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ISLE ROYALE AT LOW TIDE

When you return from Paradise, how can
you ever fit in to this world again?

By Jerry Harpt

Bucky Vieth, 56-year old fidget, lathered his body with biodegradable soap, yelped his version of a Tarzan call and jumped off Caribou Island's dock. As soon as he hit the water he started to yelp some more, actually screaming under water because the water temperature at the Isle Royale inlet was 40 degrees.

The icy water didn't phase Bucky or any of his five campmates who ranged in age from 50 to 65. That's because when you go to Isle Royale National Park, out in the middle of Lake Superior, you leave your comfort zone behind. There are no cell phones, no computer hook-ups, no TV's, no mattress and box spring, no flush toilets and no warm baths, not on Caribou Island anyway.

<<<Caribou Island, one of the many islands that make up the Isle Royale archipelago, has a comfort zone of a different kind. It's that 'Call of the Wild' zone where early morning finds you snuggling up in your sleeping bag on a mat hardly thicker than a slice of bread, listening to the rain pounding on the tarp over your tent, wind passing through the trees, gulls crying, loons calling, the bell of the channel buoy ringing each time a wave tips it, and the whining of mosquitoes that got through the hole in the screen of your tent.

Isle Royale has changed some in the three years since we waved goodbye to it from the deck of the Ranger boat, trying to swallow the lump in our throat. We promised to return. The level of Lake Superior has dropped since then. 18 inches is the past year alone, opening up opportunities for adventure that weren't there before. Adventures like hiking the extended shoreline.

Have you ever taken a canoe ride, or a hike, or passed a dam on a favorite river and wondered what the area looked like 200 years ago, before man had a chance to tarnish it? Well, that's the way Isle Royale is, an untarnished masterpiece of basalt-laced wonderment that has barely changed since ancient Indians mined copper with simple tools some 4,000 years ago.

The ironic conflict is this. You take the six-hour, 73-mile ride from Houghton, Michigan to Isle Royale on the Ranger, a National Park boat, with tons of anticipation. You encounter unblemished beauty of the surreal kind, and you leave the island with a sense of fulfillment, your soul completely re-attached. When you return to Houghton you see people waving from shore with one hand. Their other hand is trying to dig a cell phone out of their ear. 'Yikes.' And to think, just hours earlier, you stood within ten feet of a mother duck and her chicks, snoozing along the island shoreline. Such a contrasting comfort zone to re-enter.

Caribou Island is where we camped. It's about a mile long and a half-mile wide, one of the hundreds of islands that hover near the large island and help give Isle Royale its Archipelago status.

Because the lake level has dropped appreciably since our last visit, we could now walk around our adopted island, which we chose to do for our 'adventure' one day. We left camp and tramped the shoreline. We walked over 1.2 billion year-old volcanic rocks that have been broken down and rounded by waves, glaciers, and time. Occasionally we hit a muddy spot where we could pick up fresh moose tracks. We also found where moose bedded down near the shoreline on previous nights.

We roamed the shoreline for a half-mile and then came to an inlet that seemed to divide the island in half. We decided to hike through the channel. It rose to small canyon heights as we neared the waiting arms of Lake Superior. The rocks we walked on were bigger now, boulder size. They became trickier to negotiate, as we jumped from one rock to another. When we reached Superior's shore, a canyon wall of basalt blocked us. We had to bushwhack past trees covered by Spanish moss. We hiked over huge lichen and moss-encrusted rock outcrops, until we reached the crashing waves at the shoreline of the big lake.

It was not our intention to go off trail, something the park does not encourage. We simply committed ourselves and had to find a way. We had become a little bit of Robinson Crusoe and, because our spirit willed it, a lot of Huckleberry Finn. We saw no other footprints but ours and we didn't expect any to follow.

Once we reached the shore, basalt rock ledges angled gently into the sea, making walking easy. Sometimes we had to scale a rock outcrop next to the shoreline but the footing, although tricky, was safe. These outcrops, and the little offshore islands that were once joined to the mainland, were regaled in gray, green and orange colors thanks to the lichens that make their home there. An occasional pine tree or blueberry bush, never over two feet in size, kept the lichen company. Tiger lilies and wild roses helped fill the camera frame.

We climbed one of the larger rocks that overlooked Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world, sat down, and ate our sandwich. Behind us was an arched rock carved through the resistant basalt by centuries of Lake Superior storms. We scanned the horizon, making out the Keweenaw Peninsula, many miles away.

We negotiated other steep canyons that kept us from our foothold on the shore of Lake Superior. In time, we came to a canyon that gave us a distant view of Rock Harbor Lighthouse, >> its surrounding orange encrusted islands, and the buoy that rocked us to sleep each night. We knew that we could make the lighthouse setting in a half hour but that would cheat us from our fun. We doddled, we sat, we took pictures, and finally, still unwilling to surrender our trance, we reached our campground where two of us crawled into our tube-hammocks and read a book. The rest of us retired to our camp chairs around the fire.

Dusk came in the blink of a campfire spark our final evening. We took our chairs down to the shore where the full moon was starting to climb over three islands that are just offshore. It was a huge moon, yellow and orange. No one said much. They let the moon do the talking. Soon the light of the moon slipped across the water and reached the waves that crashed on the beach at our feet. It was beckoning us to stay longer or to come back some day. It's a good bet that we'll do both.

Another outdoorsman once said, "Two roads diverged into the woods and I, I took the one least traveled by, and it has made all the difference." Sure we slept on thin air mattresses and endured mosquitoes. But this is the difference. We laughed around crackling campfires and smelled the aroma of bacon frying. We marveled at massive patches of orange lichen and canyons of ancient basalt. We listened to gulls, and loons, a ringing buoy, the horn of the ranger boat, a moose crashing through the water, and more laughing.

Only 18 thousand people visit Isle Royale National Park annually, a tiny number compared to Yellowstone where 3.3 million people visit each year. Yet Isle Royale has arguably the most repeat visitors and the longest stay, per person, of any national park. Do you think it has anything to do with that bell on the channel buoy, or the offshore islands that restore your sense of well-being? Or could it be that smell of bacon, or maybe laughter that starts from the bottom of your re-attached soul? I'll tell you what I think. That road less traveled is one neat comfort zone.