A Long Way From A Long Way From Anywhere
Isle Royale is a long way from a long way from anywhere. To catch the once-a-day ferry to the dolphin-shaped island in the northwestern corner of Lake Superior, you have to drive to Copper Harbor, the northernmost village in the U.P. It lies at the tip of Keweenaw County, a barely-inhabited land of fir-covered mountains and volcanic rock.
I went to Isle Royale with one goal in mind: to see a moose. Once I crossed the channel between Houghton and Hancock, it was a long, steep haul up U.S. 41, past Coppertown, U.S.A., an abandoned mine pit south of Calumet, and past the Jampot, where monks make jelly out of thimbleberry, a boreal shrub that thrives in cool Northern woods. At Eagle River, where this pop. 2,000 county is run from a courthouse the size of a one-room school, I turned onto the lakeshore highway.
For dramatic coastlines — the intertidal battlegrounds where insistent waves burst against ancient rocks — you cannot beat Big Sur on the West, Maine on the East, or Keweenaw on the Third. The road threaded the ledge between the billion-year-old hills and a frenzied beach, where the tide slapped over copper-tinged boulders, forcing surges of froth through the gaps. I expected to hear seals barking over the splash.
In the summer, Copper Harbor is the embarkation point for Isle Royale. This is the end of the road for U.S. 41. The highway was a snowbird migration route in the ’30s and ’40s, and there’s still a mileage sign for those seeking warmer islands: MIAMI FL 1990. I ate a fish dinner in a waterside restaurant whose owner was another Troll.
“I used to live in Gaylord,” he said. “I worked for GM in Pontiac. I’d drive down there every day, and I’d drive up here every weekend.”
“That sounds impossible. How long did it take you to get to work?”
“About four hours each way.”
“How long did it take you to get up here?”
“You must have lived in your car.”
“Well, I’m glad I’m up here full time.”
In the morning, the Isle Royale Queen IV, a two-story, hundred-foot boat, nudged its bow against a gravel parking lot, still greasy with the night’s rain. The Queen IV, a retired New York city ferry called out of a Florida retirement, had just replaced a smaller, slower vessel known to travelers as “The Barf Barge,” thus saving an hour, and innumerable breakfasts.
Isle Royale is the least-visited national park in the Lower 48. About 15,000 people set foot there each year, fewer than an afternoon crowd at Yellowstone. The eighty hikers shruggling their packs onto the luggage cart were different from the brat-grilling RV campers I’d tented with in state parks. These were lean, Gore-tex adventurers, urban outdoorsmen stepping directly from the cubicle maze to the wilderness. One man browsed Wired magazine. Another wore wool, from bush hat to trousers — the get-up of a mid-20th-Century Alpinist.
We were ordered aboard by a man in a v-neck sweater and a tattersall shirt, shouting commands with craggy authority.
“He must be a church usher,” a passenger whispered.
He was the boat’s owner, Donald Kilpela, who had quit his job as a college administrator 34 years ago to sail between Copper Harbor and Isle Royale. He had not lost his city polish, but his sons, who now captained the Queen IV, had softened into Yoopers. Don Jr. commanded the voyage in a fleece vest and a costume-shop captain’s hat, plopped over his blond locks.
We set sail under black powder clouds. The wake peeled away from the stern, the evergreen hills softened behind the spray. Never in my life had I lost sight of land, but it wasn’t long before Copper Harbor revolved over the horizon, and we were churning through a compass of water, bordered by mist. It was like sailing on a watery planet. You couldn’t judge the distance to the horizon. The boat might have been floating in a water tank, a hundred feet across. It might have been drifting across the North Atlantic.
The landing, at Rock Harbor, is the only developed corner of Isle Royale. There’s a camper’s commissary, a gift shop, and a lodge with soft beds and a china-plate restaurant. But by law, only one percent of the island is set aside for civilized comforts. The rest is wilderness. This must be the most remote spot in the continental United States: where else, even in the mountain west, could you find yourself so far from the nearest automobile? The island was not always so isolated from human activity: the Ojibway canoed in to chip copper from a 2,000-foot boulder, Norwegian fishermen from Minnesota wintered out in cabins on the western end, and hayfever victims cottaged here before antihistamines made ragweed less of a misery. When the Park Service took over in 1940, it granted lifetime leases to landowners; the shrewdest wrote down the names of their youngest grandchildren, so there remained a half-dozen cabins, and one family still fished. Nobody wintered anymore. The island closed November 1, and from then until spring, the only human visitors were scientists who flew in to count the moose and the wolves. The moose swarm over from Canada, and a herd of 500 supports 30 wolves, descended from a pack that walked across the ice in the winter of 1948. Moose sightings are common on Isle Royale – moose have no sweat glands, so when the temperature rises past 50, they are often neck-deep in the coves, harbors or inland lake. But only one hiker in a thousand ever sees a wolf.
I only had two nights on the island. I couldn’t go far enough inland to find a wolf. But I wanted to see a moose; now that I’d seen the bear in Marquette, it would complete my journey around Lake Superior. I began walking west, in the direction of Windigo, the ferry dock on the island’s western edge. That’s a five-day hike; I hoped only to get as far as Daisy Farm, the second campsite on the trail. It was seven miles away, and I still had a long Northern evening.
Isle Royale is the essence of the North – wolf, moose, fir, rock and water – reduced to 133,000 acres. My backpack was stuffed with beans, noodles, canned soup and peanut butter, but I worried out my Trees and Flowers of the Great Lakes and began searching for wildflowers that had been choked out of less insular country. I saw thimbleberry, its tiny pods not yet budded to fruit; wild rose; wood lily; ox-eye daisy; and, every time I took my eye off the trail, the spindly profile of a spruce.
I got lost twice on the trail to Daisy Farm. John Updike once wrote that “New England wears its bones on the outside.” So does Isle Royale. My boots danced around puddles, side-stepped rocks. By the time I found my way, the light was smoky in the overcast evening. Soon, dusk would shade it a darker gray. I decided to sleep at Three Mile, the first campsite on the trail. This late, the mosquitos were hunting in earnest. I slapped them into rouge smears on my cheeks and hands. Then I unknotted the rain jacket around my waist, pulled the hood over my head, and yanked the cuffs past my fingers.
At Three Mile, I found a screened-in porch: plank floor, sloping roof, concrete-block pillars. The walls recorded the sentiments of past campers. “Troop 104 Slept Here.” “Dave Varro, Warren, MI, 7/30/74.” “I Need Nookie” – a timeless wilderness complaint. I ladled a pot of water from the lake, boiled it on my campstove, and drained it into a plastic bottle. The lake was infested with parasites, so this was the only safe way to drink. Then I heated a can of soup and pitched my tent on the wooden platform, just as the rains began dribbling down. Even under a roof, I needed the extra layer of shelter: the temperature fell to the mid-40s, closer to freezing than to bare-arm weather. I slipped directly from my jacket to my sleeping bag, to keep warm. Clicking on my biker’s headlamp, I read the loose-paged paperback of Anatomy of a Murder, the book that gave the Upper Peninsula its one and only turn in the Hollywood spotlight. It was written by “Robert Traver,” the nom de plume of Marquette lawyer John Volcker, who later served on the Michigan Supreme Court. One of the great courtroom procedurals, Anatomy helped nudge the legal thriller from the crusading of Perry Mason to the moral ambiguities of Presumed Innocent. Its narrator, Paul Biegler, is no Atticus Finch: he’s an ex-prosecutor representing an Air Force captain who killed a man to defend the honor of his sluttish wife. There are numerous witnesses, so he has to employ the “temporary insanity” defense. Biegler’s case isn’t about guilt, innocence, or justice, it’s about the clever use of legal statutes. In some ways, the book is too dated for modern readers – it is sordid in a way that was only possible in the ‘40s and ‘50s, when there was an enormous gap between public virtue and private vice – but the movie, with its iconic poster of a shattered crime-scene body, is still popular, especially in the U.P. Outside Ishpeming, I’d passed a bar that declared “SEEN IN ANATOMY OF A MURDER.”
The next morning, I made it to Daisy Farm Camp, slipping over mud, roots and rocks every step of the four-mile walk. I sat down to lunch on a can of sardines. Loons paddled in Moskey Basin. The water was a grained mirror. At the mouth of the cove, I could see the Rock Harbor Lighthouse, and the ruined shacks of an old fishery. It was only eleven in the morning. I couldn’t keep hiking west, to Lake Richie or Chickenbone Lake. I’d never make it back to Rock Harbor for the next day’s ferry. I decided to head north, and hike the Greenstone Ridge. It was the main cross-island trail, the spine of Isle Royale, far above the puddled, bug-swarmed shoreline.
Getting there was like climbing a staircase, a mile and a half long. The trail finally flattened out at Mount Ojibway. A three-story lookout stood on the summit. It was as spindly as an electrical tower. Standing beside an aluminum leg was the wool-clad hiker I’d seen on the ferry. He was with his wife, a woman so palely beautiful I figured she must be one of the local Finns. I was wrong. He was the Finn. Galen Ojala was an Air Force captain from Iron Mountain. He’d purchased his hiking outfit — combat boots, herringbone pants, button-up vest – at a military surplus store. Even the army had abandoned wool for Gore-tex, but he insisted it wasn’t hot. On Isle Royale, you couldn’t be warm enough. We both started up the steps, to get a better view of Lake Ojibway. I thought maybe I could see a moose cooling himself there. But only Galen made it to the top. Halfway up, I felt the tower shuddering in the unbroken northwest wind. I retreated.
“It’s too windy,” I told Galen’s wife. We stood on the sturdy mountain, watching him scout from the highest platform.
“That’s what I thought,” she said. “I tried to go up there before and I only made it up the first set of stairs.”
When Galen came down from the tower, he shouldered his pack, and headed west, to Lake Ojibway. His wife followed. I turned east, hiking alone to Mount Franklin. It’s named for Benjamin Franklin, who swindled Isle Royale from King George III at the Treaty of Paris talks, in 1783. One historian says that 18th Century maps misplaced the island in the middle of the lake; another that Franklin heard stories of fabulous copper deposits.
Atop the mountain, I rewarded myself with a drink from the bottle. I had to ration my water, unless I wanted to stop at a stream and boil a new supply. I stepped into a rock ledge, and looked around. This was a wide-screen vantage, on a high-definition day. To the south, I saw meadows of summer-faded grass, flecked with yarrow and thistle. To the north, past a jungle of evergreens and miles of gloomy water, was the Sleeping Giant, a range of hills shaped like a reclining man. They were 15 miles away, on the tip of Ontario’s Sibley Peninsula, but the profile was sharply drawn beneath clouds that overarched this scene like a drawn-up curtain.
A milepost pointed the way to Three-Mile Camp, but I nearly lost the trail as I zig-zagged down a rock shelf. At some point, the cairns marking the path crumbled to shapeless rubble. I found myself stranded on a volcanic slab, with no map, and very little water. Tobin Harbor was straight ahead, but thick undergrowth blocked my path. Dropping my pack, I tried to blaze a trail. Within ten yards, I was up to my chest in leaves. The branches resisted like a police line. Half-an-hour is not so long to be lost in the wilderness – I know people who’ve wandered for days in barren desert – but when you’ve lived with 911 and Map Quest, it’s enough to bring you within sight of the suburbs of panic. Cell phones didn’t work on Isle Royale. Land lines didn’t work. There was a satellite phone in Rock Harbor, but that was miles away. I paced the the rock face, feeling edgier with each lap. Finally, I found a hole in the treeline. Stepping through it, I set my boot on a pounded dirt path.
I still had hours of walking. I wanted to make it back to Rock Harbor, to hear a ranger lecture on Island fishermen. I sipped from the bottle every mile, but I was so dehydrated I slipped on a damp rock and tumbled forward, skinning my wrist and pitching my pack into the dirt. The last three miles, the path lengthened with each step. I suffered the same delirious cravings I’d felt during marathon training runs – for milkshakes, Whoppers, pretzels, corn chips and malted milk balls. When I saw the seaplane drag race off the water, leaving skid marks of foam, I knew I was close to Rock Harbor.
By the time I gained the commissary, I had hiked 13 miles, under a full pack. I tore a 32-ounce bottle of Gatorade from the shelf, drank it in a single chug, and chased it by crumbling a package of Oreos into my mouth. Outside the store, I met four women – three girls, and a mother. Their hair was lank, their faces were sheened with sweat and grease. They smelled like tramps.
“We were out there four days,” the mother said. They had gotten as far as Chickenbone, the wishbone-shaped lake on the path to Windigo. That exhausted night, they ate a cold supper: beans from the can. I asked the question I’d been asking all over the island: had they seen a moose?
“We did see a moose,” she said. “It was acting bizarre. It just kept charging through the water, like it was running at something. Maybe it was trying to get the flies off itself.”
That evening, I asked a ranger.
“Where are all the moose?” I demanded.
“I don’t know where all the moose went,” she said. “There was one right here in front of the auditorium on Tuesday. It was standing right on the asphalt path.”
I didn’t see a moose on Isle Royale. But I wasn’t prepared for wilderness hiking. Before this trip, I’d camped only once since my weekends with Troop 409, Chief Okemos Council, Boy Scouts of America. Any big-city wuss can set up a nylon tent in an RV park, with a car parked on the campsite, and an ATM in the liquor store up the road. But Isle Royale was Camping 420. If you’re not prepared, you’ll end up hungry, bug-nipped, footsore, and parched, with a 15-mile walk to your next meal. Stuffing cans into my backpack sustained me for forty-eight hours, but that’s not enough time to explore this exotic kingdom. A man from Petoskey passed by my tent. He’d been on the island a week. It was his third trip: he’d dehydrated 12 pounds of beef down to two pounds of jerky, packed sun-dried tomatoes – and seen a moose, bathing in McCargoe Cove, on the north shore. He was coming back again.
“There’s no place else like this. There’s just always something to explore, all kinds of hidden areas.”
The next afternoon, as I waited for the ferry, four young bucks paddled up in a canoe. Their beards were somewhere between Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen and Erik the Red. They toted a quiver of fishing rods.
When I got back to Copper Harbor, Don Kilpela was in his office, sporting a Rotary Club polo shirt. He’d just finished scooping ice cream at the Pasty Fest in Calumet.
“One thing about Isle Royale,” he boomed, as he printed me a history of the Isle Royale Queens, “they say it’s the least visited National Park, but the most re-visited. I have people on that boat who’ve gone every year I’ve owned the boat. If I knew what it was, I’d sell it.”
Maybe they’re still trying to see a moose.
The gas gauge quivered just above the “E” on U.S. 41. In Keweenaw County, this is a problem. Pressing lightly on the pedal, I rolled through Delaware, and Central, hoping to find a gas station, but these settlements made more of an impression on mapmakers than they had on the landscape. Finally, in Phoenix, I passed a general store with a single pump in the parking lot. The nozzle was holstered in the side – you only got premium on the Keweenaw – the price recorded by spinning tumblers. Inside, the varnished floor, as dark as a buckeye, said this place had sold coffee, newspapers and beans to lumberjacks and copper miners. Nope, they didn’t take credit cards. The $2.50 in my pocket was worth less than a gallon – enough, I hoped, to power the car to Calumet.
I badly wanted to visit Gay, where locals drank in, yep, the Gay Bar, but it was down a county road in the southeast corner of the peninsula and I was too tired for that drive. I did see the Keweenaw Snow Thermometer, a vertical billboard commemorating the winter of 1978-79, when 390.4 inches fell. The 32-foot sign dared the Witch of Superior to bury it, but that’s not likely to happen: the winter squeeze produced an all-time low of 161 inches in 1999-2000. The year before, 202 inches had fallen, still a blizzard short of the 20-foot average.
When I checked into a motel in Houghton, my cheeks were shaded with whiskers, my greasy hair was mashed under a baseball cap, and I was breathing the thin air of exhaustion. I asked for a room with a tub.
“You just come off the island?” the clerk asked.
It gives you that look.
Ironwood, the westernmost city in Michigan, is 350 miles from Fargo, and 600 from Detroit. That’s a lot of space in both directions. Ironwood has used it to build two entries in the Great Northern World’s Largest Sweepstakes. Copper Peak, the better-known monument to Bunyanism, is the world’s longest ski jump. It was built in 1969, during the Jean-Claude Killy era of Alpine chic, to lure European athletes to the U.P. For awhile, it did. Finns, Norwegians, Austrians and Japanese all hurled themselves off the lip of the 469-foot chute. But the wooden hill has not launched a jumper since 1994. Its plank track needs repairs. Today, Copper Peak is marketed as a scenic overlook.
I had visited Ironwood the previous autumn, and paid ten dollars to ride a chairlift to the foot of Copper Peak. That’s as terrifying as any roller-coaster at Cedar Point. The chair swung from a cable, squealing like a gull as it rolled upward. Dangling 20 feet above a snowbank may not feel like a cable-snap from death, but it’s different when you can see the rocks and the scrub that will break your fall, and your legs. On its range of wooded hills, Copper Peak doesn’t look like a Brobdignagian folly. It looks like an old mineshaft. There’s an 18-story elevator to the top.
As I made toward, the chairlift operator called to me. I recognized his face from a newspaper photo in the visitor center: he was the only Yooper ever to qualify for Copper Peak. The jump had nearly maimed him.
“You know you can walk up,” he said.
“Are there stairs?”
“No. You can walk up the hill. Just hold onto the railing. I do it all the time.”
So I walked, never looking back at the ever-lengthening tumble I’d take if I lost my balance. I had to step over a missing plank, and I caught a splinter from the railing, but once I summitted, I was overlooking the quilt of autumn, with patches and threads of yellow, pumpkin and crimson. I imagine that firewatchers feel the same sense of supreme isolation I felt atop Copper Peak. Supposedly, you can see past the blue curve of Lake Superior, all the way to Minnesota’s North Shore.
Ironwood’s other world’s largest is the World’s Largest Fiberglass Indian, an inflated lawn ornament that looms over downtown like a water tower. It’s allegedly a likeness of Hiawatha, the mythical Ojibway hero who lived in the Superior Country, but it’s dressed in a Sioux war bonnet and a turquoise breech cloth, so maybe it’s meant to honor all Natives, the way a figure in a Viking helmet and a toga would honor all Europeans.
On the very last block of the U.P., before U.S. 2 crosses the Montreal River and becomes honky-tonk Silver Street, in the bad-sister city of Hurley, Wisconsin, is Joe’s Pasty Shop. It’s only the size of a bakery, but no oven produces crisper, flakier, meatier pasties than Joe’s. The pasty (pronounced PAST-ee, as opposed to the tassels that swing from burlesque girls’ breasts), is the U.P.’s signature delicacy. It was brought to the North Country by the “Cousin Jacks,” the Cornish miners who crossed the sea from coal to copper in the 19th Century. Their wives, the Cousin Jennys, wanted them to carry a full meal into the mines, so they invented the pasty, a stew folded into a turnover shell. The original pasties were as complete as frozen dinners – some had jam baked into a corner compartment, as dessert. The miners threw away the corners or “crimps” not only to avoid arsenic poisoning from their coal-dusted fingers, but to feed the “knockers,” the ghosts that lived underground. A classic pasty is filled with beef, potatoes and onions, but in America, they’ve become as much a dumping ground of ethnic foods as pizzas. Joe’s also serves the Reuben pasty, the Bacon Cheeseburger pasty, the Taco Pasty, the Pizza Pasty, and the Cajun Chicken Pasty. I like the Cornish Pasty, which is the original filling, plus rutabagas. I wouldn’t leave the U.P. without eating one.