It's not easy to get to Isle Royale — but that's part of the adventure
The remote national park in the middle of Lake Superior is only accessible by boat or seaplane. Unsurprisingly, it's the least visited national park in the lower 48 states, but visitors spend a long time on the island once they get there.
Isle Royale National Park is not easy to get to.
Visitors have two options if they want to get to the Michigan island in the middle of Lake Superior: boat or seaplane.
So, compared to other parks, total visits are lower.
In 2019, Isle Royale was the least-visited National Park in the lower 48 states, with just under 26,500 recreational guests.
But the visitors that do make the sometimes nausea-inducing crossing stay in the park longer. That year, recreational park visits lasted more than four days on average. For comparison, the 4.5 million visitors to Utah’s Zion National Park spent an average of a half-day in the park.
The lack of crowds helps visitors experience the island’s wilderness.
"There's something in the water, I tell people," said Ben Silence, a captain for Grand Portage Isle Royale Transportation Lines, which has two ferries going to and from the island and Minnesota. "It's just so remote and just everyone that you — for the most part — that you encounter is always so friendly and having a good time and it's just a beautiful place."
On a Sunday afternoon in early August, Jonathan Ringdahl stepped off the Voyageur II in Grand Portage and was greeted at the end of the dock by his dog, Maple.
Ringdahl, of Galesville, Wisconsin, had just returned from a volunteer trip helping restore the park’s Rock of Ages Lighthouse.
His ferry ride to the island was in a storm. Passengers waited to board in the pouring rain while waves on the lake made for a “bumpy” ride, he said.
But that’s all just part of the Isle Royale experience, he said.
“That just adds to the adventure of getting out there and part of what makes it special is riding the boat out and then just talking to people that are on board the boat,” Ringdahl said. “And that’s when you start making bonds with people out here. So I just love that — I love it. And then you run into people you met on the boat out on the island.”
There are several ferry options for people looking to get out to the island.
From Grand Portage, passengers can take the Voyageur II and reach Windigo Visitor Center in about two hours. The boat then goes along the northwest side of the island to Rock Harbor, where it stays for the night, stopping at docks along the way to pick up or drop off backpackers and sea kayakers. Then, the next morning, it travels down the southeast side, again stopping at docks along the way, until it reaches Grand Portage.
The company also operates the Sea Hunter III, which offers day trips from Grand Portage to the Windigo Visitor Center and can make the trip in closer to 90 minutes.
From Michigan, passengers can take the Ranger III, operated by the National Park Service, from Houghton to Rock Harbor on the northeast corner of the island in six hours. Further up the Keweenaw Peninsula in Copper Harbor, the Isle Royale Queen IV makes daily trips to the island.
Private fishing boats and sailboats are also common.
If boating isn’t your thing, Isle Royale Seaplanes flies passengers from Cook County Airport near Grand Marais or the seaplane base in Hancock, Michigan, and Rock Harbor or Windigo. Flights take about 45 minutes.
'Transportation came as a necessity, not as a plan'
Grand Portage Isle Royale Transportation Lines co-owner Don Szczech said the ferry service he bought in 2005 was formed in the 1960s “as a necessity, not as a plan.”
The Sivertsons, a commercial fishing family since the 1890s, needed a way to transport fish caught in the waters surrounding the island to mainland customers.
But the boats that had been going around the island were no longer in service.
So they bought one, the Disturbance, to transport fish, and later, the first Voyageur.
“And it just kind of evolved into passengers,” Szczech said. “People were looking to get out there, (but) there was really no way to do it — at least not from Minnesota.”
At about the same time, invasive sea lamprey had decimated the lake trout population, hurting the Isle Royale fisheries that relied on them.
“As the fishing industry declined, the tourism industry picked up,” Szczech said. Jennifer Sivertson, whose family ran the fishery and started the ferry company, is also a co-owner.
During that era, Roy Oberg, a legendary and longtime captain of Isle Royale boats, was behind the wheel. An autographed photo of him still sits in a frame in the window of the Voyageur II’s pilothouse.
Today, his great-grandson, Ben Silence, captains both the Voyageur II and Sea Hunter III. Silence’s daughter is also a deckhand on the Sea Hunter.
“It’s very cool,” Silence said of captaining the same boat as his great-grandfather. “Especially the Voyageur II … he found that boat and that he was his last boat that he retired off of so that one holds a little special place.”
"It's fun. It can be treacherous at times," Silence said "There's more stuff under the water that you can't see that's more dangerous than above the water sometimes."
Modern navigation equipment helps crews move between underwater obstructions that can quickly change the lake depth beneath them from hundreds of feet deep to just a couple of feet deep.
Experience is crucial.
The Voyageur II passes a reminder of that each time it enters and exits Washington Harbor, where Windigo Visitor Center is located.
Two white buoys mark the steamer America’s final resting place.
The America spent the early 1900s bringing passengers along the North Shore of Lake Superior between Duluth and Thunder Bay (then called Port Arthur), with a stop at Isle Royale. But on June 7, 1928, the captain handed the wheel over to an inexperienced first mate.
The first mate struck a rock, puncturing the America's hull. And while the captain tried unsuccessfully to beach the boat, it got caught up on a reef not far from shore and all passengers and crew members were able to escape before it sank.
The wreck is now a destination for scuba divers.
Inside the Voyageur's wood-paneled interior walls are photos of the America wreck taken by divers, a reassuring presence to passengers experiencing an angry Lake Superior.
Before the steamships, getting to and from the island was even more laborious and risky, though not uncommon for the North Shore’s Indigenous people.
In his 2009 book “Minong — The Good Place: Ojibwe and Isle Royale,” Tim Cochrane, an Isle Royale researcher and former superintendent of the Grand Portage National Monument, dispelled the myth that the Ojibwe were “scared” of the long, open-water crossing.
Ojibwe, and later the fur traders, routinely made the 12- to 15-mile crossing in bark canoes from the area that is now Grand Portage and Thunder Bay, Ontario, to the island, Cochrane wrote.
“Contradicting the opinion that North Shore Ojibwe were scared to cross the lake to Minong (Isle Royale) is a more sophisticated view that they were maritime peoples who lived from and on the lake,” Cochrane wrote. “They traveled frequently on the water and knew it well. The village of Grand Portage faced the Lake to provide easy access for residents.”
But even with all the new technology, some practices on the Voyageur II hearken back to past generations. The crew carries canvas sacks of mail and packages to and from Grand Portage and Windigo and Rock Harbor for the U.S. Postal Service. They also deliver supplies to the National Park Service.
And the trips are still long.
Lee Dassler, whose family had a life lease on a cabin in Isle Royale’s Tobin Harbor until the early 1990s, prefers the slow boat journey back to civilization over the much faster seaplane option.
She described the six hours on the Park Service’s Ranger III as a mental and emotional “transition” from island and mainland.
Szczech sees that on his boats.
“On the way out there, everybody’s eyes are wide open,” Szczech said. “On the way home, 60% of the people are nodding off, sleeping.”