Freelance writer Ron Beacom spent five days backpacking with a longtime college friend on Michigan’s rugged Isle Royale in early August

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I’ll start with the summary. Isle Royale, an island in the far northwest corner of Lake Superior, is an amazing, spectacular place.

That observation of Michigan’s only national park came after I had completed a five-day backpacking/hiking adventure in early August with an old college friend, Ray Skowronski. He’s a retired high school science teacher from Maryland, originally from Saginaw. We met in the cafeteria during our first week as students at Northern Michigan University in Marquette in August 1978.

I pitched taking this trip to Ray in February 2021 after watching a park ranger give an online presentation about it to the Midland Rotary Club.

We boarded the Isle Royale Queen IV, a 100-foot boat, at her dock in Copper Harbor at the top of the Keweenaw Peninsula early on Sunday morning, July 31. We had booked our round-trip last December. The cost was $150 per person. The passage covers 54 miles one way and takes three and a half hours. Captain Ben told us the water temperature in the middle of the lake was 40 degrees, so if you plan to go outside on the boat’s deck, you’d better bundle up.

We rode on the main deck in the forward section just behind the pilot’s house, sharing a booth with a retired couple from Arizona and a family from downstate Oxford. Ray and I both took Dramamine to hopefully prevent seasickness.

We had a smooth ride with less than two-foot waves. Cell phone reception faded and then died. As we approached Isle Royale, which is 44 miles long running southwest to northeast, and nine miles wide, we could see the rocky coastline and what I call its skyline, the jagged outline of the large fir and spruce trees.

Our port of entry was Rock Harbor, located on the northeast end. Isle Royale is the largest land mass in a 400-island archipelago. As we drew closer, the Rock Harbor Lodge stood out along the water’s edge. It’s a 60-room inn operated by the U.S. National Park Service. They also rent 20 cottages.

Isle Royale is the least visited of the national parks in the contiguous 48 states, with just over 20,000 visitors in 2021. But we heard more than one person report that it’s also the national park with the greatest percentage of people who return for a second visit.


As we disembarked, we were greeted by National Park rangers. Brandon, a ranger from New York, did our orientation. He told us that every time he said, “Isle Roy-AL (his pronunciation) is SO wild!” our group had to respond loudly, “How wild is it?”

Brandon’s main points were that the moose and wolves, the featured attractions, travel the same trails that people do. He said it was okay to first take a picture of a moose but if it starts to move in your direction, get out of the way. Regarding wolves, he wanted us to make noise as soon as we could to drive them away, noting that the park rangers don’t want the wolves to get used to being around humans. 

There may be up to 1,300 moose on the island and less than 20 wolves.

Brandon pointed out the most common injuries hikers suffer on the trails are to the knees and ankles. He added that we were pretty much on our own for first aid with just three ranger stations on the island. With no cell reception, he said you would have to rely on someone in your group or another group to get help.  

After the orientation, all campers had to register at the visitors’ center. There was also a small store. The park charges an entrance fee of $7 per person per day. Ray had already paid for a National Park lifetime senior pass, which covered our stay. We still had to register our itinerary.

After we had visited the store, filled our water bottles, and weighed our backpacks (each just under 40 pounds), we asked another backpacker to take the obligatory picture of us standing in front of the large map hanging near the visitors’ center. We then started down the trail, heading southwest along the coast to the Three Mile campground.

The trail was rugged with mostly rocky features and a beautiful view of the lake. That hike was more difficult than I had anticipated, but was just a taste of what was to come. Our walking sticks were critical tools to use. It took under three hours for us to arrive at Three Mile. On the more difficult trails, covering a mile per hour is a good pace.

 The campground had a mix of tent sites and shelters. It’s first come, first served. The shelters are made up of three wooden walls, a wooden floor and a slanted roof. The fourth wall is made up of several framed screens with a screen door. All the sites are primitive, but each campground has at least one outhouse. While I’m sure the park service does its best, there are three words to describe the outhouses: vile, disgusting, necessary.

We got a tent site by the water. We had individual tents. One of the first things we did at the end of each hike was to take off our hiking boots and, in my case, put on my Crocs to give my feet a break and sit a spell in my lightweight camping chair. We then set up our tents and started dinner.

Ray brought a small camping stove that he used to heat water in a pot. We then put the hot water in individual pouches of freeze-dried meals, which were fairly tasty. (The meals listed an expiration date of June 2051, so my word of advice is, don’t eat them one month later in July 2051.)

After dinner, we went down to a small dock to fill our water bottles and treat that water with purification tablets. We also both had a Sawyer water filter that screwed on top of our Smart water bottles. We each carried about three liters of water.

It rained that night and during another night, but never during our hikes. In the morning, we crossed paths with three gentlemen packing their sea kayaks, starting day two of a 12-day trip covering 110 miles to circumnavigate Isle Royale. Wow…

Our next destination was Lane Cove, a remote campground in the northwest part of the island. The hike covered 4.6 miles, including 2.3 miles from the ridge that forms the spine of the island down to Lane Cove. The elevation change was 550 feet. It was a challenging hike featuring what I called several “up/downs.” We also hiked across several boardwalks, which spanned across bogs. A couple of them were at least 50 yards long. The boards were 12 inches wide and four inches thick. Sometimes, the walks were only two boards wide. As Ray noted, concentration was high inching across those walks because it would have been a disaster to fall into the bog with our backpacks. The mosquitoes were out in full force on that hike, but our repellent did its job.

Lane Cove was a small campground on the water with just five tent sites. We were setting up when a couple in their mid-30s came along and asked if we could share the site because the rest of the campground was full. They had just hiked over 11 miles. We said yes and had a delightful evening chatting with Maureen and Paul, from Washington, D.C. They had backpacked in several national parks, and she had visited Midland doing consulting work for Dow.

We saw a beautiful sunset behind a nearby island’s skyline. Ray got up in the middle of the night and got a great look at the stars. In the morning, Maureen said she heard wolves howling. They departed first and we later followed. It was our most difficult stretch of the trip, hiking the 2.3 miles back to the top of the ridge.

We then hiked southwest along the Greenstone Trail, first to Mount Franklin and then to the fire tower at Mount Ojibway. Two river otters surprised us when they crossed the trail just behind us. We learned later they go to the top of the mountain to eat berries.

Throughout our trip, we crossed paths with hikers from across the country. During brief chats, we learned that many have the goal of going to all the national parks. Isle Royale is the least visited of the national parks in the contiguous 48 states, with just over 20,000 visitors in 2021. But we heard more than one person report that it’s also the national park with the greatest percentage of people who return for a second visit.

When we lunched below the fire tower after our grueling morning, we met an aunt and uncle from Troy with their teenage niece and nephew. I teased the kids by asking, “Is this a reward for good grades or a punishment for bad ones?”

The view from the fire tower was breathtaking. We could see Thunder Bay, Ontario, in the distance.

From there, we hiked down to Daisy Farm on the east coast. It’s the largest campground on the island with 36 sites. We were able to secure our first shelter after hiking almost seven miles that day. We checked out the large dock and joined some college students who were taking turns jumping into the frigid water. As soon as I hit the water wearing my grungy hiking clothes, I worried about having a heart attack before scrambling back to the ladder. But it was refreshing and it felt great to sit in the sun afterwards. We learned the water temperature was 51 degrees. Yikes!

On Wednesday, our fourth day, we hiked northeast along the coast and then over a ridge to take the Tobin Harbor trail back to Rock Harbor. We covered over eight miles and secured the last available shelter. After setting up camp, we walked on sore feet to the Greenstone Grill at the Rock Harbor Lodge and enjoyed probably the best pints of beer I’ve ever tasted while sitting in rocking chairs on the porch. We were joined by John and Andy from Minnesota, hikers we had met along the way, and we ate dinner together.

We finally saw a moose, a female, at 5:30 Thursday morning, our fifth and final day on the island, as she slowly lumbered out of the thicket by our shelter. We went for a two-mile “day hike” just north of the lodge and watched two seaplanes take off from Tobin Harbor, one carrying John and Andy back to Houghton.   

After packing up in the early afternoon, we returned to the main dock and waited to board the boat back to Copper Harbor.  We noticed the “unplugged” aspect of the island as we saw people in conversation and not on their smart phones. Think about the last time you were unplugged for several days.

Will I go back? I sure hope so.



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