Ok, well maybe Isle Royale is tied for number 1 with Rocky Mountain National Park. However, Isle Royale has been on my mind lately since researchers on the island are being featured on the New York Times blog “Scientist at Work: Notes from the Field”. The research on predator-prey interactions that occurs on the island during the winter is pretty awesome but I will let you read about that yourself if you are interested. Instead I am going to use this post to give a little background about Isle Royale National Park and some of the things that make it awesome (including one of my most amazing experience in a National Park).
Isle Royale National Park is pretty remote; it is part of Michigan but is located in the middle of Lake Superior. At some of the highest points on the island you can actually see Thunder Bay, Canada. Because of the remoteness of the island, the National Park can only be accessed using personal boat, sea plane, or chartered ferry. Isle Royale has a rich cultural history including mining, commercial fishing, and commercial recreation. Isle Royale became a National Park in 1940 and most of the park (over 90%) is now designated wilderness. There are no roads on the island, only hiking trails and paved walkways. The most popular recreational activities that occur on the island today are hiking, backpacking, fishing, camping, non-motorized, and motorized boating.
It is pretty difficult from a logistical standpoint, and also expensive, to access Isle Royale National Park. Due to the isolation of the island, very few visitors come to Isle Royale each year but those who do usually stay for multiple days. Isle Royale has received a total of 964,575 visitors since it’s designation in 1940 (that’s 1/3 of the number of visitors that come Rocky Mountain National Park each year!). Last year, the park received approximately 16,000 visitors. Despite the fact that the park is relatively small (45 miles across and 9 miles wide), the low visitation numbers, and the wilderness character of the park means that it is an excellent place to find solitude.
Isle Royale contains some pretty awesome charismatic megafauna. The park is home to a large population of moose who swam to the island in the early 1900s and lived there happily eating themselves out of house and home until the the 1940s. Sometime during a winter in the late 1940s, a few wolves decided to cross the ice of Lake Superior and establish themselves on the island. Lucky for them there was a delicious population of moose to feast upon. Soon after the wolf establishment, one of the longest predator-prey studies began and has been continuing for the last 50 years. The park is also home to a variety of awesome birds as well; including loons, a variety of grebes, and many raptors. The fox found on the island are also ridiculously tame, having become habituated to people, and have a reputation of being a bit of a menace – stealing water bottles, begging for food, and snatching hikers boots when they are not looking.
So why is Isle Royale one of my favorite national parks?
The naturalness of the place, the low visitor load, and the amazing wildlife combines to lead to some pretty sublime wilderness experiences. During my time living in northern Wisconsin I was lucky enough to visit Isle Royale National Park twice, both for weekish long backpacking trips. The first trip was moose, wolf, and almost people free. Although I was sad to not see my favorite large ungulate, the quiteness and solitude I experienced on the island was profound.
On my second trip I saw 6 moose (!!), observed an osprey carrying prey, fell asleep to loons every night, and saw one of the most amazing predator-prey interactions ever. One evening after setting up camp on the shore of a lake in a remote, inner part of the island, I was brushing my teeth at camp when I heard a loud splash! To my surprise a large female moose was swimming from a bit of land across the lake right at my camp! She diverted off at the last second and ran frantically into the woods just next to the tent. I was a bit shaken that a moose was pretty much charging right for me but did not have much time to process what had happened before I heard a series of splashes emanating from across the lake. I looked across to the water and a moose and, what I thought was a set of triplet calves, were swimming in the lake now too. My first thought was “awesome! moose triplets are super rare!”
Then I noticed that the cow moose was acting really peculiar. One calf was swimming right with her but she kept going back and swimming at the other two “calves” behind her in a fit of splashing. My hiking companion pulled out some binoculars and after a closer inspection we realized that what we were watching was not a moose taking a leisurely swim across the lake with her offspring but a moose and calf being pursued in the water by a pair of wolves! The cow moose was swimming back at the wolves while her calf was desperately trying to make it to shore on the other side of the lake. A third wolf was waiting back on shore for it’s pack mates. After a few minutes the wolves must have decided that swimming after prey was a bad idea and turned around and returned to their starting shore. The mother and calf made it safely to the other side of the lake and ran off into the woods.
I reported the experience to the National Park Service office after finishing our backpack as is required anytime a visitor sees wolves. I learned later, after reading a couple of books about the moose and wolf studies on Isle Royale, that wolves will only pursue moose into water during desperate times. Moose are pretty much Olympic swimmers compared to wolves and the energy expenditure is just not worth the risk of a failed hunt. The last time that wolves had actually been observed pursing moose into water and swimming after them was during the 1980s when moose populations were low and the wolf population had exploded. The year that I was visiting Isle Royale the same scenario was playing out and the wolf population was growing and packs were struggling over territory.
I have had many awesome experiences in National Parks over the years, but my experiences on Isle Royale are some of my favorites. I highly recommend it as a park to visit if you ever find yourself in northern Michigan, Wisconsin, or Minnesota. The ferry ride is a bit pricey but the memories you will create on the island are well worth the money.