A September Visit to Isle Royale

What a wonderful (though worrisomely dry) September it was across the Great lakes and up on Isle Royale. Things, of course, changed a lot mid- to late-fall. There were several storms and rain and lots of wind and wave on Lake Superior. In this post I want to alert my readers to some superb posts on another blog, Black Coffee at Sunrise, which is written by a Michiganian named Nina. This fall she put put up many excellent photos and lots of excellent commentary about her recent visit to IR. There is even a shot of wolves that she and her friend ran across on the Indian Portage Trail far in the interior of the IR wilderness. Nina was a little hard on our boat, perhaps, but opinions are opinions, and we appreciate her business sailing out of Copper Harbor on the Kilpela family's ferry. I have thoroughly enjoyed the hiking adventures of Nina and her pal named Craig. Here's the blog address so you can get an enlightening look at an Isle Royale backpacking trip. Thanks, Nina.


A Tree Finds a Home

Here's an interesting story -- being told on this sea stack that stands outside Rock Harbor along Laurel Lei Lane, the long, narrow cove that runs from Smithwick Island to Mott Island, which are Rock Harbor barrier islands. The stack is about 15 feet high. Notice the mountain ash tree, in bloom, which has found a place to take root and to flourish along a slight crack and slight incline on this nearly verticle mound of rock that faces Lake Superior. Moose love mountauin ash, but I believe this tree is safe from their browsing. I really enjoy finding these stories in the island forests and along the lake shore.

Dock in Tobin Harbor

Tobin Harbor, the Hidden Lake dock. This is the trailhead for the hike past Hidden Lake and Monument Rock up over the Greenstone Ridge to Lookout Louise, a popular and beautiful overlook of the northeast end of Isle Royale. It was a gorgeous day to be out in a boat on Tobin, which is a great place to canoe and kayak. I was hoping on the off chance to see a moose at the Hidden Lake salt lick, but I had no luck this day. The weather suddenly turned rather hot for mid-August over the past week, but temps have sunk back to normal levels in the past day or two. It was just a brief spell of true summer up here in the north country, and it looks to be all we're going to get, even though this has been a passably nice, if cool, summer, all in all.

Birches and Mists

Before it got warm and summery this past week, the second of August, we were going through a strangely cool summer (strange for the 1990s and 2000s, that is). Here's a bit of an artsy shot of Bat Island from Raspberry Island. The day I took the photo was a very cool day for late July, but I had a wonderful boat ride out to Raspberry Island and a nice hike exploring along the shore of this great island, where I came across a number of beautiful scenes in the moderately foggy conditions on an Isle Royale summer afternoon. We certainly have had few days like this in the past decade of summers up here on Lake Superior. A different kind of summer -- that suddenly changed to the more common kind of summer on about August 5th.

Loons at Work

The weather has been a bit up and down lately up here on the shores of Lake Superior. It's very interesting that on the days Copper Harbor has been so bad, almost miserable, Isle Royale has had fairly decent conditions, if a little drippy. It looks as though the cool and wet weather will continue for another week, though we are having a very nice day here and there, such as today, Tuesday, 7/8, which is quite nice here on the Superior coast, if still cool and breezy. Here's a photo from a drizzly walk along Tobin Harbor a few days ago. On this day, Copper Harbor was raw and very cold, with temps in the low 50s and a biting north wind. But on IR it was much nicer. When I walked out onto the shore of Tobin on this day of north winds, it wasn't all that bad -- and there was little rain. Good fishing weather, I suppose, for there close to me in a little cove were one of the pairs of loons that live in Tobin and Rock Harbors.

Bat Island and Fog

I got out to Bat Island the other day. It's almost directly across Rock Harbor from the Rock Harbor Lodge. Fog, which has this June been much more frequent than at any time in the past several years, was rolling in and out all day along Rock Harbor, and open Lake Superior was fogged in tight throughout the day. This is a photo of Bat Island's outside coast, facing the open lake. That is dense fog hugging the shore in the distance of the photo, though you can hardly see that it's there. It's the absence of the horizon that indicates the fog's presence in this particular shot. Notice the scoured shoreline, which Lake Superior batters year-round, leaving little room for anything to grow on the bedrock of this part of Bat Island. This island faces southeast as well, which means that it gets the full brunt of the lake's fierce fall storms that blow first from the southeast before they switch to the northwest. Bat Island is next door to famed Raspberry Island, which has a well-known trail that many people visit throughout the summer. Bat is one of those remote and beautiful places that a person can get to only by canoe or kayak. On this day, I also saw but failed to phorograph the Bat Island bald eagle that I have seen dozens of times over the past 10 years or so. My friendly but skittish bird flew over me at about 25 feet when I surprised him as I crossed the island from the harbor side to the lake side. He ften appears to be fishing the reefs right off Bat.

A Local Moose Family

I found that moose family. My luck is changing -- or at least it changed for one day. Right where my brother Captain Don had seen a moose cow and her twins several days before, I saw the same family. This was down the Scoville Point Trail on the Rock Harbor side. There are a number of small swamps and wet spots along the trail, and one of these about 3/4s of a mile northeast of the Rock Harbor Lodge has a wide moose trail alongside the swamp. The moose were nervous, but I stood and took photos from about 40 feet away for some minutes. Then they moved off up the moose trail. I tried to follow at about 50 feet, but the mother led me deep into a mossy swamp that was very wet with recent rains. My pants were quickly soaked, though my feet were dry. I couldn't keep up and had to abandon the chase. I'll be checking back over the next month and keeping my eyes peeled.

Fish Frying In the Pan

Here's something a little different. This is a shot of a filet of Isle Royale lake trout in the frying pan back home in Copper Harbor. This delicious -- unbelievably fresh and delicious -- pink beauty was caught by my brother, Captain John Kilpela. He fished just outside Rock Harbor last week, fairly closer to the Rock Harbor Lodge, and caught a three-pounder. He kept one filet and gave the other to my wife Marsha and me. We split it with my son Logan and had a great meal (son Drew doesn't favor fish). John doesn't like frying fish, but I think trout is just superb just about any way you can get them cooked, though I prefer breaded and deep-fried. I've been hearing on the island that the trout are coming very close to shore and are being caught in very shallow waters, especially for this time of summer, when the Lake is beginning, at last, to warm up a bit. The water is still very cold, of course. The nearshore temperatures are only 45 degrees or so, but that's cold for mid-June. Though spring is very late, we have had a great week of weather this past week. The long-range forecast looks great as well.

A Hunt for Moose

My brother, Captain Don, told me on Monday that he had seen a cow moose and two newborn calves, twins clearly, on the Scoville Point Trail on Monday afternoon while he was at the island on the Queen IV's regular run. On Tuesday, I served as captain on the run and went down toward Scoville Point to check out the many swamps along the way to see whether I could find those three moose. I criss-crossed several the the swamps down that way, a mile or so east of the Rock Harbor Lodge and marina, where the Queen IV docks. I went up the ridge toward Tobin Harbor, back down again toward Rock Harbor through the wetlands. The photo is of what it looks like to cross a swamp on Isle Royale. What you can't quite see is all the water lying beneath the grass and other vegetation. The trees, wickedly tangled as they are, are tag alders, typical of north-country swamps. The forest floor is covered with old blown-down trees which are now rotting and covered in moss and grasses and other sundry plants. It's hard work crossing these swamps, but the moose do it all the time. You can find their soggy, beaten trails throughout these areas. I saw lots of tracks, large and small (those young moose, presumably), but I had no luck finding the family of moose Don saw, which you might have guessed since I didn't post a photo of them. One has to have time and patience to see wildlife out at the island. Luck, too. Alas, I am pretty unlucky when it comes to moose hunting. But, wouldn't you know, two elderly ladies on a stroll saw a couple moose down the Rock Harbor Trail on the same afternoon.

Orchid In a Meadow

During my first hike in the springtime this year at Isle Royale (last week, because spring comes so much later on the island than on the MI mainland), I ran across a patch of calypso orchids on the Tobin Harbor Trail down near Scoville Point. These little flowers can be difficult to find, but the vegetation is still low, making it easier to find them -- if the flowers have come out at all, that is. These are a little early for the late conditions on IR, but there they were, in full bloom. The blooms are very small, perhaps no more than an inch across, but they are very pretty. I laid down in a soggy meadow near the trail to get this shot of one of the orchiods in a small group that contained about 8 of the small flowers. Of course, wildflower season is one of the best reasons to take your trip to IR in June rather than later in the summer.

Aspens in Bloom

Lots of people love aspens in the fall., mostly for those gorgeous yellows that the aspen leaves turn, making such wonderfully golden photographs. But I like aspens a lot in the spring, too, a time that few people seem to focus on or notice. Isle Royale has a lot of aspens, especially on the rugged northeast end, and their new leaves turn a bright shade of light green in the spring. It's spring right now on the island, and so a lot of the ridges on the northeast end of the island are covered in spring aspens, like the one in the photograph, which I shot down near Scoville Point a couple days back. Wow, was it chilly out there along the lakeshore, even with the sun out. But that, of course, makes for great backpacking conditions.


I made my first trip out to Isle Royale this week. It is mid-spring out on the island right now, very different conditions from what most people expect to find at this time of year. It feels like summer across the Midwest (well, maybe not this year, what with May being so cool), but I would guess that the island is at least 2 weeks behind conditions on the Keweenaw Peninsula, which is 2 weeks or so behind the rest of the state. Here is a shot of a meadow on the Tobin Harbor Trail. You can see that the vegetation is just coming up. This meadow will be dense with tall and short plants of all sorts, including the 3-4 foot high thimbleberry plants that are just coming up in the foreground. In 2 weeks or so, this meadow will look very different. More shots of spring coming in the next couple days.

Spring at Starvation Point

Rock Harbor on a spring day, a couple years back, to be honest. As many know, I am still downstate working at my MSU job until next week. The Queen IV has made several trips to the island already. A cousin of a friend from Cadillac, MI, told my friend that he took his son to IR for a backpacking trip in honor of his son's buddy's graduation from Michigan Tech (or something like that). I am waiting to hear what kind of time they had. Starvation Point, where this photo was taken, is about 4 miles southwest down Rock Harbor from the main dock, where the Visitors Center and the Rock Harbor Lodge are, the main developed area of the park. The RH Trail trail cuts very close to the point, but curls inland just before it. The photo is looking up Rock Harbor to the northeast. That's Mott Island on the right hand side of the photo. Three Mile campground is about a mile up the coast on the left. Can't wait for my first trip to the island. I'll be posting photos from this year soon.

39th Season Opens

The 2009 season of the Isle Royale Queen IV began today with our usual 8 a.m. departure for Isle Royale from Copper Harbor, Michigan. This will be the 39th season that the Kilpela family has operated the service to the island from the tip of Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, the state's closest point of land to Isle Royale. We kept our fare increase low again this year, and we have no plans for any fuel surcharges for now. We have kept our parking charge the same for many years as well, even though we have much higher parking costs. It's a great time to be on Isle Royale. Those long days, beautifully sunny afternoons, the cool nights, the intensely starry skies -- boy, would I love to make a trip right now. This photo was taken by my father, Captain Don Kilpela, Sr., this morning as the Queen IV was getting underway on a fine May day on Lake Superior. We sail two times a week this time of year, Mondays and Fridays.