Canoe Camping – Isle Royale, MI

isle_royale_002-webIsle Royale National Park (Michigan)

This was my first canoe camping adventure.  I did this with one friend and there were no kids along.  I think Isle Royale would be a great paddle for when a child is 12 or older. And especially if there are a couple of families together.

I paddled with a friend from college,  several years after college.  I met my friend, Gus, when we were freshman on the Wilderness Program which took place one month before college started and was designed for the freshmen.  It was three weeks of backpacking in the Uinta Mountains of Utah. (They also had a three week program of canoeing in the Boundary Waters of Canada — but I selected the backpacking trip then.)  Gus and I  were tent and cooking partners for the final five days of the trip and we have been friends ever since.  He also had years of Boy Scout experience and some canoeing at Boy Scout camp experience.  So what better way to visit a friend than plan to meet at a vacation destination and have a little adventure.  I had never canoe camped, but I was a pretty competent canoeist and kayaker and I had camped quite a bit.  So I proposed a vacation to my friend who lives in the Midwest as a nice way to visit and vacation.

I chose Isle Royale over Boundary Waters Canoe Area because there are just so many entry points in the Boundary Waters that it would take a lot more research to figure out where to go than in Isle Royale.  Of course if you go with an outfitter that is no problem at all. But I was outfitting and planning my own trip.

You are going to need this Trails Illustrated Isle Royal Map and the book: Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails and Water Routes.

There are several ways to get to Isle Royale and none of them is cheap.  You can take a ferry from Grand Portage, Minnesota.  You can take a ferry from Copper Harbor, Michigan or Houghton, Michigan.  You can take a seaplane from Laurium, Michigan.  Or if you have a private  boat, you can sail it to different harbors.  We took the ferry from Grand Portage, Minnesota.  One thing about the ferry from Grand Portage, it circumnavigates the island, so you can get on or off at different locations.  I think it is the only ferry that does this circumnavigation.

This trip took place back when you could take several pieces of luggage on an airplane for free. So between the two of us we were able to take most of what we needed on the airplane. Now-a-days there would be a problem because they allow less luggage and you would need to ship your backpacking stove to your destination, because even without gas in the stove, they are not going to let you carry a stove on the plane which has ever had gas in it.  You might have to ship other of your gear rather than take it on an airplane.  I would have liked to take my paddle, but didn’t because of airplane luggage considerations.

We both flew into Duluth, MN, where we rented a car and provisioned.  In Duluth, we bought contractor bags to put inside of our backpacks and duffel bags.  We bought a gallon container of white gas  for my stove, filled a couple of fuel bottles and left the rest in the car.    At the end of the trip, I emptied the remaining fuel back into the gallon container and gave it to whomever would take it at  the end of the ferry ride.  We bought whatever food we needed that we hadn’t already packed at home.

I had a couple of dry bags which I kept things I really wanted to keep dry, like my sleeping bag and food.  I took my neoprene socks, but I might have taken my wetsuit except my friend didn’t have one, so I just didn’t take it.  I did take my paddling jacket – which is sort of a waterproof windproof jacket I would wear over my long john top or t-shirt, depending on the weather.

There are a bunch of wonderful state parks along the drive between Duluth, MN and Grand Portage, MN and we stopped at couple on the drive north. We spent the night in a motel in Grand Marais, Minnesota, where we rented a canoe from an outfitter.  We packed everything in the canoe the night before our ferry ride at the motel, just to make sure it fit and then took it all out so we could get the canoe back on the car and the bags into our motel room for the night.

There are lots of different routes you can take in and around Isle Royale.  They have a maximum number of people at each campsite, so you have to check with the park service to see how they are reserving those.  They did not allow people to use wheeled canoe carts on the island for portages and I see it is still not allowed.  We didn’t have one, but I think it is crazy that they pretty much make the back country inaccessible for anyone except the young and strong.   Our route required a minimum of portaging, but if I went back, I would do a different route.  I would do a route that went from one inland lake to another inland lake.  Lake Superior is too cold to consider getting wet in (EVER), but my understanding is that the inland lakes can get pretty warm and you can swim in them.

I would not consider the route we took unless you have good weather and you are  competent paddlers.   And I would not do our route with children because of the danger of overturning in places where we were in open water.  There were a couple of iffy places of open water paddling and we were lucky and had good weather so we were able to do them.  It would have been much safer to have two or three boats to do the route we took, but alas we only had two people in one boat.

There is an hour time difference between Minnesota and Michigan.  You need to know this if you are leaving from Minnesota on the ferry.  Once you hit Isle Royale you are in Michigan and a different time zone.  Of course this is only important when you are considering returning ferry schedules.

To see the map of Isle Royale National Park, go to the park website and look on the bottom left for “View Park Map”. On that map you can see everything very clearly.

Day 1: Our route was as follows:  We took the ferry from Grand Portage, MN to Windingo on the south of Isle Royale.  Then we continued on the ferry until we got to McCargoe Cove.  We left the ferry at McCargoe Cove and began our trip.  The ferry goes all the way into McCargoe Cove.  We got off the ferry and by then it was afternoon and we set up our campsite in McCargoe Cove.  Then since we had never paddled together we paddled for awhile in McCargoe Cove, with just ourselves in the canoe.

Day 2: We started out on our second day to do our most difficult paddle.  It was the open water between the mouth of McCargoe Cove and Pickerel Cove.   It is the coldness of the water and the potential for disaster in open water with this route I do not recommend for families.  It was a very scary paddle, due to waves and wind and cold water.  We stayed along the coast for this paddle, about 60-100 feet from shore.  After a couple of hours we were at Pickerel Cove and decided to stay the night and set up camp.

We decided rather than canoe fully loaded to Belle Island, we would stay at Pickerel Cove.  There was one short portage to Pickerel Cove.  We took out all of our camping gear, set up camp and then set out to do a day paddle and explore in an empty canoe Amygdaloid Channel and Island.  There is also open water between Pickerel Cove and the west end of Amygdaloid Island, but with an empty canoe, it was much less dangerous and stressful.

Day 3: The third day we set off and canoed from Pickerel Cove Campsite along Pickerel Cove to Lane Cove. Again that is not a very long paddle. We set up an early camp and decided to do some hiking. We hiked inland to see Mt. Franklin and Mt. Ojibway. We got a good view at the fire tower at Mount Ojibway.

Day 4:  Day four started off with a short paddle and then a short portage into  Stockley Bay.  Then on to Five Fingers Bay and a short portage to Duncan Bay.    We didn’t plan on having long paddles every day. Because neither of us had ever been canoe camping, we decided to just do short paddles and we could hike or do additional paddling without equipment. We stayed at Duncan Narrows campsite.  Duncan Narrows is the most eastern campsite recommended for canoes. Had we been in sea kayaks, we could have gone on east to Blake Point.  They don’t recommend that canoes go around the point and due to that there is a lot of portaging.

Day 5: We left Duncan Narrows and backtracked toward where the portage point Duncan Bay to Tobin Harbor began. The only really bad portage of the whole trip was this portage. I think it is Tobin Harbor where the seaplanes land and I enjoyed watching the seaplanes take off and land in Tobin Harbor.  After the portage from Hell, we had one more portage to get to the next inlet, a short portage to Rock Harbor.

I thought I would make a comment about the equipment we had.  We rented the canoe from a regular outfitter in Grand Marais.  People in the Midwest who do a lot of lake paddling are used to portaging (carrying the boat).   Boats came outfitted with portage pads, these are a padded piece to fit onto the thwart to sit on your shoulders while you carry a canoe. But the canoe was already outfitted with canoe carry thwarts. Canoe carry thwarts are thwarts which have a carved thwart to facilitate portaging.  And I could not move the adjustable portage pads close together enough to fit on my shoulders. The problem is they should have put the portage pads on a standard thwart, and not a canoe carry thwart, where placement becomes a problem.  I was not able to move the moveable portage pads close enough together to fit on my shoulders.  So I either had to completely remove the canoe pads and carry with the wood on my shoulders, or Gus had to carry it because his shoulders were bigger and could accommodate the portage pads.  So if you are renting, this is something to figure out before you arrive at Isle Royale.  The portage from Duncan Bay to Tobin Harbor is pretty extreme. Here is the list of portages. That portage is 8/10ths of a mile and extremely steep. You couldn’t do it with a canoe dolly even if you had one and they allowed it.

Rock Harbor is the big built up area of Isle Royale, but at the time you could not camp there for more than one day.  We needed to camp at Rock Harbor the day before we took the ferry out of Rock Harbor, so we paddled past Rock Harbor to the next campground, which is Three Mile campground.  By the time we got to Rock Harbor and paddled past it we had really poor weather. It was very cold (this was July) and the rain would not let up.   We ended up staying in a shelter at Three Mile, which we had reserved in Windingo.  All of the shelters were occupied with people when we got there, so we just asked to see people’s permits, since we had a permit for a shelter.   We found the shelter for which people had no permit and stayed there.  We invited the interlopers to stay with us, but they decided they would rather stay in their tent.  We were glad to be in shelter (which are screened) because it was just so wet outside.  And there were so many mosquitoes.

At one point in our paddle it was raining so hard, we had to stop on the side of the island, get a tarp out and stay under the tarp with our boat while we waited for the rain to get lighter.  You don’t want to be paddling in the thunder and lightning, that is another reason why we pulled over.

Day 6: We paddled back to Rock Harbor for the last night before our ferry ride.  But it was so cold and rainy, that I didn’t feel like hiking around Rock Harbor.  If the weather was nicer, I would have considered a paddle (without equipment) across the bay to some of the outer islands on the Rock Harbor side of Isle Royale.  But with the fog and rain and cool temperatures, we didn’t do that.

Day 7: It actually cleared up for a ferry ride back to Grand Portage.  Since we continued to circumnavigate Isle Royale (clockwise), we got to see the rest of the island from the ferry.  The last stop is Windigo before heading over to Grand Portage, MN.

Yes there were lots of mosquitoes.  I had gloves to wear at night, long sleeve shirts and a mosquito net for my head.   After cooking dinner we usually sat in the tent to avoid the mosquitoes.  Some of the campsites had screened in shelters; they were the best.   They had an open front covered with screening, but you could still see out.

I had full rain gear, Gortex jacket and rain pants. Even with all of that it was hard to stay dry in a driven rain and bone-chilling weather.   I brought quite a bit of cold weather gear, but I think I could have used more.

One of the nice things about wilderness canoeing verses backpacking, is you can bring a little more stuff.  I brought song books, a small pillow, a backpacker shower.  We met hikers, and stayed one night with a couple who was sailing around Isle Royale in a catamaran.  Now they had a little more luxury than we did in our canoe.

There is a luxury hotel at Rock Harbor and you can stay as long as want if you can afford the nightly charge.  The rest of us who are camping can only stay one night at Rock Harbor.  And for us that was the night before we left, as the ferry check-in was 7:00 am, to go back to Minnesota and our rental car.

I remember reading that Isle Royale is one of the least visited National Parks in the US. I’m sure that is a combination of only being open in the summer and the remoteness and expense of getting there. It is not like you can drive into the park for a day or two.




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1 Response to Canoe Camping – Isle Royale, MI

  1. Scott says:

    Greetings from a fellow family canoeist hailing from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, at least as many portages, and probably one million times as many mosquitos! I just came across your site, and was interested in your trip report on canoe camping Isle Royale.

    One small technical correction- Duluth is in Minnesota, although it sits right on the border with Superior, Wisconsin.

    We take lots of canoe trips with the family in Minnesota and Wisconsin and blog about them at . While Isle Royale is a truly special place, there are many areas in the Upper Great Lakes region that are fantastic for family canoe trips with much easier logistics than IR. If you ever want to make it back out this way, shoot us a message and we’d be happy to share trip ideas! -Scott

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