A Stream Re-Emerges from the Forest

There are many signs that 2008 has been better to the island with much-needed rain than 2007, which was, according to the wolf-moose researchers, the driest in many decades. Here's some evidence. The photo is a shot of the edge of the big, tangled swamp at Starvation Point, about 5 miles down Rock Harbor from the main entrance at Snug Harbor, where the Isle Royale Queen IV docks each day we sail. The little stream has not been present from a couple years in this location. But now the swamp has a lot of water in it, where it had been very dry, though damp, for years on end. I could hear water moving through the swamp all around me when I went deep into it. And then I found the little stream emptying into the harbor on the beach beside the point. A good sign for the dry island all in all. But the mosquitoes were certainly up a bit and busy trying to get me.

Shreds of Fog Tumble Up Rock Harbor

I made my first trip to Isle Royale as Captain of the Isle Royale Queen IV on Friday last week. It was an endlessly interesting and beautiful day, because it changed just about 180 degrees in the afternoon. We had heavy fog patches, sea smoke, and large rollers from the southeast on the way to the island. Then conditions changed dramatically. The wind came up out of the southwest. The fog was torn apart on the 20 mile-an-hour and was pushed northeast. Suddenly it seemed, within a half hour, Rock Harbor was clear. Here's a photo of the fog rolling northeast up Rock as I walked along the Scoville Point Trail. I later saw a moose near Scoville Point, but it was a very brief glimpse. It was yearling, it appeared, and it was a little mangy already, from the wood ticks that harry the moose so relentlessly. I spooked it; so I assume that it is not yet accustomed to people after the long winter and very cool spring. I tracked it for a while along a couple of densely forested moose trails, but never got a another glimpse or a photo.

Foggy Night in Copper Harbor

It has been cool on Lake Superior and all across the Midwest this spring. We've had a bit of fog on the Big Lake on our first few crossings to the island, though I would say that fog has not been as prevalent as it was in decades past. Here is a photo of my brother Captain John on the dock of the Isle Royale Queen IV in Copper Harbor as the Queen comes in from a crossing to the island in May. On nights like these the captain first has to find the dock before we can get her moored. We've taken quite a few passangers this May, and people have reported finding good hiking across the island. The Lodge is now open along with the Lodge Dining Room and Greenstone Grill.

A Wild Story Arises in Winter on Isle Royale

I have finished Nevada Barr’s new murder mystery set on Isle Royale, entitled Winter Study. Now, what can I tell you about it that you might not get from the reviews at amazon.com? First, if you love Isle Royale, it’s worth reading. Barr brings the island in winter to life reasonably well, at least as winter happens on the west end, the areas around Washington Harbor and the Feldman Ridge. Her descriptions of place and setting are often not all they could be, but she has never been all that good at description anyway. Her first mystery set on the island, Superior Death, lacked in its descriptions of the island, too. Barr also makes a variety of geographic mistakes and exaggerations, though they are not so important as to be ruinous. (The photo is a satellite image of Isle Royale in later winter, 2008.) Nor does the famed scientific study of moose and wolves itself get much attention from her. Barr does a quick sketch of the moose-wolf research effort and quickly leaves its nature and purpose behind for her far-fetched plot of rape and murder. That plot is a dark, wild one, even darker and more outlandish than her first mystery set on Isle Royale. A number of readers at amazon.com have noted how violent and disturbing some of the scenes and plot elements are. Yet, though I might be getting callous, I found them standard fare for the modern murder mystery.

The story concerns the deaths of two people out of six involved in one of the recent annual winter studies of the moose and wolf populations, a research effort which has become famous worldwide. Is it as famous as Barr excitedly proclaims several times in the book? Probably not. But it’s somehow nice to delude ourselves that everyone knows about and loves Isle Royale as we who know her do, which is far from true, even in Michigan. The plot turns on the premise that the Department of Homeland Security is considering opening the park in winter for reasons of state security. The consideration of this question brings a couple of newcomers to the winter study, in addition to the wildlife biologists who conduct it annually, and puts in motion the elements of the weird and elaborate revenge-murder story.

As usual, Barr writes with her finger-snapping jauntiness. But she tries to be so witty, so hip, so knowing, that she can become tedious -- and even confusing. As typical with her work, she delves deeply into the psychology of her main character, Anna Pigeon, but, strangely, she does not portray her evil-doers or her secondary characters to any great depth. A boatload of highly implausible events take place on the island during the few days that our heroine is present. They could happen, I suppose, but you know they wouldn’t -- and the chances of all of them occurring within the space of a week are nil. But readers of murder mysteries accept outlandish events as a matter of course. Nonetheless, the book begins to read like a soap opera and actually starts to lurch headlong toward the ridiculous. Yet Barr manages to keep most of it entertaining and keep it from falling off the cliff into complete absurdity. The idea of Isle Royale being the subject of security concerns is not something I am well versed in. So I don’t know how plausible it might be that the island and the wolf-moose study could face the sort of problems that Barr imagines they might.

In sum, if you like Nevada Barr’s jaunty style and psycho-probing, you’ll surely like Winter Study, assuming you can take the dark nature of the crimes committed on and off the island. If you don’t know her work, get ready for a wild ride with a lot of intent study of Anna’s mind and moods, and of small words and gestures among the six characters. But don’t look for some sort of engaging overview of the natural world of Isle Royale in winter. Barr seems little interested in that.