Boating on Lake Superior

By Marty Richardson
Published: April/May 2013

Adventurous boaters can find a remote paradise on Michigan's Isle Royale.

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

— from The Song of Hiawatha,
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

During our 2012 circumnavigation of Lake Superior, while we were at anchor, we read aloud from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic 1855 poem, "Song of Hiawatha." This set the stage for our two-week sojourn at Isle Royale, which proved to be a highlight of our Superior cruise. Longfellow's Hiawatha (based loosely on Native American traditions) lives, falls in love, and fights mythological beasts on the lake before sailing his dugout canoe off into the sunset.

Hiawatha was an immediate hit when it was first printed, and while it lives today mainly in the memories of embittered former schoolchildren, it does capture the romantic spirit of the era and of its setting. We could picture the original inhabitants in their long canoes, or cheemaun, journeying on the Gitche Gumee to Isle Royale more than 4,000 years ago. Its parallel rocky ridges shelter inland lakes, long narrow channels, protected bays, and deep secure anchorages.

Photo of the restored Edison family fishery on Isle Royale Photo: Marty Richardson

The restored Edison family fishery on Isle Royale.

Isle Royale, about 15 miles from the Canadian and Minnesota shores, is accessible only by boat or seaplane. Though it's much closer to Ontario and Minnesota, Isle Royale lies within Michigan's borders. The island has the distinction of being one of the least visited of all the National Parks. Most days we saw fewer than a dozen people, and enjoyed the solitude aboard Monarch, our 52-foot Halvorsen raised-pilothouse trawler.

Washington Harbor is the southwestern gateway to Isle Royale. A large dock marks Windigo Ranger Station, named for the legend of the cannibalistic evil spirit Anishinaabe that Hiawatha was exhorted to fight — "Slay all the monsters and magicians, all the Wendigoes, the giants ..." —, said to possess the native peoples during times of winter starvation. At Windigo's beautiful visitors' center, we perused the displays, including the original second-order Fresnel lens from the Rock of Ages Light marking the southwestern tip of the island.

With his magic deerskin moccasins, Hiawatha would've covered Isle Royale in about 45 steps — "at each stride a mile he measured" — but on this trip, our preference was for the convenient park docks and protected anchorages, each less than a day's cruise apart. At the northeastern end is Rock Harbor, featuring the island's only commercial marina and non-camping accommodations.

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Online Extra symbol Online Extra!

To read more about the things to see and do in the Lake Superior region, check this online feature "Tips From The Great Lakes Cruising Club: Lake Superior".


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