Isle Royale National Park by SUP
A Trip report from the summer of 2018 by Down Wind Sports Owner Bill Thompson
One of the most magical places in the Upper Peninsula sits 60 miles off shore in the western portion of Lake Superior. Isle Royale, is an isolated wilderness island surrounded by the magical cold waters of the worlds greatest fresh water lake. Due to its location, it is the least visited park in the National Park system, making it the perfect getaway for those seeking solitude and these days who doesn’t want that!
Having backpacked the park for decades we made the decision to try and go a bit more remote and take our stand up paddle boards out which would enable us to access the surrounding island campsites. Composed of the main island that stretches close to sixty miles and the 400 smaller islands, there is plenty of protected water to explore. A Stand Up Board is the perfect vehicle to experience the beauty of this pristine water.
We boarded the Isle Royale Ranger in Houghton and headed out the canal towards the open water of Superior. Fellow passengers on the Ranger were intrigued on why we would venture out on boards and asked- why stand up boards? The easy answer is that strapping everything on our decks frees us up to move around, jump in the water, fish and basically have fun while still traveling and making progress towards our goal. The more complicated answer is that visually, with the clarity of Lake Superior you are able to see so much more of the interesting lake bottom!
We were fortunate that the seas were calm and the six hour crossing was passed by snacking, napping and heading out on deck to enjoy the cool breeze. The anticipation of getting to the island really starts to kick in when the island first pops up on the horizon. Thoughts of paddling among the islands, star gazing at night and the haunting calls of the loons had us ready to finally get off the boat!
Unloading the boards at Rock Harbor, we easily took to the water with everything we needed for a seven day expedition. With backpacking you are watching every ounce, cutting weight and leaving all of the extras at home. With SUP camping we were able to bring all of the extras and then some which is why paddleboard touring is becoming increasingly more popular.
After strapping the dry bags to the deck, we made a quick crossing to Tookers Island to set up camp for the evening. We had the small island to ourselves and cooked a delicious smoked oyster pasta while Lake Superior waves lapped at our feet. Our plan was to paddle the protected waters of the Rock Harbor Channel while exploring the shorelines of Outer Hill, Mott, and West Caribou Islands. Keeping an ever watchful eye out for moose and waterfall we casually paddled throughout the next day eventually making it down to one of our favorite campsites at Moskey Basin.
Years ago I took a canoeing course at Northern Michigan University and I immediately fell in love with the graceful movement over water. The peacefulness of being on the water, the efficiency of the paddling strokes, the sound of the water dripping off the blade onto a perfectly smooth water surface solidified my decision to paddle. Several wilderness canoe trips to two beautiful waterways, Sylvania Wilderness and The Boundary Waters had me hooked bad. Like many paddlers I eventually gravitated towards the big lake and sea kayaking took most of my water time and my canoe paddle began to gather some dust. With the advent of Stand Up Paddling I was thrust right back to my canoeing roots and now with each forward stroke I am reminded of my love of the single blade paddle and the opportunity to share that passion with my son.
There is defiantly something to be said for traveling at a slow pace. Our days were spent exploring different coves and inlets traveling at a relaxing pace absorbing the sights and sounds of this magical place. Our boards allowed us to travel slow, but longer distances due to their efficiency in the water. Our nights were spent cooking fabulous meals, watching sunsets and moon rises while waiting for our loon friends to start their calls ushering in the night. I really enjoy expeditions out to the island, paddling the quiet undisturbed waters of Lake Superior, laying on the rocks listening to the water lapping at our feet and star gazing the dark skies above.
On our return trip to Rock Harbor we had to pass close by the moose and wolf research cabin to see if Candy and Ralph Peterson might be home. Rolf Peterson began leading the wolf moose project in the early 1970s and is a world authority on the wolves and moose predator prey relationship.
Fifteen years prior we were kayaking with Blake when he was a 4 year old and Candy waived us ashore to show us around their cabin and talk about the research they do with the Moose and Wolf populations. Behind the 1930’s cabin is a fascinating “moose graveyard” housing thousands of moose sheds and skulls. For a 4 year old it was magical place to explore and play.
The first visit years ago ended with some delicious brownies and I was hoping we might be able to score some of those incredible sweets again! Sure enough, as we paddled past their dock Candy came out waiving and I paddled up and said “Candy we have a connection”. I told her the story of the brownies 15 years ago and now Blake is 19 years old and she laughed and invited us in!
Isle Royale is a magical place. It’s solitude, wildlife and cultural history draws people in and captures them in its grip and on that long boat ride home to Houghton I am positive many passengers were beginning to think about their next trip to the island, I know I was.
At Down Wind Sports we take pride in being your go to site for beta on Isle Royale Park. Planning a trip to the island? We have you covered for all the gear, maps, guidebooks, moose viewing areas and our favorite campsites!
Isle Royale was just named as “Best of the World 2021” by the prestigious National Geographic magazine. “Ahead of a new year—with the promise of a return to travel—we are eager to share these 25 timely tales of timeless places that will define our future itineraries”. National Geographic describes the island as “a best-kept secret of a national park” and “edge-of-nowhere remote. The isolation and solitude mainly beckon seasoned backpackers, kayakers, and canoeists who arrive equipped to navigate Isle Royale’s roadless backcountry and inland lake paddling route, Chain of Lakes.”