operated a two-person fishing business in the early 20th century. The lighthouse is more intriguing. One of the oldest on the Great Lakes and the first on Isle Royale, it was built in 1855 when copper mining on the island was causing a boom in boat traffic. But mining sputtered out four years later, and the lighthouse was shuttered. It was reopened briefly during a second mining boomlet in 1874, which similarly petered out a few years later. The lighthouse was closed for good. We climbed its 64 steps and hoisted ourselves into the empty lantern room, which offered beautiful views of the Middle Islands Passage.
The outdoor Mooseum is a short hike from the lighthouse and fishery. A jumble of bleached moose bones ― skulls, antlers, femurs and the like — the osseous matter is carefully numbered and labeled. The tag fluttering from one massive set of antlers reads, “#2008. Senile bull with asymmetrical antlers,” while seven-year-old #3133’s remains note, “Died in rutting fight with #3138.”
For the past 57 years, researchers have been studying Isle Royale’s moose and wolves in what’s considered the world’s longest-running large mammal predator-prey study. Today a controversy is brewing about the rapidly declining wolf population, which some argue should be bolstered by importing new, genetically diverse wolves. Green says the National Park Service prefers to let nature take its course, even if that means the wolves’ demise. After all, as recently as 1927, caribou and lynx roamed throughout the archipelago. Today it’s moose and wolves. Perhaps tomorrow belongs to yet other mammals. Indeed, Green notes, four out of five simulations show that within the next 50 years, global warming will cause the cold-weather-loving moose to also vanish from Isle Royale.
The hunt resumes
Learning that Isle Royale’s moose may soon disappear merely fanned the flames of our moose mania. The next morning, we were back on the hunt. We selected the Stoll Trail to Scoville Point, which loops behind the Rock Harbor Lodge complex. Two workers in the lodge restaurant, plus some guests, told us they’d recently spotted a bull moose near the start of this trail.
Ed strode ahead of me, a man on a mission. He silently pointed to one moose print, then another. They looked fresh, but we were certainly no experts. All we could do was hike and hope. Nearing Scoville Point, we suddenly heard a tremendous rustling just off the trail. The sound was so loud, so significant, it could mean only one thing. Ed raised a hand to indicate silence, and slowly inched forward. I turned on my camera, removed the lens cap and crept up behind him.
Fifty feet away, an ebony bull moose stood surrounded by brush, staring into the distance.
I held my breath as I zoomed in on his long, caramel-colored snout, praying he wouldn’t suddenly trot off. I exhaled slowly, and began clicking away.
“I wish he’d look at us so we could see all of his antlers,” I whispered.
As if hearing my request, the giant beast slowly turned his head and stared right at us, his rack filling my frame. Snap, snap, snap, snap. Seconds later, tiring of the photo shoot, he melted back into the fir and thimbleberry.
“That just made the entire trip,” Ed said.
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a travel writer. She lives near Madison, Wis.