Isle Royale 2018, bigger risks, bigger rewards…?

Isle Royale, (the largest island in Lake Superior), is over 45 miles (72 km) in length and 9 miles (14 km) wide at its widest point. The park is made up of Isle Royale itself and approximately 400 smaller islands, along with many submerged reefs within 4.5 miles (7.2 km) of the surrounding islands.  Isle Royale National Park was established on April 3, 1940, then additionally protected from development by wilderness area designation in 1976 and declared a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve in 1980. The park covers 894 square miles (2,320 km2), with 209 square miles (540 km2) of land and 685 square miles (1,770 km2) of surrounding waters. The park’s northern boundary lies adjacent to the Canadian Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area along the international border.

Isle Royale is the largest Island on Lake Superior, Making it the largest Island, on the Largest freshwater lake, in the world. The Island is very remote and completely off grid this time of the year. During the summer months, Isle Royale boast a steady turnover of tourists coming to hike, fish, view the wildlife and magnificent scenery, and to camp on the Island. There is a ferry boat that shuttles people up from Copper Harbor Michigan, or down from Grand Portage Minnesota, to the Island. The ferry(s) run three times a week during the tourist season, typically from around the middle of May, until closing the first week of October. There is also limited seaplane service available to and from the Island, with a sea plane dock both in Rock Harbor, and Wendigo Harbor.

During the tourist season there is a lot of people hiking/camping on the Island, as well as boaters and a full staff of rangers from the park service, so the Island somewhat loses it “wilderness feel” during the busy season. But once the services are all shut down at the end of the season/late fall, there is nothing and no one for miles around. This time of the year the place takes on a whole new ambiance, giving you a true feeling of what it’s like to be fishing off grid in the wilderness. No cell phone coverage, no/limited radio coverage, and no one to flag down in the event you experience trouble. You are completely on your own this time of the year, so you must plan accordingly.  Because Isle Royale is so remote and uninhabited this time of the year, lots of pre-planning goes into this trip. I go over my boat with a fine-tooth comb in the weeks leading up to the trip. I do my best to plan for most contingency’s, packing lots of tools and spare boat parts. My boat is an awesome craft, but at 20 years old she is showing some of her age and requires constant maintenance and repair. I have come to realize the true meaning of “BOAT”, (“bust out another thousand”), and this year proved no different. Upon inspecting the lower units only days prior to departure, I ended up rebuilding the lower drive on the starboard motor and replacing another one of my cannon downriggers, along with spending another few hundred dollars in misc. spare parts, pieces and chemicals/lubes.  Thankfully the folks over at Aronsons Marine, in Tower, Minnesota, where able to help me get that lower unit fixed quickly. They had all of the knowledge and most of the parts needed to get that lower unit working again. They were really busy but made time to help me out. The parts not in stock, they provided only two days later.  Great service. Thanks, Aronsons.

Part of planning a trip like this includes estimating/guesstimating gas consumption for the days we were planning to be out on the water fishing. Since we were planning on fishing an extra day this year, I strapped an extra 30 gallons/190 pounds of gas up on the bow of the boat just in case we needed to supplement the 250 gallons/1575 pounds of gas already in the tank. On top of the 1765 pounds of fuel aboard, Tony and Nick brought along what I’m going to guestimate as another 1000 pounds of camping gear, coolers, and health food/snacks. At this point, the boat was loaded right down to the wire of what I consider a safe loaded weight for traversing/crossing the rough waters between the mainland and Isle Royale. The rear scuppers and their relationship to the water line are somewhat a telltale sign with regards to overloading the boat, and by the time Nick and Tony were done loading their gear aboard, the scuppers were barely an inch above the water line. Originally, I had planned on shoving off for the island early Thursday morning, but gale winds the night before had whipped Lake Superior into a white, frothy, frenzy with occasional waves peaking at 26 feet.  As Thursday morning came and went one of the offshore meteorological buoys was still pegging wave peaks at 18 feet. With the boat so heavily loaded, I felt no choice other than to wait for the lake to lay down a bit. Thankfully, by around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the winds off the Rock of Ages light house/meteorological station (ROAM4) had died down to a steady 15 knots, occasionally guesting to 20 knots from the west/southwest, and the closest off shore NOAH meteorological buoy (45006) was pegging the current offshore waves at 8 feet. I knew from experience that with these winds, the wave tops could be a little higher out by the Island then what buoy 45006 was registering almost 40 miles to the southwest. Not wanting to deal with potentially large waves in the dark, or wanting to deal with setting up camp in the dark, I decided to shove off, steering our fully loaded boat towered the big swells we could see rising and falling out across the horizon.  The ride across the open water was better than expected.  We were somewhat quartering into the waves off our 2 o’clock, and they  were a couple feet smaller than I what I initially thought they would  be.

By the time I could see Rock of Ages light house 5 miles or so off the port side, the waves had pretty much subsided into giant swells, making for an enjoyable and easy ride across the open water. This was my tenth time making this voyage and I have learned a lot during those trips.  One of the lessons I learned early on was to avoid Rock of Ages light house by a large margin anytime the wind is blowing. Depending on the winds and wave direction(s), this can be a treacherous area. I have boated through this area with the lake whipped into a frenzy on several occasions and can say from experience the wave frequency here becomes very tight, building waves so steep they appear straight up and down. I have watched waves/moguls rise up out of smaller waves that became taller then my boat in a matter of seconds. You cannot read these waves/water as they just seem to rise up at random in this area. I have taken a few of these waves right over the top of my boat three different times. Trust me when I say waves coming over the top of the boat is not for the faint of heart. I nicknamed this area the “washing machine”. If you watch the types of waves your washing machine produces on the “agitate” cycle, and then super-size the image, making the waves peak higher than the top of the boat, you begin to get a picture of what the area around Rock of Ages looks like when Lake Superior gets angry. Staying at least five miles off shore in this area seems to avoid some of that agitation and makes up for the extra couple miles incurred by somewhat decreasing the overall travel time to the cans off Siskiwit Bay/Point Houghton.

Our normal routine on this trip has been to tie up/dock at the Siskiwit Bay campground dock. This place has a very heavy-duty concrete dock positioned behind a small rock break wall that protects the boat well in most winds. This campground has what I will term “Adirondack shelters”, built by the park service for people to camp in. The “Adirondack shelters” are three sided structures with a roof, fully screened in on the fourth/open side. They provide a dry, bug free camping experience for those who would otherwise be camping out under the stars. In the past, Nick and Tony have always used these shelters to sleep in. This time of the year the shelters are invaluable to anyone camping since most nighttime temps are well below zero and rain, sleet and snow is common. Personally, I don’t need a shelter or a tent because I sleep snug as a bug in the cuddy of my boat. The cabin/cuddy on the boat is super comfy and warm, making a great place to camp. It has plenty of space for just me, (or me and Heidi), but unfortunately for Tony and Nick, its a   little cozier then I what I care to share with them, so they rely on the park shelters for a place to sleep. Our initial plan had been to arrive at the Siskiwit Bay campground in time for Tony and Nick to set up camp before it got dark. The Siskiwit Bay campground is approximately 10 miles from where we usually begin the search for those big fish and Siskiwit Bay campground is the closest, safest, dockage in proximity of this area that also provides a campground equipped with shelters. There are other places around the Island we could dock, (such as “Hay Bay”), but they do not provide camping shelters.

In just a little over an hour and a half, we had made the 50 some mile boat ride, from Grand Portage, Minnesota, to the Siskiwit Bay campground on Isle Royale. Not bad travel time for bumpy seas and a boat heavily laden with fuel and camping equipment.   As we were coming down that final stretch in Siskiwit bay somewhere the last couple miles before the the campground, I noticed a turbo propped Cessna Caravan on floats coming at us from the end of the bay.  I stayed somewhat focused on the plane, watching it lift off the water before it flew directly over us as it climbed out steeply to the Southwest. I was surprised to see a float plane out there for several reasons but none the less was even more surprised when I turned my attention to the dock and realized there were a few boats tied up that were occupying the only sheltered section of dock, forcing us to tie up on the very end of the dock out in the wind. As we continued getting closer, I also noticed there were quite a few people hanging out, sitting on the dock down by the other boats. As I guided the boat alongside the windy end of the dock, Tony and Nick jumped out of the boat onto the dock and held the boat steady while I went about digging out some docking lines and bumpers. Before we even had the boat tied off to the dock, two park rangers who appeared dressed for battle, wearing side arms, tasers, and militaristic/utility type uniforms, had walked down the dock to officially informed us that the campground and dock was OFFICIALLY closed to the public. I hope the days of Smokey the bear dressing like a park ranger are over.  I really don’t want my child hood image of Smokey the Bear ruined by seeing him dressed for battle and carrying armaments in this fashion.  These park rangers today look more like soldiers then park rangers.

I had made a lot of plans based on using this camp site. Those plans included everything from the amount of extra fuel we had brought, to telling my wife and a few others what campground we were planning to stay at so they would know where to start the search if we didn’t return. There was no way to call any of these people at this point. We were really being thrown off guard since Nick and Tony  would also need shelter for the night at whatever place we found safe dockage for the boat. I couldn’t help myself from becoming somewhat irritated.  It was now pushing the last couple hours of daylight and we were being told to go somewhere else. Somewhere happened to be a long way away, across unfamiliar water, using unknown anchorages/docks, with night quickly approaching.  I tried hiding my frustration despite all those thoughts going through my head and did my best to act polite and show respect while the ranger on point continued to interrogate us. The ranger on point seemed very interested our life story’s and didn’t seem to have any concern that he was holding us up as the sun continued to go down.  I couldn’t help but become more agitated as he pried on.  Something about someone wearing all that weaponry while brandishing such a standoffish attitude that really strikes a sour note with me. Apparently, there was a mix up with our paper work, (or lack of), and whoever the nice lady was that Nick had called the day before to secure the park permit for our stay was unaware Siskiwit bay was going to be closed the following day, or at least she never informed Nick of such. I asked the ranger why the campground was closed, and he said the reason was “confidential/secret and couldn’t be publicly disclosed”. At this point, hopefully the Park Ranger didn’t hear the  accidental F-bomb muttered under my breath.  I didn’t mean it. It just slipped out once the pieces started coming together and I began to figure out why they were out there,  and why they had closed this campground down.

At this point, I was pretty sure I had figured out the reason they were forcing us to head back out on the lake. They had shut this campground down, and kept the fact they were going to shut it down, a secret from the public, to avoid potential protests because of the controversy surrounding what they were doing. What were they doing…? They were releasing a wolf on the Island as part of their overall master scheme to build a strong enough wolf pack to trim/eat down the moose population.

In recent years, the wolf population on the Island has been dying off and according to the purported experts, one of the reasons are the inbred genetics of the current wolf population. These experts feel the moose population also needs predators to keep the population at healthy levels, so they plan on building a stronger wolf population by relocating 20 or so wolves to the Island. This was the second wolf relocated, not counting the one they accidentally killed in the process.  Personally, I am against the entire plan. Not because I have anything against wolves, but more importantly, because I am fiscally conservative, and see tens of millions in tax dollars being spent in a way that provides very little return for the tax payers. I do not believe they are doing nature any favors either, since both the wolfs and the moose population are not even indigenous/native to this island and in fact have inhabited it for less than 100 years. The park service adding wolves on the Island is no more natural to Isle Royale, then the local zoo adopting elephants.   To see those expensive government owned boats and airplane, not to mention all those people at the campground who were on the government payroll overseeing and facilitating this government biology/science experiment, really helped me put in perspective just how expensive it must be to relocate wolves. All this for just one wolf…? I am going to guess the cost of all this to be somewhere in the tens of millions since they are planning on bringing an additional 20 more wolves to the Island. I can’t help but think how many poor people we could have helped with this tax money. I personally know plenty of elderly/retired people struggling just to afford food, medications, and health care after spending their entire lives working hard and paying taxes. Shouldn’t we help these people before we help the wolves…?  As far as trimming down the moose population, there are plenty of people that would be willing to harvest the moose for food. Why couldn’t the park service offer some moose hunts to the highest bidders with provisions included for the meat to be donated to a local food shelf to help feed the less fortunate. Many, me included, see spending millions in tax money to build a wolf pack on the Island as a “reckless” use of tax money at best.  Something the park service press releases on this topic never mention or discuss, are the potential unintended consequences. According to some wildlife biologists, one of the potential possibilities of building up a strong wolf pack, is that it could quickly change the balance of predator and prey, leaving more wolves then moose. There are many possible variables that will be at play here and some of the possibilities create disturbing possibilities for the Island. No matter how it turns out, it’s an expensive science experiment at best, and the overall beneficiaries do not seem to be the hard working tax payers who are working hard to pay for all this.

Thankfully one of the park rangers did in fact turn out to be very polite, professional, and helpful without needing my life story, and she also seemed to hold her posture in a manner that didn’t  brandish the weapons she was wearing, the way her counterpart did. Her name was Emily and she was very polite, not  abrasive and mistrusting like the other officer seemed to be. She offered to show us some of the lake charts/maps she had in her boat to help us  identify another anchorage option for the night. According to the chart Emily showed us, the closest dock with any camping shelters was another 10-12 miles down Siskiwit Bay, next to a seasonal ranger station at a campground known as Malon Bay.  I had never personally never personally been to this dock, but had read accounts from other boaters who had stayed there only to complain about the dockside swells that roll in during a Southeast wind. A Southeast wind was forecast to blow for the next couple days so part of me was seriously questioning the idea of using this dock, but with the sun going down so fast and no closer docking/camping options available, we pushed off and set course for Malon Bay. I crossed my fingers in hopes Tony and Nick would get situated into a campsite before darkness settled in. The sun was just setting beneath the trees as we pulled up to the dock in Malon bay. The camp ground turned out to be the better part of a ½ mile from the boat dock, with the trail connecting the two, full of deadfall blocking the trail, most likely blown down in the gale force winds the night before. Nick and Tony had been planning on camping in the Siskwit Bay campground shelters that were next to the dock when they packed all those big plastic totes full of camping gear along with that great big heavy-duty Pelican cooler. Here at Malone Bay, there was no way they could carry all that camping gear they had packed down the 1/2 mile trail full of fallen trees before dark. Lucky for them for them, there was a nice log cabin right next to the dock with the door wide open. Not sure what the cabin was for or who owns it. There were no signs saying who it belonged too, and no signs saying we couldn’t use it, so Nick and Tony took shelter in it for the night, avoiding a trek down that trail to the camping shelters.

That night the winds picked back up as the temps dropped down into the middle/upper 30’s. It rained/sleeted hard on and off all night. Several times during the night I was awakened to the sound of the bilge pump turning o to eject the rain water out of the boat. As I predicted, the dock offered very little protection from the SE winds, and the boat was getting tossed pretty hard all night. This made a good night’s sleep difficult at best. The winds continued picking up throughout the night and by morning it was driving 1-2 foot swells straight into the dock. The boat had been tugging on its dock lines so hard throughout the night, that I was somewhat worried they might break, letting the boat drift onto the same rocks those swells were crashing into. Upon getting up that morning, I closely examined all the docking lines for any damage/fraying, and added a few more redundant lines.   Looking out across Malone bay, I could see all the way across Siskiwit bay to the outer islands that separate Siskiwit bay from Lake Superior. Looking straight across the bay at Menagerie light house/Island, I could see large swells rolling in across Lake Superior from the southeast that were crashing on the rocks of Menagerie Island in spectacular fashion. These waves were much bigger then what I wanted to spend the day fishing in, so we decided to do a little sightseeing/hiking on the island while we waited for the winds to lay down. After cooking some breakfast in that cold wind driven rain/sleet, we headed up the hiking trail headed north out of Malone Bay. We hiked a couple of different trails, seeing Siskiwit Lake and the falls/creek coming out of it that lead to Superior. No moose were seen, but there were plenty of moose tracks on the trails.  Siskiwit lake was beautiful and well worth the short hike from camp. By the time we were back to camp, my feet were wet. My Solomon hiking boots had failed me, and my feet were now soaking wet. Thankfully I had a pair of dry running shoes in the boat. The rain/sleet was still coming down steady, and the wind was unrelenting. At around 5pm that evening, we finally saw a fleeting glimpse of the sun as it peaked out for a couple minutes.  After seeing that fleeting glimpse of the sun, I tuned in for the latest “NOAH Marine forecast and latest observations” using the Marine radio in the boat. Thankfully they were calling for the winds to switch direction and lie down, but not until early the following morning after blowing steady throughout the night.

 

Saturday morning arrived and the winds switched to the Northeast before laying down as predicted. The sun was periodically peeking  out through the dark clouds. Even though it was only in the middle 30’s, now that the wind had laid down and the rain/sleet stopped, it felt much warmer then the day before. I was really excited at this point to finally get out on the big lake to look for those big fish. After all, this whole trip is supposed to be about the BIG fish. Everything else is secondary. As we made our way across the bay, headed to the big lake, large swells could be seen rolling in and crashing  on the rocks of the outer islands, but there was no wind pushing them. We had hurriedly left camp, even skipping breakfast to get on those fish while the winds were laying down. The weather had already cost us a couple days of fishing, and the forecast for the following day wasn’t looking very stellar either. As we rounded Point Houghton and made our way through the navigation cans, there was no wind to speak of. Even a few miles offshore, the only waves we had to contend with were large  gentle swells still rolling in from the southeast. There was no wind driving these large swells at this point and the sun was still occasionally peeking out at us through the clouds. Within the first couple minutes of getting some fishing lines in the water we were rewarded with a nice lake trout. Through out the day, we managed to pull in fish, but the big ones we had come looking for managed to avoid us. Even on the boat’s sonar, I failed to see any  big fish/marks. Throughout the day we continued catching fish, but nothing trophy size. Sometime in the early afternoon I again tuned into NOAH weather radio. They were now forecasting another change in wind speed and direction for later that night, predicting waves heights in the 12-foot range the following day. Hearing this forecast completely ruined my plans of looking for big fish the following day. Besides being very hard to fish in those conditions, the boat ride back to the mainland would take 3-4 hours with waves that size/direction.  Since we only needed one more fish to make a full limit, we talked it over and decided to catch one more before calling it a weekend and heading back to port. Within ten minutes that last fish was brought aboard, and we headed back to Malone bay to load up Nick and Tony’s camping gear before heading to port. The ride back to Grand Portage from Malone Bay was easy and uneventful. We were traveling the same direction as the lazy 2-3 foot seas for most of ride, and the entire trip back took less then and hour and a half. As I backed the boat into the garage later that night after very long day 18 hour day, I couldn’t help but reflect back on it all. We didn’t catch any of the trophy fish we were hoping for as in all years past, but it was still an awesome adventure hunting the big lake for those trophy fish. As Tony and Nick will tell you, a bad day of fishing is still better then a good day of work…

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