Boating on Lake Superior

By Marty Richardson

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

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 RoyaleThe restored Edison family fishery on Isle Royale. (Photo: Marty Richardson)

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.

If you want to tour the island the way Hiawatha did, Isle Royale is a natural paradise for canoes and kayakers. These boaters occupy campsites adjacent to the docks, and the park has 244 campsites dispersed among 36 campgrounds. Each summer, hundreds of backpackers hike the island's 165 miles of well-marked trails. Canoers and kayakers portage from one inland lake to another, or on the rare days when Superior is calm, venture along the outer shore.

Isle Royale's boreal forests of paper birch and balsam sustain more than 700 different species of plant life, and wildlife abounds here. We spotted a cow moose and two calves from Monarch's aft deck while we were docked at Windigo Harbor. Moose arrived early in the last century, probably swimming from Ontario, and with no natural predators, they grew to alarming numbers, nearly deforesting the island. In the 1940s, wolves crossed to the island on winter lake ice, and proved to be the predators the moose population needed. Since then, they've performed an intricate biological balancing act, the longest continuously studied predator-prey system in the world.

Otters frolic in the water — we watched one play next to the boat one afternoon after a hike near Moskey Basin — and foxes have been known to board docked boats and steal shiny objects and sweat-flavored hiking boots. The island is also home to 100 nesting pairs of loons — we saw flocks of 10 or more of the normally solitary creatures swimming together throughout our visit and were serenaded by their haunting cries.

Most of the docks provide easy access to hiking, and if the romantic folklore of Longfellow wears thin, there's plenty of real history to check out. It's a short dinghy ride from the dock at Caribou Island to a restored family fishery, and beyond that, the Rock Harbor Lighthouse serves as a museum, with historic photos and shipwreck memorabilia, and a panoramic view of the harbor from atop the lighthouse.

Bronze age visitors left their mark on the island as well. Beginning some 4,500 years ago — the island served the native peoples of Minnesota and Ontario, who traveled there to dig for copper with stone tools. Early mining pits can still be seen near a natural, water-carved arch near Belle Isle and McCargoe Cove. The early travelers used the island for hunting and fishing as well, arriving just as we did, in boats, from the shores of the Gitche Gumee, "by the shining Big-Sea-Water." 

Marty Richardson and her husband Jerry have logged nearly 12,000 miles on their 52-foot trawler Monarch since buying it in 2007. Their travels have ranged from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and they make their home in the Detroit area.


Superior Charters, Bayfield, Wisconsin, 83 nautical miles from Isle Royale. Bareboat and captained charters.

— Published: April/May 2013

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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