I remember stalking Isle Royale National Park (map / wiki) on GoogleEarth. In my mind it was the most remote destination on my trip (this is before I had decided to go to Alaska). I would zoom in and out over its brushstroke of an archipelago, and the mystery surrounding it would continue to grow.
And not just the mystery of what it would look like, and what it would be like to camp there, but also the mystery of how to even get out there in the first place, what should I do while I’m there, and what do I need to bring with me.
I lost my camera during the 4th of July celebration back at Copper Harbor. All I have are the dozen pictures I took on my phone. Dang.
I decided to do two nights on the island – arriving on July 2nd and departing on the 4th.
Our ferry captain made the ride over entertaining. The first thing he did after introducing himself was lightheartedly catch us up on the latest drama in town. Apparently the fate of the Copper Harbor 4th of July celebration was in jeopardy. It was discovered that the sacks for the kids potato sack races are missing, and what’s a 4th of July celebration if you cant host a proper sack race?
Upon arrival all the backpackers had to listen to a 10 minute orientation, at the conclusion of which there was a mad rush to the ranger station to register for backcountry campsite permits. I signed up for Lane Cove Thursday night and Daisy Farm Friday night. I started my hike in around 2pm heading southwest on Rock Harbor Trail which runs parallel with the island’s southern coastline. The trail changed frequently between standard dirt path, elevated 4 x 12 inch gang planks over low soggy swales, and clear rock patches sporting white, black, and orange lichen.
It was slow going to start with.
Soon after starting I had to stop to put on bug spray. Then I stopped for sunscreen. Then I was stuck behind a group of seven. I didn’t get far ahead of them before I stopped again to reapply bug spray, this time making sure to get every square inch of exposed skin and even overlaping up my shirt sleeve and pants.
The mosquitos are constant, and they’re the worst I’ve encountered all this trip. These super-skeeters do just fine during both the heat of the day and the cold of night – theres no escaping them. While I was hiking I heard a low hum that sounded like it was coming from somewhere nearby. I thought it might be a beehive so I stopped on the trail and put all my concentration into finding the source. After a few seconds I was surprised to find that the hum was coming from the ~100 mosquitos orbiting me. The cloud of them only had a chance to catch up to me when I stopped.
The nice thing about these mosquitos is that they’re surprisingly well behaved once you’re covered in repellent and clothing they cant pierce. They didn’t wander into my eyes, ears, or nostrils, and they could care less about the food on my spoon. They simply continue their methodical work of probing my defenses. They land on my shirt or pants and stab around in a semicircle. Once they decide they are in a bad spot, they fly only a few inches away and continue their methods. Some will hover around my hands and neck but if there’s a fresh layer of DEET repellent they never quite dare to land. Over the 18 miles of hiking I did I only breathed in one of the sorry little buggers, straight to the back of my throat.
The park is well covered with a wild diversity of trees. The more recognizable species being birch with its scrolls of white bark, aspens with their shivering leaves, and fir with each branch tipped with recent light green growth. I would estimate the ratio of evergreens to deciduous trees to be about 60/40. The real attraction as far as vegetation goes are the wild flowers. There is good diversity in size shape and color, and if I had to guess, I’d say this time of the year is peak bloom. The orchid was my favorite, and I only encountered them once. (The thing that bums me out most about losing my camera is all the wildflower pictures I had taken. I’d guess around 30 different kinds.)
Insects are everywhere. Butterflies and moths are easy to spot. Spiders hang out on the gang plank walkways, and dragonflies weave through the tall grass in the marshes. I found slugs tend to appear in groups, and I watched ants disassemble a beetle for a few minutes.
I heard more frogs than just the one I saw; two snakes, many birds (seagulls, ducks, and loon) but the big three – beaver, moose, and wolf eluded me. There’s a well studied interaction between these three animals, and I’ll try to give you the quick and dirty explanation.
Moose first appeared on Isle Royale around 1900 AD. A single pack of wolves tracked them across an ice bridge from Canada during the late 1940’s. Once on the island the single wolf pack spun off into a handful of packs, and their peak population reached ~50 individuals. The wolf diet is comprised of 90% moose and 10% beaver as deduced from scat analysis. Now, this is where it gets a little hard to follow.
Beavers clear mature trees which allow sapling ash and birch to grow. The reachable leaves of young ash and birch are a favorite food for mr. moose. Likewise, the marsh grass called ‘browse’ is a moose diet staple, and it grows in the still waters behind beaver dams. In short, a healthy beaver population ensures readily available moose food. This leads to an increased moose population. Higher moose numbers can support higher wolf numbers. When the wolf population booms it overshoots the islands carrying capacity provided by the moose population. At the same time the wolf boom directly reduces the beaver population.
There are nuances too – such as the wolves tendency to target especially young or old moose and the negative affect of cold winters on beavers and warm summers on moose, but the main point is that there is a time period associated with each of these interactions. It takes time for saplings to grow up, time for wolf pups to begin hunting, time for moose population to age and become vulnerable, and because there are so many dependent variables (ex. moose population) and independent variables (ex. weather) the population cycles for all 3 species are irregular. However, and this is another big point, they are relatively predictable.
This is because Isle Royale can be studied as an isolated system. It’s small enough to make it possible to accurately estimate and track the population (they use ariel fly-overs for moose and wolves), and it’s big enough to supply an adequate sample size which adds statistical confidence when analyzing and predicting the trends of any one population.
It’s not only a fun thing to think about, but it has been used to communicate the interconnectedness of nature on the mainland too where population size is more difficult to track and where the number of variables is more difficult to consolidate. Science!
I chickened out of night two in Daisy Farm, and instead back tracked to Rock Harbor for the evening. I slept in a three walled shelter and had eggs over easy with fantastic coffee in the morning at the only restaurant on the island. Before breakfast I watched a dramatic red sunrise shine through dusty colored clouds. I’m proud of this panoramic shot I got:
If I ever get to go back, I’d like to schedule a week long outing and hike from one end to the other. Here’s hoping.