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Wild and Alone

By Mike Tidwell
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 29, 1998; Page E01


Captain Mark Nyman spins the boat wheel furiously, guiding his ferry up and over another four-foot swell. It's 9:30 a.m. and the weather report crackles over the wheel house radio. A small craft advisory is still in effect for western Lake Superior, with more high winds and high waves expected. But now there's a second advisory for water spouts--tornadoes of spinning water that can instantly turn boats into wreckage.

Standing in the wheel house, I suddenly see the world as a grainy black-and-white film: all dark skies and white-capped water, everything bouncing in and out of focus. Captain Nyman scans the horizon for water spouts, then spins the wheel wildly through another swell. Then he notices my greenish pallor. "Did I tell you?" he says. "This is a B.Y.O.B. wheel house. Bring Your Own Bucket."

But surely weak knees and an uneasy stomach are to be expected--indeed, are part of the point--when you travel to one of the wildest places in America. Up ahead, 15 miles away, battered by waves and surrounded by old shipwrecks, is the most remote and least-visited National Park in the lower 48 states: Isle Royale. In every way, this island is a place of extremes. Forty-five miles long and barely eight miles wide, Isle Royale National Park sits off the extreme northeastern tip of Minnesota in a lake so huge, it alone contains 10 percent of the world's freshwater supply. It's a rambling, rugged patch of north woods wilderness, full of moose and timber wolves, that gets fewer visitors each year--around 20,000--than Yellowstone gets in a single day during peak season. (The only parks that get fewer visitors are a couple of vast tracts in remote Alaska.) Isle Royale is the only national park without a single public road, and the only one that closes for the winter, shutting down from November to mid-April because boats can't get into its frozen harbors. It's so far north that visitors can watch the flicker of northern lights, and ice clings to the island's northern shore till the Fourth of July.

And, right now, it's getting closer. Spared the menacing water spouts, the ferry rolls and rocks past a final, submerged shipwreck and into the shelter of Washington Harbor on the island's western tip. The wind dies down, and the sky, as if on cue, clears enough to scatter sunlight on the brilliant, unbroken forest. It's the first day of October and autumn is in full climax. Mountain ridges carved during the last ice age erupt with red sugar maples and yellow-leafed birch that give the illusion of liquid, tumbling and surging down valleys and over ledges to the craggy shores of Superior. Amid those trees are 1,500-pound bull moose and roving packs of eastern timber wolves--and an isolation so complete that half of the island's 72 inland lakes haven't been named. Types of fish and squirrel, cut off from the mainland, are evolving into completely new species.

October brings the fewest visitors to this least-visited park--112 in 1996. The twice-weekly ferry from Grand Portage, Minn., is only half-full today with 22 hard-core backpackers. The two ferries from Michigan's upper peninsula have already shut down for the season, as has the island's sole seaplane service. And the skeleton park crew is rushing to close shop ahead of the big snows.

Yet everyone who knows Isle Royale agrees that early October--when the colors are peaking and Indian Summers are not unknown and the black flies have stopped biting and the moose are in rut (and thus more visible)--is the very best time to come. And so here I am, backpack in tow, seeking an experience extreme only in its simplicity: I want to be utterly alone in a wild landscape. I want to encounter untrammeled nature in an unmediated way; to behold an environment as different as possible from my urban world where my toddler's first--and most-repeated--sound is that of a siren. The idea's not original, but going solo in a place this remote is, for me, a first.

To seal the deal, I've gone one step further. In this scarcely known wilderness during maximum low season, I've staked out the island's most remote region, its southwest corner. I'll hike 30 miles in four days without seeing another human being. Through sunny afternoons and freezing nights I'll manage on my own while wolves leave tracks around my campsites and maple leaves flutter to the ground to the laughter of migrating loons breaking camp for points south.

I bed down my first night in a spruce and fir forest, not far from my ferry drop on the island's western end. After sunset, I hear the bellowing snorts and grunts of several moose in rut. The weird noise echoes through the woods around me. I can't see the animals, but I hear sticks snapping under their mighty hoofs and against their mighty antler racks. I pray the moose don't stumble too close to my tent.

Henry David Thoreau had a specific definition of "wild" in mind when he penned his line "In wildness is the preservation of the world." In one of his journals Thoreau writes: "Wild--past particle of to will, self-willed." The world, Thoreau seems to say, is only in harmony when animals, plants, landscape and man are self-willed and self-determinate together, wild and free at the same spot.

These thoughts are on my mind as one-ton mammals, drunk with desire, wander about my defenseless, prostrate frame. I've left city concrete and smothering social conventions to be around animals and elements that are self-willed, and where I might even be at their mercy. From the pitched boat ride forward, this is a trip about exchanging control for something else. In the company of free beings in a free place, I too might be wild.

It's not a romantic proposition, nor do I expect romance. Already I'm cold, my breath billowing through 29-degree night air, and the moose won't stop snorting long enough to let me sleep. It goes on and on, the racket, and by midnight I yearn for a switch to throw or a noise cop to call. My desire to manipulate dies hard in this remote wilderness until suddenly I laugh at the very idea: remote control.

I wake the next morning to a dream state born of sleep deprivation and the dawn of a pluperfect autumn day. There's not a cloud in the cobalt sky and by 10 o'clock I'm in shirt-sleeves atop a ridge, sitting on my pack, looking over a third of Isle Royale awash in blinding sunlight with the deep blue of Lake Superior spreading to the horizon. There are 165 miles of trails on this island, enough for all my fellow ferry passengers to go their separate ways, leaving virtually all of what's before me--a succession of red-and-gold valleys, watery cedar swamps, rocky shorelines--utterly empty of Gore-Tex-clad creatures. I set off again, my boots crunching fallen aspen leaves, and the scale of my presence suddenly thrills me.

I hike till noon, stopping for lunch atop a beaver-felled tree in a cedar swamp. Perhaps nothing marks wilderness more than its stillness, its silence--and the quietude of this swamp borders on startling. A soft breeze blows through the trees and I can literally hear the hushed landing of falling pine needles.

As in most journeys into natural settings, everything and nothing happens at the same time. A red fox crosses my path, a cool sweat gathers between my shoulder blades, a bald eagle circles, I run my hand over a swatch of grandfather's beard lichen on a rock. Signs of wolves and moose are everywhere. I see prints. I see scat. But I don't see the animals. They are choosing not to reveal themselves, asserting their will, being wild--but I know they're there.

After nine miles I reach Lake Feldtmann, a 400-acre body of blue forged by long-ago glaciers and enclosed by violently beautiful autumn foliage. I gawk at the lake's glassy surface and shoreside beds of delicate pencil reeds. I make camp near the south shore, then assemble my fishing rod, hoping to test my skills against the three-foot northern pikes said to lurk here.

But the lake is shallow and, to get at the fish, I have to wade in barefoot and--with no people around--minus pants. At about 60 degrees, the water is actually much warmer than the air around me, which has turned suddenly colder with a burst of clouds and wind from the northwest. Comfortably warm from my naked waist down, I'm bundled up above--fleece shirt, sweater, jacket, cap--and I cast awkwardly in wool gloves. The same wind making my teeth chatter has turned the lake to whitecaps, and the fish aren't even thinking about biting. Swamps and underbrush, meanwhile, keep me from the few lake coves sheltered from the wind, and I grow frustrated. I can't win. The lake has willed itself unfishable. It's still this way the next morning when it's time to move on, though I try once more in my absurd Arctic-Bahamas fashion statement.

Two miles down the trail, the wind finally breaks and the sky clears and I'm on a nearby ridge looking down on Lake Feldtmann: a calm, blue, distant pearl begging for an angler's hook. But the day's much too beautiful for regrets, and I rest in a small meadow of blooming white asters, feeling warm and content, admiring the old Objibway Indian name for this island: Minong--a good place to be.

Skirting ridgetops, I hike much of the morning below a bizarre, 15-foot-tall, topographically correct stone ledge that is in fact an old shoreline of Lake Superior. Before the retreat of the last glaciers, everything below this line was underwater and the island itself was a fraction of its current size. I have lunch on this old shoreline--now a forested spot way up in the sky--while sitting on a crude stone beach chair pounded into shape by waves 10,000 years ago.

It's now been two days since I've seen another human being in this half-million-acre park, and as I down a handful of trail gorp with absolutely no one to talk to, I already have the answer to what everyone back home will immediately ask me: Weren't you lonely? No. In fact, not only was I not lonely, I never even felt alone. The United Nations declared Isle Royale an International Biosphere Reserve in 1981 owing to its 200 species of wildflowers (including 32 species of orchids), 238 recorded species of birds (including the American black duck and red-breasted merganser), several dozen species of trees, four dozen species of butterflies, and much, much more. With so many riches, the distraction of a second human presence would have meant less time to enjoy it all.

Besides, by the second day, I realize I'm having rich conversations with my surroundings--wordless, cyclical exchanges that go something like this: observe, think, touch, smell, listen, observe, think, touch, smell . . .

I reach Siskiwit Bay, on the island's south side, in late afternoon, bone weary after what's now 20 miles in two days with my 35-pound pack. I crumple to the ground before a bay drenched in golden October light with spruce boughs casting long shadows over calm water drifting in from Superior. Before me, a couple of adult loons, already in grayish winter plumage, make their famously awkward aquatic takeoff, walking then running atop the water until finally getting airborne and pointing themselves south, their long migration begun. If the last of these birds don't leave the island soon, they'll be stranded by winter ice, unable to get a running start across open water.

Unlike Feldtmann Lake, where some stretches of the shore looked as if packs of big German shepherds had been running about, I see no wolf tracks along the curving shore of Siskiwit Bay. One of my goals had been to see a wolf or moose in the wild. As for the latter, I've heard them snorting everywhere, seen the aspen trees they denude for food, seen their scattered bones left by attacking wolves, and even seen a moose love site--a confusion of hoof prints on the trail (one bigger, one smaller) bunched in a wild circle, with some dug in deeply, presumably for extra traction. I've even smelled a couple of musty old moose. But no visual contact. Instead of being disappointed by this fact, I'm increasingly thrilled. The moose and wolves seem more wild to me with each passing day, skulking in the shadows of the forest just beyond my detection. Self-willed, free, untamed--they are utterly unconcerned with my petty voyeur's agenda.

Today, even before sunset, I can feel it's going to be a cold night. My ungloved hands are freezing as I set up my tent. I crawl into my sleeping bag wearing my wool hat, gloves and heavy coat--and I mentally visualize all those blue "blasts" of arctic air on TV weather maps that pass through Customs not far from Isle Royale.

The next day, the bay is an angry howl of waves and ear-blasting wind coming straight off Lake Superior. I boil the last of my water for coffee. The only source of water now is the bay itself. But not wanting to get soaked, I look at a map, locating Caribou Creek a mile away where it enters the bay along the hiking trail. But for all of that mile-long stretch the trail is the bay shore, and I'm completely exposed to the wind and the den of crashing waves. I feel bullied by a landscape gone slightly mad. When I finally reach Caribou Creek, I cringe: It has willed itself dry except for a few rancid puddles. From here the trail veers toward dry ridges. I need water now.

I look back at the bay. If I roll up my pants above the knees and wade out just a short distance beyond the backwash, I should be all right. But of course it's only seconds before I'm ambushed by a big wave and soaked to my waist. Blue as an icicle, I race back to my pack and hurriedly strip off my pants--at which point a gust of wind blows stinging sand all over my wet legs and sends my baseball cap tumbling down the shore again. I go racing after the hat in my clinging wet boxers, stepping on sharp sticks in my bare feet. That's when I hear the moose.

I can't see him, but he has to be close for me to hear his grunts above the wind. I'm convinced he's watching me, secretly pleased by the sight of a thirsty, half-naked, freezing human hopping and yelping, teeth chattering, down the shore after a tumbling hat. The moose snorts again, fainter now that I'm moving away, as if to say, "You want wilderness? We got your wilderness."

The planned hike today is blessedly short, offsetting the eternity it takes to get dry, warm and sufficiently sand-free to walk again. Despite the ordeal I feel strong this morning, the rhythm of my walk more sure after three days on the trail. I'm heading deeper into the island's interior, moving through glorious climax forests of red oaks and red maples. I feel my connection to the island deepen in rough parallel. In a grassy meadow I find fantastically tall dandelion plants and pick their leaves to supplement my dinner. I find wild basil to accent the chili I'll eat tonight.

I camp in a gray birch forest in a saddle between two ridges. This natural shelter allows me to forgo a tent, and dusk finds me out in the open, eating my gathered leaves and chili as stars blink on overhead and the moose begin their nightly ruckus. I climb into my sleeping bag rubbing the lengthening whiskers on my dirty face, and with nothing to shield me I stare at silvery moonlight pouring down everywhere through autumn branches rapidly loosing their leaves. For a moment, the almost-full moon, rife with ancient mystery and luminescent power, makes me want to scream and shout and do a pagan dance. But fatigue catches up with me and I drift off to a dark sleep instead. The sound of the distant moose on the prowl no longer bothers me at all.

I've . . . adapted.

On the fourth day I come down from the wilderness. I follow the gradual descent of the Greenstone Ridge, so named for the semiprecious "green star stone" found here. Barely a mile from the ferry dock where my hike began four days before, it finally happens: I see a moose. An enormous bull with a towering rack steps onto the trail 200 feet ahead of me. He eyes me blankly. He's at least seven feet tall from hoof to antler. I'm thrilled, but a little perplexed when the bull doesn't move. I sit on my pack and we just stare at each other until I hear a loud grunt behind me. Sure enough it's a cow, on the trail and getting closer. "Don't ever, ever, ever get between a bull moose and cow in rut," all the guidebooks say. "The bull might take you for competition and charge like an angry tank."

In no time I'm up a hill and behind a tree, peeking down as the bull and cow hoof it toward each other until their noses touch. After a moment of mutual inspection, they have the decency to drift off into the forest, allowing me to go my way, grinning at how their consummation offers my trip its own.

Back at Washington Harbor, I wait atop the ferry dock made of rocks and cedar logs with a beaver living underneath. When the ferry captain arrives he's eager to depart immediately for the 2 1/2-hour trip back to Minnesota. A gale is forecast for later that afternoon, with waves an astonishing 10 feet. With a handful of other backpackers, I climb aboard, eyeing everyone with something akin to fascination: people.

Bouncing across the open water of Lake Superior, with Isle Royale shrinking in the distance like a fragile remembrance, I go below deck to the ship's water closet. Someone's left a mirror inside and I take a peek, quite alarmed by my sun- and wind-burned cheeks, my cracking chapped lips, my Don King hair.

And that smell? Sweat, dirt, smoke, sour clothes, mountain air, a hint of pine. Is that what freedom smells like? Was Thoreau this overpowering?

Takoma Park writer Mike Tidwell last reported for the Travel section about sport fishing in the District of Columbia.

Details: Isle Royale

Getting There: As you would expect, getting to the least-visited national park in the Lower 48 is not a simple matter. I flew to Duluth, Minn., then drove a rental car 3 1/2 hours to Grand Portage, just before the Canadian border, taking in the entire length of Minnesota's beautiful Lake Superior shore along the way. From late May to late October, ferries run from Grand Portage to Isle Royale, and depending on where you jump off and what month you go, the ticket will run you between $60 and $100 round-trip.

Reservations are advisable. Call Isle Royale Transportation Line Inc., 715-392-2100.

If you prefer to approach from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, fly to Houghton County Memorial Airport in Houghton, Mich., and take the six-hour ferry ride out of Houghton. It leaves twice weekly from mid-May through September. Call the superintendent, Isle Royale National Park, 906-482-0984. Another ferry runs out of Copper Harbor, Mich., 50 miles away. Call 906-289-4437.

Unless you have your own boat, the only other way to reach the island is to charter a seaplane out of Houghton. Call the Isle Royale Seaplane Service, 906-482-8850.

When to Go: The park opens in mid-April and closes in late October, the only national park to close in winter. The best time to visit is late September and early October. But it can get cold this time of year and sleet and snow are not out of the question. Summer, meanwhile, provides warmer days, pleasantly cool nights and a green cathedral of north woods wilderness in peak vibrancy. But just don't go expecting an empty island this time of year. Of the park's roughly 17,000 visitors in 1996, more than 12,000 came in July and August.

Wilderness Camping: Low-impact camping is the rule--pack it in, pack it out, leave no trace--and fires are allowed in only a handful of spots, meaning you'll need a gas stove. The park goes so far as to request campers use equipment of subtle natural tones instead of bright colors.

To preserve wilderness quietude, groups larger than 10 must split up, and everyone is encouraged to speak softly and refrain from sing-alongs or group games.

Non-Campers: The .5 percent of the island that is not wilderness is occupied by the Rock Harbor Lodge (and restaurant and cottages) on the far eastern side of the island, operated by National Park Concessions. These rustic, waterfront accommodations offer lodge rooms for about $100 per day per person and double-occupancy cottages for $68 per person. Open early June to early September. Call 906-337-4993 (May-September) and 502-773-2191 (October-April). There is also a camping supply store near the lodge.

Things to Do: The island is a wilderness paradise for hikers, fishermen and bird-watchers. And with 16 portage trails running between the island's several bays and dozens of inland lakes, the park is an exceptionally good place for kayaking and canoeing. There's also first-rate scuba diving amid the 10 major ship wrecks which ring the island.

Information: Isle Royale National Park, 906-482-0984,

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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