Paddling Isle Royale

Paddling Isle Royale

I’m sitting in my kayak under one of only two bridges in Isle Royale National Park. The water is shallow, clear, and lined by variegated and brightly colored stones. No one knows where I am, I am all alone and supremely happy. Through this narrow inlet that leads to the vast expanse of Lake Superior I can hear the dull roar of surf.

As I drift under the bridge I look up and spot a plaque. I paddle and scull to hold my position, for there is some current here. I wish I had my camera out to photograph the plaque, but it is safe in a dry bag- after three days of paddling sheltered Tobin Harbor I don’t trust the big lake. The plaque is dedicated to a firefighter from L’anse Michigan, who died during the famous Storm King fire in distant Colorado.  It adds a bittersweet moment to my day, to think of this local boy who travelled so far to help others only to die in this most awful manner. The rust colored bridge, its symmetrical arch reflected in the water, with the rising granite walls behind it is a fittingly beautiful and very lonely memorial.

I am in the channel that separates Caribou and Cemetery islands, about to paddle out onto the open lake. As I paddle on the bottom drops away into blue-green nothingness, the water gets noticeably rougher, and as I round the corner the horizon bends off to infinity.

Not that Lake Superior is especially rough today, but even on calm days long swells generated perhaps a couple of hundred miles away slap the sheer black rocks, bouncing back in reflected waves called clapotis. My craft is small but capable, engineered for rough water- the trick is to keep your head and shoulders still and pivot at the hips with the water. The kayak does the rest. Still, this rough water is uncomfortable, no one is in sight, and a swim in these chilly waters where there is no place to haul out for perhaps a mile is unappealing.

I’m not unprepared. I have a whitewater spray skirt with a bungee so strong that if I flip over it will hold me in the cockpit. It requires a strong tug on the handle on the front to unseat it. A lot of people mistakenly believe that the Eskimo roll is the essential kayaking skill.  It’s not.  The wet exit is. Most people can’t or shouldn’t try to roll their kayak in an emergency, but pulling that handle and getting out of your boat may save your life. My other essential gear anticipates just such an event. I have a dual action bilge pump and a paddle float. The float attaches to your paddle, allowing you to use it like an outrigger, and the pump of course will empty your boat. I’ve practiced these skills and I’m wearing a PFD. While it may seem foolhardy to be out here alone and without having left a float plan (I wouldn’t have stuck to it anyway) I’m comfortable with the level of risk, I do this all the time. With all this talk of wet exits and clapotis, Eskimo rolls and self-rescue I’m perhaps over-dramatizing the danger- it is a lovely day, with blue skies, calm winds, gentle waves and little boat traffic in Rock Harbor. I paddle on down this particularly exposed Coast, past off-shore stacks that look like the ones you see in the Oregon travel brochures, not as big, but just as steep and forbidding. The vegetation line thirty feet above the water line tells another story- anything trying to grow below that level gets swept away by the fall gales. I paddle past a small cove, perhaps the only place to land on a mile or more of coast, but waves break on a rock reef that guards its entrance. My goal is the Rock Harbor lighthouse, to at least see it, see something besides the ferry dock, the restaurant and grill, and the park buildings.


Isle Royale

I had come to Isle Royale with a group of guys to fly fish for Coaster brook trout, a lake dwelling form that is increasingly rare. We did our fishing, caught a few even, but the season closed on Labor Day and so we portaged our kayaks from Tobin Harbor, where most of the Coasters live, to Rock Harbor to cast for salmon and rainbow trout, while secretly hoping to catch a native lake trout or Coaster. We launched our kayaks as the fog rolled in, obscuring everything. A couple of our friends cast half-heartedly from the American dock, but Brett and I pushed out into the harbor. In a harbor, in the fog, in a kayak, there is no worse sound than that of a boat motor, and so I quickly pushed out to the first island, a pile of granite really, with parking-cone-orange lichens on its flanks and a smattering of trees and brush along its top. I found a smooth granite cradle in a protected spot, beached my boat and walked the slick scoured flanks. It was like walking on the carcass of some great dead elephant, just as craggy, just as black and folded. I cast for a time into the clear depths from the few points that allowed it, but my heart wasn’t in it. The brook trout season was closed, and I had no desire to catch salmon. What I wanted was to explore, to see a little of this great isolated island, to get a sense of its breadth. Most visitors think of Isle Royale as a hiking destination, but with 450 smaller islands, numerous bays and fjord-like embayments which can be many miles long, Isle Royale is a kayaker’s paradise. Many of the campsites are accessible by paddlers only, and many other trail campsites are located on the shores with access to boaters. While hikers see virtue in taking one step at a time with their life on their backs, paddlers know the pleasures of sculling smoothly along, their kayak bearing all their gear and perhaps even some gourmet food items or a bottle of wine as they float on the lovely waters.

Fly fishing has always been a first love of mine, but at times I had found it wanting. In fly fishing you’re always striving for something- the perfect cast, a good drift, the next fish. While I enjoy this most of the time, at other times I find it vexing, another source of unfulfilled desires in a world that always tells us we need more. I needed something that kept me exploring without the exasperation. In kayaking I found the perfect medium. It is water based, scenic, adventurous- perhaps even daring. I took private lessons, learned (sort of) how to roll, learned self-rescue, and most importantly I learned how to paddle- correctly. From then on it was pure bliss. Sometimes I packed a fly rod, most times I did not.

Kayaking is pure adventure, pure discovery. Never mind that lake or river you’re on, that island you’re exploring from the wet side, has been on a map for 400 years- it is new to you, which is all that matters. That sky and those waters are never the same, always changing, an infinite horizon painted on a canvas of water, cleaved by the bow of your craft. Some of my happiest moments are when I’m far from shore, floating through the reflections of clouds never seen by anyone else-  they are all your own, the ripples from your craft are your way to mark them as yours for a moment. When you pass, the ripples fade, a reminder that we never really own anything on this earth, and in releasing what we held for a moment, we heal a small part of our souls. It is this simple freedom that I love about kayaking, and every time I go out I must resist the urge to paddle off into an imaginary horizon.

I had set off in the morning fog, fishing from island to island, but soon I tired of this. I had heard that someone had caught rainbow trout from the dock at Three-Mile campground, which I was guessing was, well, three miles from Rock Harbor. This sounded like a great place to eat lunch. I paddled there, past lichen crusted cliffs, past hikers on the shore trail, some of whom hailed me jealously as I floated past them trudging under their sixty pound packs. “I’m coming with you!” they’d shout, fluster-faced and hoarse from their travail. I laughed and bantered, and paddled on. Boats passed in either direction, and at first I would turn to face their wake, but after a while I ignored them. Small boats are of little consequence to a kayak. The boat I was watching for was the national park ferry, the Ranger III. This is a big boat, capable of carrying a couple of hundred passengers plus cargo. A friend saw it off-loading a 16 foot fishing boat. The Ranger III is also capable of kicking up a sizable wake, one that could quite possibly swamp my little craft. I reached the Three Mile dock after some time and put ashore. I ate a particularly non-gourmet lunch of cheese sticks and granola bars, then dug my fly rod out from my deck rigging and started casting.

Casting a fly rod is much like paddling- repetitive, metronomic, punctuated by long pauses, intense concentration, and complete lapses of memory. I don’t know how long I stood on that dock casting, but I knew that at some point I looked up, and there was the Ranger III docked at Park headquarters on Mott Island, over a mile away. It looked large and comfortable, a sturdy work vessel and my ride home the next day. I was also ready to leave the Three Mile dock and hoped that the Ranger  was staying in port. Large and comfortable can also look enormous and forbidding when your bridge is 18 inches off of the water. I launched, pointing my boat directly at the ferry, and I paddled with a purpose, hoping to inspect the ferry up close, but within minutes of my leaving shore, the ferry did likewise, its bow headed my way. It mucked around at first, side thrusters growling, now in reverse, then forward slowly. After ten minutes I seemed to have made no progress forward, but the ferry kicked it into high gear.

I can’t tell you what it is like anticipating a wave. You can see them coming across all that expanse of water. They look huge even at a distance. They seem to take forever like the proverbial Heinz. Cue the music. When the waves arrived- I counted 11- nothing much happened. Right when you expected disaster the Greenland-style bow of my boat rode up and over them, though the fly rods strapped to the deck stabbed into the waves then bowed crazily under the strain as the kayak rode up and over the water. In the end it was a fun ride, but anti-climactic, just a bigger version of the passing power boat wakes. From there I paddled out to the bridge, through the channel and into the open waters of Superior.

It was pleasant floating on this vast sea, its swell lifting the boat gently before breaking on the black cliffs behind me. It was an easy conceit sitting there to imagine this island kingdom as mine alone, that I ruled over gulls and geese, foxes and loons; that even the wolves paid tribute by their howling. In such moments it is all too easy to lose oneself in the seascape, pronounce yourself ruler of all that you see, and from your buoyant throne to survey your holdings, king for a day.

I was getting worried about the time. No matter how hard I paddled, I never seemed to get closer to the narrow passage that leads past the Rock Harbor light. After a while a fog bell chimed, and I knew I was getting close. It chimed a lot, and when I turned I saw it- a fog bank, several miles distant to the south-east. Probably not a threat, but I was grateful to be turning back into Rock Harbor. I pulled off at a beach, dug out my camera, took some photos of the lighthouse, ate another granola bar, pulled at my water, and listened to the clanging of the fog bell and the slush and chug of the mild surf. I launched and paddled hard back for home port. From here there isn’t much to tell- the air was hazy and light, the sky blue, creased by high cirrus clouds, the sun golden in that mellow manner of a September afternoon. As I rounded the island I notice that the wind had shifted to the south-east.

From there I raced back. Rock harbor isn’t wide, perhaps a mile at the most, but it is many miles long, and I didn’t want to be stuck in fog seven miles from port. I got stuck in fog five miles from port. The ferry had dropped its load of explorers and vagabonds two hours before, and now a fresh wave of hikers and a pair of kayakers in fine wooden boats (mine is sassy red plastic, thank you very much) came toward me, as the first tendrils of fog enwrapped the outer islands, flowed out over the harbor then hit shore. Shore disappeared. I made it reappear by steering to my left, hugging it from then on. The kayakers reappeared, smiling and happy, we exchanged pleasantries, and the hikers on shore stared in disbelief (“We could have floated?”)

Soon enough I was back in port and greeted by my friends, the Ranger III anchored at the dock I would board it from the next day. I had left in the fog and returned in it, my own vanishing act, the water and sky keeping my secrets.

Paddling Isle Royale

Isle Royale



Jason Tucker

Jason Tucker



Author - Jason Tucker lives and fishes in Northern Michigan.  You can follow his slow descent into fly fishing mania on his blog, Fontinalis Rising.  We highly recommend against this however.