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Special Characteristic: An archipelagian park, rugged Isle Royale surrounded by many smaller islands and protruding rocks; splendid hardwood and coniferous forests; many inland lakes; coves and fjords reminiscent of the Scandinavian coast line

Isle Royale National Park
A peaceful vista—Isle Royale National Park

FAR up in Lake Superior, near Canada and just within the international boundary line, lies unique Isle Royale National Park. The main island, nearly 45 miles long and 9 miles at its greatest width, has been likened to a "gigantic blunt-headed 40-mile long fish that has taken a bite from the Canadian shore." [1] Surrounding Isle Royale are more than 100 smaller islands, some attaining a length of two or more miles, and innumerable minor islets. Mott Island, where park headquarters are located, is part of an outer chain that forms the southeast boundary of Rock Harbor, a fjord 13 miles long.

Practically uninhabited, Isle Royale contains the elements of pure wilderness—and a wilderness different from the adjoining mainlands because of its age-long isolation. Indeed, it is said that probably nowhere else in the United States is there such an isolated land mass.

Fire, ice, and water all played a part in producing the Isle Royale archipelago. In recent times, geologically speaking, the islands emerged from Lake Superior—great masses of rock caused by old lava flows or sediments derived almost wholly from volcanic rock. Later came the Ice Age, when glaciers overrode it all. Time passed, and the ice gradually retreated, leaving Isle Royale submerged beneath the waters of a great lake which lay in front of the receding ice. As the ice melted still further, the waters receded, and again Isle Royale emerged, much as it is today.

The rugged, rocky shores of Isle Royale and its surrounding islands are indented by long deep bays and fjord-like channels. Too young as islands to have weathered to sandy beaches, the waters of Lake Superior come close to the shores of the Isle Royale group, so that most of the picturesque harbors may be navigated by boats of any size. Rocky beaches, sea caves, rock towers or skerries, and cascades tumbling into the lake add to the wild beauty of the scene. So do some 30 inland lakes, many of which contain yet other islands.


Though but little soil covers the rocky base—from a few inches to a few feet at most—the islands support a dense growth of hardwood and coniferous trees. Because of the archipelago's isolation, it offers a unique type of vegetation, unlike the typical lakes country of the surrounding mainland. Plants of alpine character mingle with those of the plains; and swamp growth is neighbor to plants typical of arid regions. The vegetation as a whole is an outstanding example of plant transition. In summer there is a great profusion of wildflowers. Red and green lichens and green moss add color, and gray moss hanging from many a tree introduces yet another note.

Its rare combination of forests, open glades, and inland waterways, protected by comparative inaccessibility, have made Isle Royale an interesting sanctuary for wildlife. The lordly moose, whose favorite haunts are the inland lakes and marshes, often may be met along the trails. Beaver inhabit some of the inland lakes and may frequently be seen by those who patiently watch and wait. Despite its hospitality to wildlife, many forms common to the nearby mainland, both in the United States and Canada, are missing from Isle Royale. Among these are bear, deer, wolves, and porcupine. Whether they have not made their appearance yet on these comparatively new islands, or whether, once here, they disappeared, is not known.


Isle Royale's human history vies in interest with the story of its creation. From prehistoric times the Indians knew of its copper deposits and mined them. Their copper pits, thousands of them still in evidence, are said to be 600 to 800 years old. French explorers heard and recorded rumors of "an isle where there is a mine of copper." Tradition has it that those rumors came to the attention of Benjamin Franklin while in Paris as one of the commissioners drawing up the international boundary following the Revolution, and caused him to insist upon the island's inclusion in the United States. Moderns sought the copper in the middle and later nineteenth century, but their mining ventures were unsuccessful.

Fur traders also knew Isle Royale well, even had a post there 80 or more years ago. And it may have been the fur trade, rather than the copper mines, that inspired Franklin and his fellow commissioners in their insistence on a line from Sault Ste. Marie to Pigeon River—for that was the route of the old voyageurs going to the Lake of the Woods and the Great Northwest. In establishing that as the international boundary it was pegged on Isle Royale, which on old maps was shown considerably south of the island's actual location.

Isle Royale also has an Old World flavor, introduced by a few families engaged in commercial fishing in Lake Superior. From April to December they live on the shores of the island, their fishing "villages" of two or three houses and the all-important net racks being typical of Norway or Finland. Their fishing is carried on in much the same methods as in Scandanavia, the ancestral homeland of most of them.


Isle Royale came into the national park system as a roadless wilderness, and so it will remain. Three lodges, near the shore at divergent points, established long before the park idea was considered, will provide the necessary accommodations for visitors, supplemented by half a dozen boaters and fishermen's camps. Approach to these camps, which will be quite primitive, will be by trail or boat only. The trails are for foot use only—not even a horse will be permitted to intrude upon the wilderness. It is hoped that most of the travel between island points will continue to be by boat.

1 Webb Waldron's "We Explore the Great Lakes" 1923.


Last Modified: Fri, Sep 1 2000 07:08:48 pm PDT

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