Exploring & Staying Safe in American Bear Country

A boar plunges into the Brooks River to catch a fish for dinner. 

It would make little sense to write about all eight of Alaska's National Parks (as well as parks in Montana and Wyoming) without a special section on this website devoted to the bears that roam free there. After all, it is for their protection that some of the national parks were established in the first place.

The atmosphere of bear country is one of the most popular topics of discussion brought up to us in the context of our Alaskan travels. "Weren't you scared?!" and "Did you carry bear spray?" and "How did you prepare to camp in the backcountry?" are some of the most commonly asked questions. We had many of the same curiosities ourselves before we wandered off into the Alaskan bush for the summer.

Attacks on humans are rare, but they have happened, so clearly it's important to know some of what to do before getting out there. Let's start with these two important things: 1.) most likely, an experienced guide will be with you the entire time (unless you choose to jet off into backcountry); and 2.) it is perfectly rational to be timid about exploring a landscape where bears wander freely. With that out of the way, you can rest assured that having a bear encounter is most often exciting and wonderful as opposed to terrifying and dangerous. The key to having a great experience is in knowing how to act and what to do if you see a bear. 

In this article, we'll discuss general information about bears including their diet and habitat, behavior, how to interact and what to do during an encounter, miscellaneous factoids, and a bit about the species itself which is an important distinction, so we'll start with that.

Types of bears found in Alaska: Black bears; polar bears; grizzly, Kodiak, and coastal brown bears. The latter three are all one species of brown bear, differentiated by geography and diet which affects their size and behavior. 

A sow black bear in Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. 

Black bears – These are the smallest of all bears living in Alaska. Their color is typically black, you may also see black bears with lighter, cinnamon-colored coats. While their habitat in most of North America is commonly associated with high-elevation and thick forested areas, they are roving creatures that can be found anywhere on the Alaskan landscape – on river banks, coastal beaches, in meadows, on tundra, and in valleys. Their diet consists mostly of berries, sedges and other grasses; they also eat fish, clams and other shellfish, moose calves, and other small mammals to pack on weight before winter hibernation. Black bears don’t generally commingle with brown bears, so if you see a black bear, you probably wont see a brown or grizzly in the immediate vicinity.

Where you will find them: From Sequoia and Kings Canyon in California to Shenandoah in Virginia to the Kenai Fjords in Alaska, black bears live throughout North America can be found in too many of our national parks to count! 


A sow polar bear near Kaktovik, Alaska. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Polar bears  These bears live only on the far reaches of the northern polar coastlines (you wont see a polar bear in interior or lower coastal Alaska.) As polar ice caps melt and their habitat dwindles, food sources become more scarce and as a result, they are considered to be the most dangerous species of bear to human beings. Unlike brown and black bears who generally aren't bothered by humans unless humans bother them, polar bears will hunt humans for food. 

Where you will find them: Polar bears do not live in any of the U.S. National Parks. In Alaska, they can be found only on the northern coastlines. 


A grizzly roaming the tundra in Denali National Park.

Grizzly – Grizzly bears are found in interior Alaska (as well as Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, the Yukon Territory, and British Columbia.) They are the smallest of Alaskan brown bears due to a more scarcely available food supply found inland, and also to the greater exertion they spend on obtaining essential calories. They feed on berries, grasses, root bulbs, insects, small rodents, and tree nuts; and when they can find a kill, moose, caribou, sheep and goats. The name “Grizzly” was coined because they tend to be the most aggressive of bears, as they have to fight harder for food sources. They can be found on the Alaskan tundra, in meadows, by streams, and in forests. 

Where you will find them: In our national parks, grizzly bears can be found in Denali, Wrangell St. Elias, Kobuk Valley, and Gates of the Arctic (all in Alaska); and Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park in Montana and Wyoming. 


Kodiak bear at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Photo credit: Wikipedia.  

Kodiak – With a tremendous food supply of protein-rich fish always available to them, Kodiak bears are the largest of all brown bears. These are the heavyweights—some have weighed in at 1,500 lbs. They are found only on Kodiak Island, an amazing wilderness habitat, the second largest island in America next to Hawai’i’s Big Island. 

Where you will find them: Kodiak bears do not live in any of the U.S. National Parks; they only live on Kodiak Island. 

A coastal brown bear sow and her three, 2-year cubs looking for shellfish on the shores of Glacier Bay. 

Coastal Brown Bears – As the name suggests, coastal brown bears live in the coastal areas of Alaska. With a wealth of food sources at their disposal—mainly fish and shell fish unearthed at low tide—these bears are known to be relatively docile towards humans so long as they are eating abundantly. Coastal brown bears are also known to provide the best viewing opportunities for travelers to Alaska as they frequently meander the shores (which can be viewed easily from the safety of a motorized boat or kayak.)

Where you will find them: In our national parks, coastal brown bears can be found in Katmai, Lake Clark, Glacier Bay, and Kenai Fjords (all in Alaska).  


Two large boars feed on salmon at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. 

Gender and age: Adult female bears are called sows. Adult males are called boars. Baby bears are called cubs. Young bears who have just separated from their mothers (this typically happens in their third year) are called juveniles


With expert bear naturalists from the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge in Lake Clark at our side, we are able to sit among coastal brown bears for days at a time watching them in their natural habitat. Stay tuned for more on that experience (park #37, coming up!) This bear sow is named Crimp Ear, a very social bear and a favorite to many who live in that area. 

Bear viewing etiquette: Seeing a bear in the wild is an awesome and unforgettable experience. Outlined below is some general etiquette to observe while bear viewing: 

Never approach, clap or shout at, or crowd bears to get their attention... and never forget that in the wilds of Alaska, you are a guest in their home. Observing their comfort and space (for your safety and theirs) should be your first priority.

Trails in established bear viewing areas were created for a reason. Stay on them whenever possible. 

The National Park Service advises that humans stay 100 yards away from bears whenever possible. In some cases, like in the picture shown here taken in Lake Clark, Alaska, they might approach you and enter into your space. It should be acknowledged here that situations always vary, and as such, adaptability to your surroundings is necessary equipment while bears are near. 

This bear, with its scowl and drool, is displaying stress as our boat nears its environment on the Katmai Peninsula. We quickly moved away!

Bear behavior and aggression: It is essential to have an understanding of bear behavior before exploring in bear country. Outlined below are some common behaviors to watch for. 

When a bear stands on its hind legs, it is most likely trying to determine what you are—bears have poor eyesight.

Bears do, on the other hand, have very good sense of smell—they can smell humans from three miles away when positioned downwind. 

If it is popping its jaw, snarling, growling, breathing heavily, coughing, sneezing, or drooling, it is experiencing stress—and indication that you are agitating it and are too close. 

Sows with cubs in tow are likely to be aggressive toward humans, as sows are extremely protective of their young. If you see a sow with cubs, maintain an even greater distance. Never get between a mother and her cub.

Bears tend to be at their most aggressive near the time that they hibernate, during late October and early November, when they are vying for every calorie they can to see them through the long winter sleep. 

Avoiding unwanted bear encounters: They say that “one of your best defenses against bears is your brain.” In other words, the more you know, the better the chances of you have of having an amazing experience among bears in the American wilderness. Some ways to minimize close bear encounters include:

Hike in wide open areas where you (and the bear) have clear visibility of the landscape.

Hike in groups of two or more. The sound of voices and the reverberation of foot traffic helps to alert bears of your presence, which will usually drive them in another direction. 

IGBC-approved bear-storage containers...we're decorating ours with stickers from places we've used them. Snazzy!

IGBC-approved bear-storage containers...we're decorating ours with stickers from places we've used them. Snazzy!

Maintain constant conversation, and/or sing on the trail to alert bears of your presence with the sound of your carrying voice.  

Observe proper food storage at all times while in bear habitat by using bear cans; and freeing tents, cars, and your general surroundings of food and scented items. Never sleep in clothing that you cooked in. 

Always stay "bear aware" when traveling in bear country. Know that they could be anywhere... you should always be ready to react. 


What to do if you have an encounter: If you are exploring the North American wilderness, there is a likelihood that you may see a bear...and it is a wonderful experience to have. Here are some general guidelines of what to do and how to behave if you see a bear: 

Remain calm and stand still.

If you have children with you, pick them up. 

Slowly step aside of the bear's path and stand firmly in one spot, speaking in a calm but firm voice something like “Okay bear, I’m just going to step aside and allow you to pass…”

If the bear is laying down, start to back away slowly and at a sideways trajectory, keeping your eye on the bear until you are a safe distance away. 


What to do if it mock charges you: Bears may mock charge humans, running straight at you aggressively if they feel threatened. Scary! If you run - never run - it will be more likely to attack you. If you stand your ground, it will most likely stop about 10 feet from you. It might be the scariest moment of your life, but mock charges are actually a somewhat common response during a close encounter. So what to do? Stand your ground. DO NOT RUN. Running will turn you into prey in a bears eyes. This is a good time to have bear deterrent handy and ready to use. 

What to do if a bear attacks: Bears do not want to brutalize human beings, an attack typically occurs when it is surprised, and/or protecting a kill (a food source) or cubs. Black bears and brown bears have different behaviors during an attack, and your response (heaven forbid you should ever find yourself in this situation) will be different for each. If attacked by a brown bear, PLAY DEAD. If attacked by a black bear, FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE. In detail: 

Brown or grizzly bear: Lay on your belly, spread your legs wide apart to make it more difficult for the bear to turn you over, and place your hands behind your neck then play dead and do not fight back unless the bear continues to attack. If it does, fight for your life. 

Black bear: Do not play dead, instead, try to escape to safety and if that is not an option, fight for your life by kicking and punching the bear's face and muzzle.  


Bear deterrents: "Deterrents" are items carried on your person that are used for self-protection in the case of a bear attack. The deterrent that you should first use during an aggressive bear encounter is your brain to determine its behavior and to act accordingly. If that fails—bears are wild animals and wild animals are unpredictable—it is wise to have a second line of defense. The following deterrents are useful in different scenarios, though you don't need to carry them all. Just choose the right one for you and the environment that you are in. And of course, learn how to use them. 

Stef taking off into bear country in Lake Clark Alaska with a can of bear spray, also known as "a can of confidence." 

Spray: The most popular and well known bear deterrent is casually called “bear spray”—Alaska guides call it a “can of confidence.” Bear spray is like mace, its aim is to stop a bear from attacking you by blinding it. If you are standing downwind when you spray it, it will blind you, so learn how to use it. It is imperative that you buy EPA approved bear spray they can be sold in most national park visitor centers.  

Bells:  "Bear bells"—sometimes called the "afternoon snack alarm" are simply jingle bells that you fasten to your pants that make noise while you walk. Noisemakers. It is our understanding that the sound of bells isn't unfamiliar enough to bears to act as a deterrent, and recent studies conducted in Katmai showed that the majority of bears weren't fazed by the sound. They also interrupt the peaceful environment for everyone else there, so we are not huge fans... but, to each his own. 

Flares: Flares are a popular deterrent with naturalists because the sound (like fireworks) will scare the bear without causing them harm, and they are lightweight and easy to carry.

Guns: Guns should only be handled by experienced gun owners and operators, and those who are familiar with bear behavior. Shooting a bear could easily go really wrong... It could also land you in hot water with the State while leaving you with a mountain of paperwork to fill out explaining why you shot a bear. Most top guiding companies in Alaska equip their guides with a gun, as well as training on how and when to use it.  

Keeping bears wild: We as humans are very lucky to be able to observe bears in their natural habitat in America's national parks and elsewhere. It is essential that we do our part to minimize impact on bears so they can continue to roam our planet. Here are some ways that each of us can do our part to help keep bears wild:

Respect a bear's space. Use binoculars or telephoto camera lenses to "get closer." The National Park Service advises that humans stay at least 100 yards from bears if they can help it. If a bear shows any change in behavior when you are near then you are too close. 

NEVER feed a bear. Ever. "A fed bear is a dead bear." When black or brown bears begin to associate food with people, they start to get aggressive; when bears become aggressive with park visitors, they are captured and exterminated.

Drive slowly on our wilderness roads. In the last two years in Yosemite National Park, early 60 black bears have been killed by road traffic. We always try to practice defensive driving, keeping in mind that any animal of any size could bolt in front of our car at any given time. We've not had a collision yet and hope to get through this year (and lifetime) without one! 

Black bear sow and her cub in Yosemite National Park in California.

Miscellaneous Facts:

While the weight of brown, grizzly, and Kodiak bears differ greatly, they are all born as 1-lb cubs.

Black bears live to an approximate 20 years of age and can run 30 miles an hour. 

"Hyperfascia" is a period brown bears go through late in the season just before hibernation when they eat nearly everything in sight in preparation for their long winter snooze. 

When bears hibernate, they’re not asleep. The heart rate of a bear slows to about 10 beats per minute, rendering them in a comatose state. They lose 40% of their body weight during that time. Boars (adult males) are usually the last to go into hibernation because they need to pack on the most weight. 

According to the National Park Service, there are more bears estimated to live on the Alaskan Peninsula than people. 

More people are killed by moose than bear each year in Alaska.

Bears are not social animals within their species, but are tolerant of one another so long that everyone has enough to eat.

Bears are actually very good swimmers but they tend to avoid it unless making a water crossing, like this coastal brown bear is doing at Katmai. 

Bears are good swimmers but it leaves them vulnerable. They typically avoid it unless they need to make a water crossing. 

Bears' only real predators are other bears. 

Sows (mother bears) need to eat enough to be able to nurse cubs in their first couple of years, as well as to survive herself through hibernation. This is why, when food is scarce, they become more aggressive with humans and other animals. 

Bear cubs stay with mama for three years then she chases them off. Young siblings who are newly are their own are called "juveniles," and they usually pal around until they figure out how to manage  then they break apart and go out on their own.


As always in the American wilderness, your safety and livelihood is your own responsibility and yours alone. It is vital to learn the area that you are exploring and also how to act while there to ensure a safe and enjoyable time in the U.S. National Parks. 

The Alaska Highway

The road to Alaska as seen on the Alaska Highway, once known as "The Alcan" (a mesh of Alaska-Canada.) This main vein travels from Dawson Creek in British Columbia and ends in Fairbanks, Alaska. And then, there's the everything that's in between... 

To begin the Alaska leg of our journey, we first needed to get there. We could fly, though that method isn’t in keeping with our goal to experience the Greatest American Road Trip. We could ferry Wally the Airstream from Washington State northbound through the Inside Passage, a very popular option for the beautiful scenery along the northern Pacific Coast that it provides. Or we could travel the Alaskan Highway—a highway of dreams for road trippers. The two-lane highway winds 1,520 miles from Dawson Creek in British Columbia (about 825 miles northeast of Seattle) to Fairbanks, Alaska. It is perhaps one of the most beloved routes to take to get into the great state of Alaska, also known as The Last Frontier.

The roadway is widened in 1942 with a caterpillar tractor. Credit: Wikipedia.

The Alaska Highway was built in 1942 as a result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor the year before. The American government and military feared an overland invasion by the Japanese of the Aleutian Islands, which sits just 1,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean from Japan. American engineers planned and constructed the Alaska-Canadian Military Highway to provide a main vein from the contiguous United States into Alaska if Japanese forces entered in on foot. It was then called the Alcan Highway – The Alcan, a conjunction of Alaska-Canada.  

Rugged beauty aligns the entire path along the Alaska Highway. 

The highway is known for its ruggedness—at one time the unpaved road had wild turns, steep grades up to 25%, and dirt and gravel breaks that would kick up thick clouds of dust, quashing visibility and revealing cracks in car windshields after the dust had settled. It is still rugged (sure enough, we got a crack in our windshield that remains today); though times have changed for the storied highway. Engineers have been working to improve it continuously since the mid-20th century to benefit travelers, and to improve the time-distance continuum for truckers bringing supplies into Alaska. Today, it is today almost entirely paved. 

American Bison on the side of the road. Talk about wild. Driving this highway was like being on safari. 

It took us four days driving 12-hour stretches to make our way from North Cascades National Park in Washington to Skagway, Alaska, from where we would fly by bush plane to hit our first park in Alaska: Glacier Bay. For most, traveling the highway and exploring the vicinity is the adventure itself and endures on average seven to ten days. At waypoints, there are museums, restaurants, historic gold rush sites, and wilderness areas ripe for fisherman, paddlers, hikers, and campers.

As mentioned before, we pushed through the area quickly… but there is no love lost; we experienced many amazing things along the way. We saw countless black bear, bison (the most beastly of all animals, they are huge!), caribou, moose, stone sheep and incredible bird life. Vast rivers roll right alongside the highway, impeccably clear and vibrant in color, and all around is this incredible wilderness totally unique to the region. And best of all for us during this very long and logistically intense adventure: there are no off-ramps, no choices to be made of which way to go, the road just travels on endlessly through beautiful stretches of western Canada, the Yukon Territory, arriving finally in Alaska. People often ask us when we get to enjoy off-time this year, and we really don't to be perfectly honest – but on long drive days we have a chance to talk, listen to music and podcasts, and read about upcoming parks on our itinerary.

So with that, onto Alaska! With eight of the most remote national parks in the system, it's about to get wild. First up: Glacier Bay

Giving Wally the Airstream the ride of his life! 

"Yield to Bison" – this sign and what it represents is reason alone to travel the Alaska Highway!

Tips for travelers on the Alaska Highway:

·      MILEPOST is considered the bible for road trippers traveling the Alaska Highway. It is the most comprehensive tool for planning and navigating that there is, offering four basic routes as a starting point to work from, and providing details on everything in between. 

·      There are nearly 2,000 kilometers (kilometers, remember, half of the road is in Canada) between the starting point at Dawson Creek and the end point in Fairbanks. The best advice we got and can pay forward is to fuel up nearly every time you see a gas station – even if you are full 3/4 of a tank. You never know when gas stations along the route will be closed for any number of reasons, as we found to be true on our overland journey.  

·      Make sure you have a full tank of wiper fluid. While the highway is mostly paved, there are still gravel breaks that will cloud up your windshield in an instant. Not only is this a hazard in seeing other motorists, but wildlife is everywhere – and you don’t want to be the person to hit an endangered bison or any other wild creature. 

Wally strikes a pose near the start of the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, British Columbia. 

Wally strikes a pose near the start of the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, British Columbia. 

·      Because there are few services on the highway, including emergency services, stopping to offer help to failed motorists is generally the right thing to do if you are in a position to offer assistance. Karma baby!

·      Even with big advances improving the highway, bringing not one, but two spare tires is still recommended as services along the highway can be fleeting, and it is doubtful they will pop up exactly when you need them.

Stef is dwarfed beneath a collection of some 30,000 road signs that can be found at the Sign Post Forest in the Watson Lake area of the Yukon Territory.

·      If starting your adventure at the official starting point in Dawson Creek, B.C., make a stop at the symbolic sign post. When we were there to catch photo ops with Wally the Airstream, a car packed with locals drove by and shouted “welcome to Dawson Creek!” It was awesome to receive such a warm welcome before starting out this very intense leg of our journey.

·      Another great stop on the famed Alaska Highway? Check out the Sign Post Forest in the Yukon Territory. With 30,000 signs from all around the world, it one of the finest road trip stops for road sign aficionados. 

Travel Advice From an Isle Royale Local

We’ve just published our page on Isle Royale National Park in Michigan's Upper Peninsula (U.P.), one of the five least visited parks in the system. In the article section we shared some insight from Rolf Peterson, the head of the renowned Wolf and Moose Study; and also Marina Alexander, the island's go-to expert on all things local. We wanted to publish more from our discussions with Marina because we think her knowledge and perspective is invaluable to travelers wanting to visit the island—this is the kind of information that just doesn't exist online... until now.  

Here is what Marina had to say…

Stefanie Payne and Jonathan Irish: This is one of the least visited national parks. What do you think are some of the reasons that is true?

Marina Alexander: I think mostly the distance; the planning is the killer. It’s not a National Park you can drive through; there are extra steps required to access the island and once you arrive.  I understand most National Parks aren’t as easy to get to either, which makes the National Park system so unique itself, but planning to get to Isle Royale requires more thorough planning. But, once you understand the basics of the boat schedules and locations, the hardest part is over. Because it is so unique, so untouched and because it is the least visited, it is a gem to those who know of it. There are many people who return because of the community they feel when living "island life": you're uninhibited in the most unexpected ways, while also limited in other ways, too. Plus, Isle Royale has a lot to offer all different kinds of people: you can experience a rugged and unrelenting wilderness in the backwoods, or you can relax in quiet solitude. 


S.P. & J.I. The park is open only from May-September each year. That's a short season. Is there a time that you think is the best on the island?

M.A. I’m going to break this one down for each kind of visitor:

Lodge Guests: I am biased because I think the whole season is a good time to stay at the lodge. July and August are usually a lot warmer (especially by August) and the weather seems to stabilize to summer, at least for a little bit. By that time the lake has warmed up (keep in mind it’s still Lake Superior, so by warmed up, I mean it’s not going to put you in a complete shock should you jump in!). All the summer foliage has grown in, and the berries are ripe. The downside of this time is that the bugs are usually rampant; however, if you’re staying in the lodge, you’re on the water just enough to allow the breeze to blow them away and allow you some relief. This also seems to be a good time of the summer for the Northern Lights.

Backpackers: May, June, and September. These months are a little cooler, which makes a long hike just a little more enjoyable as you won’t be dying of heat along the Greenstone or Minong Ridges. The bugs aren’t as bad, and the campsites aren’t as crowded. 

Boaters: July and August. The water is perfect for fishing this time of year at the surface, and it’s not too warm so even if you’re just fishing from a canoe, you should have pretty good luck. The weather usually holds pretty well during this time of year as well. 


S.P. & J.I. There are several routes to get there from both Michigan and Minnesota. Can you outline them quickly with a few thoughts on what is best for what kind of traveler?

M.A. One thing to keep in mind is that each boat comes and goes on different days, and some have different schedules depending on peak season, so when planning a trip to Isle Royale, you really have to be flexible with your days as you decide which transportation line fits best with your comfort, budget, timeline, and purpose. 

Ranger III, Houghton, MI.- Comes to Isle Royale Tuesdays and Fridays, and returns to mainland the following day on Wednesday and Saturdays. The boat ride is six hours. This is a smooth boat ride (weather permitting!), it gives you plenty of rest before your big trip, and on the return trip you get back to mainland at 3 p.m., which gives you a great start to your next adventure!

Isle Royale Queen IV, Copper Harbor, MI.- Comes to Isle Royale different days during week, during different times of the day. This is the fastest boat to Rock Harbor at just three hours one way. This boat schedule offers a little bit more flexibility to every visitor, as it eventually runs every day during peak season. This is great for backpackers, people who just want to stay a couple nights and those who only have time to visit Isle Royale for the day. Their complete schedule is posted on their website.

Voyageur II & Sea Hunter, Grand Portage, Minnesota- The Voyageur II is a great boat to see the whole island as it circumnavigates Isle Royale. On Monday, Wednesdays, and Saturdays the Voyageur II departs Grand Portage, makes a quick stop at Windigo, then takes the north shore of the island to Rock Harbor, making a couple stops along the way. It overnights in Rock Harbor, then takes the south shore back to Windigo for another quick stop and then back to Grand Portage. It is about a 6 hour boat ride, but it like I said before, it’s a great way to see the whole island, especially if you plan on coming from Minnesota’s side. The Sea Hunter makes trips to Windigo only. 

Isle Royale Seaplanes, Houghton, MI.- The seaplane is such a great way to arrive at Isle Royale: not only does it take a fraction of the time (about 45 minutes) but the views from above are amazing. It will really add to your perspective to how big and beautiful not only Isle Royale is but Lake Superior as well. 

Our ride to Isle Royale with Isle Royale Seaplanes.

Our ride to Isle Royale with Isle Royale Seaplanes.

I would like to emphasize here that all the towns where these ferries come from are such unique places with great people and each have a lot to offer for your trip too, so don’t be in such a hurry to and from the area!  I would also like to say that the transportation lines play a huge part in our operation at the lodge, and if they didn’t do their jobs so well, we wouldn’t be in business. I cannot recommend one over the other because they all have the best captains (and pilots) and crew to navigate Lake Superior so well on even the worst days. 


S.P. & J.I. Isle Royale is one of the more expensive national parks to travel to. This is a two-parter: why is it so expensive, and how can guests save a little money while on the island?

M.A. As you know well, Isle Royale isn’t an easy park to get to, and it takes a lot of planning. This is true not only for your visit but also the operation on such a remote place. Think about the journey you had to make to get there; that is what it takes to acquire every single item we use to provide service to our guests, including the price it takes to power the island with electricity and to provide water. 

One way to save money, especially for families, is to rent a housekeeping cabin (each unit sleeps up to 6), and bring food during your stay. The cabins have a small kitchen unit, with a stove top, microwave, and refrigerator. Bring a cooler full of food that you can refresh with ice from the store to keep in your cabin, and bring any canoes or kayaks your family owns. Of course, the lodge has two restaurants we welcome all park visitors to, as well as a marina that has canoes and kayaks to rent as well. Proper planning can really stretch your dollar. 

Exterior of a Housekeeping Cabin at the Rock Harbor Lodge in Isle Royale.


S.P. & J.I. This is an unusual national park in terms that guests, in some cases, interface with you before they do with the National Park Service. Do you have any advice for visitors to help them start planning their adventure as soon as they arrive (that is, if they miss a visit to the park Visitor Center)?

M.A. The lodge really does have a lot to offer guests whether they are backpacking or staying with us. My suggestion before they even leave is to check out our website, rockharborlodge.com and view the tour boat schedule, the water taxis and fishing charters we have available for guests. My favorite suggestion to lodge guests is to order a sack lunch from the Greenstone Grill, arrange a water taxi in the Lodge Office to go to Daisy Farm, and hike the seven miles back. Along the way back to Rock Harbor, you can hike up to the Mount Ojibway tower and Mount Franklin; the views of Canada and the North Shore of the island from those spots are amazing. For backpackers who are just getting off the boat, a water taxi soon after you arrive to the island is a good way to get a head start and get first pick on campsites with a chance to see the island in a different way as you cruise around the island. The lodge also has canoes to rent for those adventurous and ambitious enough to portage around the island. Even if you aren’t as ambitious to carry a canoe on the rugged trails, our water taxis can transport canoes or kayaks, so we can drop you off for a few days to camp so you can paddle around the north or south shore, and then we can pick you back up at an arranged spot and time. One thing many people don’t realize they can do is transport their private boats (up to 22 feet) on the Ranger III, from Houghton, MI. Pack some food, pack your boat, rent a housekeeping cabin, and spend the week at your leisure fishing or sightseeing, in a warm cabin with a view to cook that day's catch. One other suggestion is to just ask. I can’t promise that everyone you ask will have all the answers you need, but you can’t live on Isle Royale without enjoying it yourself. Almost every employee, new or old has their favorite spot, or thing to do. 


S.P. & J.I. We stayed up all night on several occasions trying to capture photos of the Northern Lights. How often do you have opportunities to see them in a season?

M.A. This season, and the past couple for some reason, have been incredible seasons to view the Northern Lights. It’s the brave and the patient ones who get to see them. They normally come out are 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. If the prediction is high I’ll set my alarm for 3 a.m. and look out my window; if the sky is clear of clouds, and the moon is at a crest, I’ll make the journey to Tobin Harbor to catch a glimpse. Even if the lights aren’t out, I would suggest to every park visitor to set their alarm to get up in the middle of the night at least one night of their stay to just enjoy Isle Royale and all it has to offer at every hour. Those nights where the sky is packed full of stars, the water is so clear the reflection of the stars is hard to distinguish at the horizon line, with loons crying in the distance are my favorite. Even if the stars aren’t out very much or a storm is blowing in, I still think it’s nice to walk around and listen to the waves crash on the rocks, to the wind howl. On foggy nights you can hear a freighter's fog horns in the distance. Every night on Isle Royale has just as much to offer to your experience as the day time does. One thing I do every night before I go to bed is look across the big lake for the opposing lighthouse lights flashing in the night. The more lights you see, the better the next day will be. 

The Aurora Borealis glow over the northwest side of the island in 2016.  


S.P. & J.I. It stays light so late there, in May, sunset was at 10pm or later. What are the beauties if that, and what are the faults?

M.A. Coming from someone who works 8+ hours a day, having the sunset at near 10 p.m. makes the day seem twice as long. It’s like having two days in one. I think it’s great. I can put in a full day's worth of work, and still have plenty of daylight to go for a hike, pick berries, sun bathe, kayak, etc. My favorite part is being able to do all those things and still hop in a boat and throw some lines in the water while watching the sunset. 

As told by a 20 year old, I don’t see many faults in that… But I know a lot of our guests are a bit older, and may want to enjoy the sunset, or even the stars, without having to stay up super late. 


S.P. & J.I. You know this island like the back of your hand. This is a funny question because 99.9% of the island is wilderness, but are there any off-the-beaten trail locations that you are willing to share?


It’s not a matter of if I’m willing to share, it’s more of a matter of trying to explain how to get there. It’s also a funny question too because Isle Royale is the least visit National Park, so all the trails are hardly worn. Hiking Isle Royale is incredible because in some parts of the summer you can go hiking for miles without seeing anyone.


S.P. & J.I. Your boat captains are simply amazing. Their knowledge and decisiveness made us feel incredibly safe while exploring (sometimes) rough waters. You are becoming a sea captain as well—can you share your thoughts about what it takes to navigate the waters of Lake Superior?

M.A. I am not becoming a captain; I am a captain as of March 2016! You asked offline about what it was like growing up with a large collective of mostly males, and I have them in large part to thank. I was once called the “captain’s apprentice” after I successfully captained a fishing charter where we caught 12 Lake Trout—one being over 20 pounds. Of course, I have a lot to learn and I owe much of my knowledge to all those “males” who took the time to teach me all that it takes to be a captain on Lake Superior. The waters around Isle Royale, and Lake Superior in general, are not easy to navigate, especially when the winds pick up, when the fog rolls in, and when the risk of a freighter in the vicinity looms over you. It takes a lot of patience and understanding of the nature of the lake and Isle Royale’s rocky reefs and shoreline. You have to pay close attention to all of your resources, what you can see, your GPS, your depth finder, and your radar. I, along with every captain on Lake Superior, have plenty of stories of when times got a little hairy, but you also have to keep calm, and take things slow. 


S.P. & J.I. Can you share with us a little of your background, and how you came to know Isle Royale so well? 

M.A. Isle Royale is my second home. My dad is the General Manager of Rock Harbor Lodge and has been for the last 25 years. I have spent the entirety of my every summer on Isle Royal; it would be hard to not know "the island" (as it is affectionately referred to by my family) by now. Isle Royale was the best backyard to share with my big brother and sister. That’s the most rewarding part about growing up on Isle Royale to me. They are the reason I know so much about the island-- true partners in crime. We seldom had babysitters who wanted to return to watch three adventurous kids on a rocky island. I think I was 8 when my parents bought us our first family kayak, and of course we still fight over who gets to use it. When I was 10 we got our very own motorboat (an old outboard boat with a 9.9 horsepower engine). Sometime between those summers I learned how to clean fish. At 14, I started deck handing on fishing charters, and when I was 18, I became a certified scuba diver on Isle Royale. I came to know the island so well because I had a lot of people there to show me and teach me how to enjoy it. 


S.P. & J.I. What was it like to grow up driving boats, exploring abandoned fisheries, and living among a large collective of mostly males on Isle Royale?

M.A. It was pretty exciting, and it still is. There’s so much to explore on Isle Royale that it never gets old. We have been lucky to grow up among a community of people whose families are tied to the island's history: the Gales, the Merritts, the Johnsons, the Mattsons—and others are our island family and I can't imagine our time spent on the island without their presence. Living among a large collection of males was never really something that got in my way; I never even really thought about until recently. Growing up I had such awesome female “island” role models. My sister, for one, taught me how to stand up for myself, especially out there when boy scouts exude their "boys will be boys" arrogance when we hike, camp, and fish. My mom not only balanced raising three kids on a remote island, but she also shoulders a lot of responsibility to the business and provides support to our family; she is such a great mom to us and wife to my dad. My grandmother, who actually worked on the Ranger III for 19 years, not only taught me independence, but she also taught me how to play gin rummy. It was only years later that I found out how great of a poker player she was; people will still ask about her chili recipe. She served a family favorite on that boat all those seasons. The historic culture is unique and a wonderful insight to the region's history, but the cultural presence is still very much alive, and I find it a shame that it is reserved for only male boaters. There are many great stories of many interesting men who lived on the island, but what gets you through the long and lonely summers on Isle Royale is the community of family that isolation creates from many diverse backgrounds and demographics.

The Sandy tied up for the night at the Rock Harbor Lodge. This is your ship-guide around the island, operated by some of the finest captains in the national parks..it's not easy navigating the turbulent waters of Lake Superior! 

You can see Marina and her family running the show each summer at the Rock Harbor Lodge. Just head to the north side of the island, you can’t miss it.

The Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale

Bushwhacking with Rolf Peterson in search of Isle Royale's famed moose!

Isle Royale National Park is home to the longest continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world. There, researchers have documented the lives of the wolves and moose that inhabit the island for more than five decades. From the study website: As predator and prey, their lives and deaths are linked in a drama that is timeless and historic

To learn more, we spent a day in the field with Rolf Peterson, the leading authority on wolves and moose. Not surprisingly, he knew the best place to spot moose and was able to fill us in on some of the details regarding their behaviors.

Rolf Peterson shows us around what is lovingly referred to as "The Boneyard."

This is what Mr. Peterson had to say to some of our burning questions:

Stefanie Payne and Jonathan Irish What kind of research are you conducting in Isle Royale and how has it evolved since you started working there? 

Rolf Peterson – the original objective of the research in 1958 has changed little – to understand the role of the wolf in the Isle Royale ecosystem. There are plenty of ways that it has gotten more detailed and emphasis has shifted from time to time, but the core objective is the same.


S.P. & J.I. What characteristics do wolves and moose have that continue to fascinate you?  

R.P.  Each species is wonderfully adapted to their particular niche, which for wolves means finding and killing vulnerable prey animals, and for moose, avoiding wolves and other predators. Discovering and learning from others about the nuanced ability of predator and prey to live and prosper provides for boundless fascination.

A moose savoring aquatic grasses.

S.P. & J.I. With only two wolves living on the island today, far fewer than what lived there many years ago, the topic of wolf reintroduction is an ongoing debate. As I understand it, you believe that predators of moose (wolves) must exist on the island. Others believe that nature should run its course. Could you share with us some of your thoughts that are more specific as to the benefits of an increased wolf population? 

R.P. Science stretching back decades reveals that wolf predation is essential to maintaining a healthy moose population that lives within the limits of its environment, with further influences on enhancing viability for many other species. It is no more complicated than that. For some wilderness purists, the only thing that seems to matter is that humans pretend to stay out of the picture.


S.P. & J.I. How is it that you came to live and word in the historic Bangsund Cabin and who does it belong to? 

R.P. Use of Bangsund Cabin is provided for in a formal cooperative agreement between the National Park Service (NPS) and Michigan Tech University, an arrangement which formalized the “hand-shake” agreement of the 1960s, 1970s, and much of the 1980s. The cabin is the property of the NPS. 


S.P. & J.I. It's clear that Candy plays an integral role in the wolf/moose research program. If you (or she) wouldn't mind sharing, what are some of the things she is working on?  

R.P. She has finished writing her second book, but she keeps fine-tuning that while figuring out how and where it will be published. Also, she is the “soul” of the research for many park visitors who treasure the time she spends with them. That means over 2,000 visitors this year.


S.P. & J.I. How can people learn more about the study and contribute to further research?

R.P.  They can follow the project on Facebook “Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale” and on our website www.isleroyalewolf.org.


S.P. & J.I. As a professor and author, I'm sure you have some recommended reading about Isle Royale. Care to name a few resources? 

R.P. For those with an interest in wolf-moose research, there is “The Wolves of Isle Royale – A Broken Balance” by yours truly, and “A View from the Wolf’s Eye” by Carolyn Peterson.  Plenty of other titles at www.irkpa.org.

Researchers collect and survey moose antler and skulls as part of the study.

You can meet Rolf and Candy every summer at the Bangsund Cabin near the Edisen Fishery. Ask anyone on the island where to find them and theyll be able to direct you there.

The Centennial Cocktail

The Centennial Cocktail, created by Stefanie Payne and Jonathan Irish to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service on August 25, 2016.

First and most importantly, happiest 100th birthday to the National Park Service (NPS)To commemorate the centennial — which inspired us to hit the road this year in the first place — we put our mixology skills to the test to create a specialty cocktail inspired by the great outdoors. It is called The Centennial Cocktail, a spin on two mixed drinks that were born right here in the USA: the Rickey and the Tom Collins.

The Rickey is typically made with gin (though it was originally made with whiskey), a squeeze of a half a lime which garnishes the bottom of the glass, and a fill of club soda. It was created in Washington DC's first dive bar, called Shoomaker’s  where the National Park Service was formed (in the District, that is, not the bar.)  The Tom Collins is made with gin, sugar, lemon juice, and a soda fill with a cherry garnish. It was designed in 1876 by Jerry Thomas, “the father of American Mixology.”

For The Centennial Cocktail, we went with the original base liquor of the Rickey: whiskey. We like rye, though you could easily substitute bourbon should you choose to. Instead of soda, we opted for hard cider — apple, after all, might as well be our national fruit. Taste-wise, it has the fizz and tartness we were looking for without adding too much acid. Our garnishes a sour cherry, orange twist, and mint leaf represent the berries that feed our wildlife; the penetrating sun that turns the seasons; and all plant and tree life in our nation's wilderness places (respectively.)   

We’d hoped to pour this drink into NPS Centennial glassware, but a bumpy road had other ideas for their longevity. So we’ll make due with these fine plastic tumblers that we found somewhere along the long road to park #38.   

Cheers to all who are celebrating with us today and to the Park Service for helping to protect America’s wild places for a century.  


The Centennial Cocktail

3 oz. American rye whiskey

1.oz hard cider float

2 drops sour cherry juice

Garnishes: sour cherry, orange zest, and mint leaf

Cubed ice

Rocks glass

Pour 3 oz. of whisky into rocks glass, fill with ice. Pour a cider float on top. Add two drops of sour cherry juice. Twist orange zest to release oils, rub on glass rim. Wrap zest around a sour cherry and secure with a toothpick. Add a mint leaf to top and serve.   


P.S. It just occurred to us after the first sip that this is a very potent drink! As always, sip responsibly. 


Copyright © 2016 | The Great American Road Trip | #59in52

100 Years & 100 Adventures

If you or anyone around you ever feels bored, know that there are at least 100 ways to entertain yourself in America’s National Parks  we can prove it. Outlined below is a small snapshot of experiences we've had in our parks this year ... 100 of them in honor of the centennial anniversary of the Park Service ... just a pinky-toe dip in an ocean of wilderness!

Celebrate 100 years of National Parks in America by sharing a story from them that is meaningful to you on FindYourPark.org and don't forget to tag #FindYourPark on social media. 

A sample of 100 experiences we've had in 37 national parks this year...ordered below as can be seen line by line, left to right. 

1.    Gear up and go for a hike

2.   Gaze at the moon

3.   Come face to face with American wildlife

4.   Go birding!

5.    Kayak through canyons

6.    Drive through a mountain

7.    Share a moment

8.    Find your solitude

9.    Snap a photo

10.  Goof off

11.   Play in sand dunes beneath pink sky

12.   Encounter unusual installation art

13.   Find your relaxness

14.   Ride a mule

15.   Enter the underworld

16.   Share a picnic

17.    See a rare spring superbloom

18.    Learn about mysterious scientific phenomena

19.   See the world’s oldest living thing, the Bristlecone pine tree!

20.   Capture the perfect shot

21.     Stand upon a dried up ancient lake bed

22.    Hike through waterfalls

23.   Walk to the bottom of the grandest of canyons

24.   Create visual art

25.    Experience historic hot springs

26.   Climb to the states’ highest rooftops

27.     Tackle a monster trail

28.    Walk through a covered bridge

29.    Celebrate amazing geology

30.    Go fishing in the river

31.      Kayak through mangrove trees

32.     Laugh

33.     Relive old memories

34.     Create new memories

35.      Fly a kite

36.      Seek the unusual

37.       Go exploring in the world’s largest cave system

38.      See things in a new way

39.      Sit in a meadow

40.     Relax on the water

41.       Jump through the air

42.     Catch the rare Yosemite moonbow

43.     Greet the sunrise

44.     Go for a drive

45.     Come together

46.     Capture star trails

47.      Try out new gear

48.   Hop on a boat with the NPS

49.     Compose a moment

50.     Pack up your pals and go for a walk

51.       Drive into the clouds

52.      See the milky way galaxy

53.      Learn about native American history

54.      Build a snowperson

55.       See petroglyphs

56.       Sit in the surf

57.        Witness iconic places

58.       Eat a great local meal

59.       Go ice climbing

60.       Learn from a National Park Service ranger

61.        See 225-year-old petrified wood

62.       Hike to iced-over waterfalls

63.       Wander through ancient cyprus forests

64.      Go crabbing

65.       Camp on the beach

66.       Look at the stars

67.        Explore waterfalls

68.       Photograph wildlife

69.       Make something

70.       Watch the sea

71.         Fish for halibut

72.        Drive the great roads

73.        Stand up paddle in icy fjords

74.        Build a campfire

75.       Paddle on a mirrored lake

76.       Learn your outdoor gear

77.        Cross something off of your bucket list

78.        Fly in a sea place

79.       Shrink beneath the giant sequoia trees

80.      Walk in the woods

81.     Sit on the side of a mountain with wildflowers

82.       Let wildlife take your breath away in the best possible way

83.       Explore the oceans

84.       Canoe epic waterways

85.       Read inspiring books

86.       Capture quiet moments

87.        Cross foot bridges

88.        Backpack the High Sierras

89.        Explore by way of houseboat

90.       Sleep in the wilderness

91.         Drive through a tree

92.        Stand on historic Route 66

93.       Travel by bush plane

94.       Step onto the beach

95.       Take in the sunset

96.    Ride bikes with your posse

97.       Watch the sunset in the American southwest

98.      Climb a rock, THE rock

99.      Jump for joy

100.  #FindYourPark