I did not want to leave Canada.
I knew I had to, home was calling, and I missed Jocelyn. But Canadians are so nice. Always saying “Sorry,” and offering to help in any way possible.
Plus, leaving Canada meant returning to the U.S. and the land of Trump. I wasn’t looking forward to endless NPR stories about Trumpian predilictions.
But before crossing over to Isle Royale and the U.S. National Park Service, we had one more stop in Canada – Thompson Island.
My comrade for this leg was Walter Lienhard, a very good friend from all the way back to Colby College. Walt and I have shared many good times together, including college days, rooming together for a time in Tucson (well before Jocelyn and kids), and countless wilderness excursions over the years. More recently, Walt joined me for a couple of weeks’ adventuring in Maine on the Windleblo. Walt made his career as an exploration geologist, scouring the world for precious metals.
Walt flew in to Thunder Bay airport on Friday, August 10th, and by Sunday we were ready to shove off. A 15-nautical-mile motor sail later brought us to a cove at the northeast end of Thompson Island, a small narrow island a few miles off the mainland at the edge of Thunder Bay.
Nosing into the cove, we could see about nine boats tied up to the dock rafted three deep in places. We readied the anchor, expecting there would be no space for us at the dock. Before we could choose an anchor spot, a friendly Canadian voice hailed, “Come on over here and raft to us, eh?” Soon, we were tied alongside another sailboat at the end of the dock.
Once on shore, we met Stephan, Beverley, and few of the other regulars on Thompson Island. There, local sailors have installed not only an extensive dock and adjacent fire ring, but also an ample trail network and, most delightfully, a first class wood burning sauna with cold plunge dock and ladder. Here was a setup to rival any I had seen in Finland. All was built on public land with boater donated money.
We settled in, visited some more with our new neighbors, and stretched our legs on the hiking trails. Then, it was time for the sauna. Three times I sweated, then plunged. In the sauna, I learned from Stephan that Thunder Bay had the largest concentration of Finns this side of Helsinki, which explained the locals’ desire to develop Thompson Island into this kind of boaters’ paradise. One by one, the boats thinned out and we were left with the cove almost to ourselves for the night. The day had been grand, a fine send off by our Canadian friends.
The wind lined up next morning for the 32-nautical-mile reach to Isle Royale. Our destination was Rock Harbor, referred to as the island’s only “urban” area. A force four southwesterly behind the beam propelled us along nicely. Turning west around the northeast end of the island, the wind kicked up, gusts over twenty knots with matching chop, our arrival into the U.S. a bit bumpy. With the wind trying to blow us off the check-in dock tying up was no small feat. Perhaps my country didn’t want me back?
We were greeted in the Visitor’s Center by a pubescent NPS ranger who administered the standard orientation briefing. We were told not to feed the wildlife, carry out all trash, and keep quiet between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., among other things. Walt was particularly disappointed by the rule that restricted removal of any rocks and minerals from the island. Isle Royale was once rich in native copper deposits, which he wanted to prospect. Alas, no sampling was allowed.
Following the park entry briefing, the rangers efficiently processed us in to the USA. Trained by the Border Patrol, park rangers are authorized to administer customs and immigration procedures for boats and crew coming into the U.S. from Canada, effectively making the park a U.S. port of entry. Thus, our reentry into the U.S. was far less intimidating than if we had had to go through a typical U.S. Customs & Border Patrol checkpoint.
Now officially checked in to the park and the country, I decided not to stay in Rock Harbor as the wind was blowing hard into the docks making them very bouncy and uncomfortable. We opted to sail three nautical miles around the long peninsula separating Rock Harbor from Tobin Harbor to the northwest. We tied up at the free seaplane dock a scant 200 meters from the Rock Harbor Visitor Center and lodge by footpath. A good meal and solid sleep left us rejuvenated for the next day’s explorations.
Though spending time in civilization was low on the list of priorities – after all, getting closer to nature is what Isle Royale is all about – the morning found me hiking across to recon Rock Harbor beyond the visitor’s center, mainly out of curiosity and not because I had any real need of anything. I witnessed a ferry disgorging its passengers, many schlepping backpacks, forming up on the dock for a group welcome orientation by an NPS ranger. A quick tour through overpriced tourist trinkets and limited grocery items at Rock Harbor’s only store reinforced my desire to avoid things made by man in favor of the natural world on this trip.
Walking toward the café and lodge, it struck me that I should inquire whether Internet might be available as a means of acquiring updated weather information. No cell signal reached the island, of course, so for us accessing Internet without wifi was not an option.
Arriving at the lodge reception desk, I asked the 30-something female clerk if wifi was available.
“Are you a guest here?” she asked.
“We’re in a boat,” I explained. “We need Internet access to get weather updates.”
“Are you in one of our slips at the marina?”
“We’re lying at the dock in Tobin Harbor,” I replied.
“So we’re not making any profit from you then,” she summarized. “The wifi is for guests only,” she stated tersely.
Well, well, well. That little exchange said it all. Without profit, there will be no courtesy. Welcome to America.
Soundly reproached, I slunk back to the boat determined to limit further interactions with officialdom. It was harmony with the loons, moose, and wolves I now sought.
We launched the dinghy to motor one mile to Hidden Lake on the opposite shore of Tobin Harbor, watching closely to avoid any seaplanes that use Tobin Harbor as a landing zone. Once at Hidden Lake, we found the trailhead for the one mile trail to Lookout Louise, a fine overlook of the north end of the island 350 feet above lake level. The trail was well trod and well maintained, complete with boardwalks through boggy areas and signposts at each junction.
Our week advanced southwest along the southern coast of the island with overnight anchorages at West Caribou Island, Chippewa Harbor and Malone Bay, each with its own charm and attractions. Sails in between were pleasant and varied with the six nautical mile jaunt to West Caribou taking us through Rock Harbor under genoa alone, the 10 nm beat upwind to Chippewa taking us out into the lake around Saginaw Point, and the seven nautical mile trip to Malone Bay mostly motoring in light winds.
While tied up at the West Caribou Island dock, we took in the nearby Rock Harbor lighthouse, complete with shipwreck museum and spiral staircase to the top. From there, we hiked about a half-mile to the site of the country’s longest ongoing predator-prey study where we met Rolf and his wife Candy. Rolf is a professor at the University of Central Michigan who spends his summers on Isle Royale living under NPS auspices in an old fishing camp. There, he continues the work started 60 years ago to follow the growth and decline of the island’s wolf and moose populations, studying there behaviors and dependencies. Currently, he counts about 1,400 moose and two wolves on the island. Understandably, he claims this imbalance negatively affects both populations and the island’s ecosystem. He is now facilitating negotiations between Michigan and Ontario to capture and transfer 18 wolves from Michipicoten Island to address the imbalance.
Before leaving the camp, we viewed his impressive collection of moose bones and were invited into his dwelling to meet Candy.
“I’m 70 years old,” she declared as she greeted us, “and I’ve come to know a lot.”
She held up a recent edition of Time magazine. On the cover was a headline for the lead story, “How My Generation Broke America.” Candy proceeded to deliver a sermon about current affairs, claiming that as baby boomers it was our responsibility to give back and make things right.
She told of a recent encounter with a ten-year-old visitor to their camp.
“I asked the ten year old boy why he thinks the world has environmental problems,” she said. “’Adults have ruined everything’ was his reply.”
“I explained to him that each of us has two wolves living within, a good wolf and a bad wolf. Then, I asked him which wolf he thought would win. When he said he didn’t know, I explained that the one that wins is the one that gets fed.”
On the way out of Rock Harbor, we stopped for a few hours at the Daisy Farm dock to hike two miles up to the top of Greenstone Ridge for a view from the Ojibway Tower. Walt explained that the ridge gets its name from the nature of the rock along its top, which is slightly metamorphosed basalt. Hiking along the ridge, at one point he stooped to pick up a greenish specimen to show me.
Chippewa Harbor proved to be one of the most beautiful nature harbors of the entire summer. A narrow entrance leads to a well-protected basin where many anchorages are possible. Beyond a further narrowing, though, the inner basin reveals itself as a particularly beautiful spot, the shoreline unmarred by signs
of man, loons sounding, fish jumping. We chose a side cove and anchored in four meters of water. Our shore excursion took us to a trail starting at the very far end of the inner basin up 140 feet over one mile through moss paved hobbit-infused forest to Whittlesey Lake where we found the water markedly warmer than Lake Superior, just right for swimming. I tried a few casts using a spoon lure. No joy.
At Malone Bay, we snugged in to a bight in Malone Island and tied two lines to shore to keep from swinging. Our short hike took us to Lake Siskiwit, the island’s largest lake. Again, the water was warmer and good for swimming but the fishing was fruitless.
Our final sail around the southwest shore of the island took us under sail 30 nautical miles through thick fog. Fortunately, the fog lifted just as we arrived at Windigo, the largest natural harbor on the island. There, we tied up to the dock for our final night on Isle Royale. That evening, we socialized with the crews of Lee Lee Jean, an Island Packet 380 owned by Paul and Joann Nesse of Minneapolis, and Eleutheria, and Hallberg-Rassy 43 owned by Shawn and Brynn Patterson of Duluth. Paul was a great fisherman and when Joann learned of my bad luck fishing so far on this leg, she invited us over for a great fish dinner.
With the cooperation of the Windigo NPS rangers, we were able to get some good weather information from their Internet. A three day blow was forecast with the winds coming from, you guessed it, the southwest – exactly the direction we had to go to meet daughter Emily who was due to arrive from Colorado on Saturday. Fortunately, the blow wasn’t set to begin for a day while northeasterlies prevailed. Though we had planned a couple more days on Isle Royale, once again the wind made the decision for us. Our time on the island was cut short to take advantage of the helpful winds and avoid the hurtful ones.
We decided to depart that evening and sail through the night covering the 80 nautical miles under the same sail plan that carried Windleblo across the Atlantic – wing-on-wing with the headsail poled out to windward. We cycled through two hour watches monitoring the winds as they backed from northeast to north through the night, turning incrementally to port to keep the wind behind us. Gusts to 25 knots kept us about one third reefed.
Thirteen hours after departing, we set anchor in Julian Bay off Stockton Island in Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands. Our time on Isle Royale had come to an end.
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