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.
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.
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.
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.
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.