Categories: CampingDestinations

Hoof and Howl

Hipcamp is officially live in the Great Lakes region (OH, IN, IL, MN, and MI)! To coincide with the launch, we’re highlighting Voyagers in the corresponding states to see what’s up in their neck of the woods. If this post inspires you to get outside, check out our Wander The Water giveaway, running from 6/16/15-6/30/15 to win a boat camping trip, inflatable SUP, and $2k in outdoor gear!

This post was written by Hipcamp Voyager, Joe Whitson about the majestic Isle Royale National Park.

I lay wide-awake, quietly listening to the sounds of the night—the soft buzz of mosquitoes, the haunting wail of a loon, the soft swish of the wind blowing through the canopy of pines above—but the sound I was listening for still eluded me, that true song of the north that can now be found in so few places, the heart stopping howl of a timber wolf.

Our tent was perched on the edge of Siskiwit Lake, a 5000 acre lake with its own set of river tributaries that happens to be on an island situated in a lake of its own. Isle Royale, the third largest island in the contiguous United States, is in the middle of Lake Superior. The national park contains the 50-mile long island as well as about 45 smaller island around (and within) it and is one of the least accessible in the system with just a few small ferry ports in Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan serving it. Although it really isn’t that far from civilization, Isle Royale feel more isolated than anywhere else I’ve been.

It was this remoteness, the lack of noise and crowds, that drew my dad, brother, and me to the park on a long weekend in July. We planned to hike 35 miles across the island in three days—an easy task for experienced hikers, but ambitious for relative novices like ourselves—with the goals of experiencing wild places and, of course, catching sight of Isle Royale’s two most famous residents, its moose and wolves.

Many people see the park not by foot, but by kayak, camping on some of the smaller islands, day hiking, and checking out some of the lighthouses or old copper mines. With ten major shipwrecks throughout the park, scuba diving is becoming a popular activity. If you plan to go on your own, make sure you get a scuba permit. And be aware that Lake Superior is very cold (usually 35-50º F) and shipwrecks can be dangerous and challenging underwater terrain, so even if you are an experienced diver, consider going with a local outfitter. But hiking allowed us the best chance to see the wildlife, so we strapped on our packs, laced up our boots, and headed to the island.

Taking the Ferry from Grand Portage, Minnesota, we arrived at the port of Windigo where we took the Greenstone Ridge Trail straight across the center of the island. While this route missed the sights of the shoreline, it offers a more diverse landscape and some awesome views from atop of the ridge. The trail took us through fairytale like birch groves, bogs filled with rare orchids, along interior lakes, and up to the treeless greenstone ridge itself. It felt like walking through a garden, every plant and rock seemed carefully placed for our aesthetic appreciation, but after two days to exploring nature firmly attached to the earth, we were anxious to see the much-lauded wildlife. We had followed signs the entire trail—wolf prints in the mud, moose scat on the bottom of our boots—but not a large animal to be seen.

The moose and wolves of Isle Royale are subject of the country’s longest running ecological study, observing the predator/prey relationship of the two species in a environment with no other large predators, like cougars or bears, and no other large prey, like deer. A few years ago, a tourist illegally brought their dog to the island where it spread a devastating disease to the wolf pack, drastically reducing the number. The next year, moose were so numerous that they over grazed their resources and also perished in large numbers. We had arrived at an unfortunate time when both species were at record lows and the chance of seeing one was slim, but we maintained hope nonetheless.

It was the last night of our trip and although we had seen a hundred sights to fill the soul, there was still an air of disappointment at not having seen the iconic island animals. We were prepped to catch the ferry home from Daisy Farm in the morning and I lay in my tent listening to the night, letting my mind drift over the memories of our hike. And then as I was finally falling asleep I heard it, a deep siren in the distance, and then another, a small chorus of howls to send us off.

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