Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Isle Royale- The Aftermath

So, I went to Isle Royale, have been home for three weeks, and the crickets chirp louder than ever here at FR. You're thinking "What gives?".

Well, I've been buried in work, visitors, and feeling a little burned out. A little not a lot. It's more like needing to digest such a trip. Isle Royale is not your ordinary destination, no. It was almost disturbing to visit a part of my state so far removed from daily experience, kind of like discovering Molokai had been plunked down in a reservoir in Nebraska- it was mind boggling.

It was particularly jarring to find my own personal Shangri-La so close to home. IRNP combines so many of my loves- wilderness, kayaking, history, long coves, numerous islands to explore, wolves, brook trout, a reasonably good restaurant, arduous travel, hiking, geography, people watching, and discovery.

at home, in my element. Brett Watson photo

We got to Isle Royale at about noon Saturday, went through the required orientation and made our way to our cabin. We were immediately blown away. We had this picture perfect view of Tobin Harbor below our cabin. We quickly dropped our gear as the sound of a float plane approached. Two of our team members were due on the plane, and we wanted to see them drop in.

We made it to the dock as they taxied in and helped them unload. As we stood there exchanging high-fives and talking we happened to look into the water and spot brook trout- very large brook trout- swimming below us. I counted seven fish in the 20 inch range chasing minnows underneath our feet and snapped a couple of pictures. We hurried up to our cabin and strung our rods.

we came so far....

I got down to the dock in time to find that Bob Miller had already landed a 20 incher on a clouser minnow he had tied. I took a couple of shots then started fishing. Bob caught another smaller fish which I also photographed. We all stood there on the float plane dock casting. On my tenth cast give or take, a fish came out from under the dock and nailed my Madonna streamer. This one was also in the 20-inch range and very thick and heavy.

for this

The fish soon cleared out, and we had not yet settled into our cabin. We still had luggage on the ferry dock to retrieve. So we made our way back to the cabin, put our rods away and made our way to retrieve our kayaks from the ferry dock. As soon as we got there we spotted them- six coasters swimming on the sheltered side of the dock. We could hardly believe our eyes- this was going to be too easy. We carried the boats over to Tobin Harbor, got our personal effects a little more settled, then carried our rods back down to the dock. I paddled out to the nearest island, beached the boat and started casting. We fished the rest of the afternoon with no results. Later that evening Brett Watson caught an 18 inch fish. It would be the last of our trip.

From here out the fishing got very tough. On Sunday and Monday we beat Tobin Harbor to a froth. On Sunday the barometer was all over the place. We paddled first to the western islands in the harbor, stopping to cast at every point, rock and reef. While fishing alone a Coaster swam up to my feet to look at my fly while I was busy scanning more distant waters. When I gave my fly a twitch it took off, the last Coaster we would see on the trip.

Tobin Harbor mit coffee

What happened? We can speculate all we want about the barometer, about the influx of bait fish including smelt which were being busted on the surface, or about the ill-effects of early success. To be honest, the Great Lakes are like that- you can have bounty one minute, and empty water the next. It's a big place surrounded by big deep water. As it was we were graced by a few lovely fish, our assurance that Coasters still exist. The season for Coasters ended Monday (Coasters are catch and release only) and so on Tuesday, our last day of fishing, we moved our kayaks over to Rock Harbor where it's possible to catch coho salmon, lake trout and steelhead from shore.

Brett Watson working the shoreline
We didn't catch any of those either. Chris Reister had a big laker chase his fly to the dock several times. Brett Watson and I paddled our kayaks around Rock casting our hearts out, but I soon tired of this. Isle Royale is a big place, and I felt I had not seen enough, that I would be cheated if I didn't at least explore a little, and so I paddled out into the clearing fog all the way to the Rock Harbor light, nearly 8 miles away. For me it was the most magical experience of the trip, better still than catching a Coaster. I felt as if I was able to catch a small glimpse of this park. I spent the day alone exploring the coast, paddling between the islands, photographing the lighthouse even as I was uncertain of the time, of the great swells rolling in off of mighty Lake Superior, or the distance back to the harbor. I have written a story about this trip; look for it in thebackcountryjournal.net any day now.

Isle Royale paddler

Conclusions? Well, we weren't there long enough to get a good measure of the plight of Coasters. If our early success was an indication Coasters are doing quite well. Their subsequent disappearing act speaks not just to their enigma, but to that of Superior as well, a mysterious fish in a mysterious lake. When you float out over that blue-green water, the rocks far below you receding into darkness, it is hard not to have a shiver run down your spine. Never mind the universe, or even this planet, we are small and inconsequential on this Great Lake. Let's hope we are inconsequential to the fish as well.

my view, before the fog closed back in

Our last day, Wednesday, was all about making the ferry on time for its 9 A.M. departure. It rolled out under heavy skies. We made the stop at the park headquarters at Mott Island before making the narrow passage past the Rock Harbor light, my destination of the previous day. The distant roar of surf and the rising pitch of the ferry announced squall weather on the open lake. I interviewed a park employee as we left the island under dark clouds, a stiff breeze and spitting rain. Before we reached the inland passage back to Houghton four hours later, the waves were big enough to make walking difficult, and several broke above the second level of the boat, sloshing water down the decks and sending all but the bravest passengers inside.

I'll go back. I'll go back, but I won't stay at the lodge. I'll bring my kayak, paddle from point to point, stay at the campgrounds, do day hikes to points of interest, or just to work out the kinks in my legs from being cramped in a kayak. I'll go for at least ten days. Isle Royale is a beautiful and memorable place I have barely touched or seen. Sure I'll fish it again, but it will only be part of the adventure. I'll look for moose, stay at off-shore campgrounds, paddle the Palisades, and take the water taxi to the west end of the island. I'm going to paddle from Windigo to Siskiwit Bay.

I'm going to give Isle Royale a good paddling. That's all I can say.


  1. Schweet. Looking forward to your next adventure up that way~ mike

  2. Thanks Mike. I think it may be two years out. Definitely going back via kayak all the way.

  3. Nirvana, and so close to home. Got to love it.

    1. Mark- I don't know what to say. It was more than Nirvana- it is truly a world apart.