Sierran Masthead

Hoosiers Discover Unique Ecosystem at Isle Royale

by Teresa Morehead, Hoosier Chapter Outings Chair

Sierrans spent a week backpacking at Isle Royale National Park, Michigan, on a Hoosier Chapter outing. Rather than describe the splendid outing, I want to describe the park.

Isle Royale is located in Lake Superior just 15 miles from Canada. The island is surrounded by smaller islands and has numerous inland lakes, some with islands of their own. This park is one of the U.S.’s great conservation success stories.

The island was mined for copper in the late 1800s using a slash-and-burn technique to locate copper veins. This destructive practice resulted in vast deforestation, as evidenced by the abundance of aspen trees and daisies that thrive in disturbed areas. The visible scars of mining—pits and piles of waste rock—are still evident.

After failure of this industry came the tourism boom. Despite its drawbacks, tourism also brought people who recognized the significance of the place and who fought to protect it. In 1931, Isle Royale became a national park and was later designated an International Biosphere Reserve. Over 90 percent of the park is designated wilderness.

What makes Isle Royale such a unique place? For starters, the incredible array of wildlife. Isle Royale is dotted with beaver ponds and other wetlands, which provide rich habitat for beaver, moose, waterfowl, and amphibians. The latest counts show approximately 750 moose and 25 gray (timber) wolves, living in a natural balance.

Isle Royale is a perfect example of protecting an entire ecosystem (the main island, the surrounding islands, and several miles of Lake Superior).

The park is home to red foxes, snowshoe hares, songbirds, and nesting osprey and bald eagles. Isle Royale is the only known location of nesting loons in Great Lakes waters.

The park boasts over 400 types of lichens, and the geological history of the island is clearly evident in the spectacular shoreline rock outcrops and ridges, which form the island’s backbone. Facilities at Rock Harbor include a lodge and cabins. Canoeing, fishing, and backpacking opportunities abound. Water transportation and rentals are available. The National Park Service issues permits to regulate campground usage.

What can you do to help protect Isle Royale? Start by visiting the park, which is open from mid-April through October.

Note that the moose calve in the spring, and the rutting season is in the fall. Wildflowers bloom from early to mid-June.

Another important issue facing the park is the protection of key loon nesting grounds from disturbance by boaters. Write to the Superintendent and ask that “no wake” zones be established in sensitive areas.

This has been done at some sites, but abandonment of nests in other areas has been reported. The common loon is listed as a threatened species, and Isle Royale is a key nesting area.

Contact information: Isle Royale National Park, 800 E. Lakeshore Drive, Houghton, MI 49931-1869. Phone: (906) 482-0984. Web site:

Copyright © 2007 Hoosier Chapter Sierra Club, all rights reserved.[9/25/02]efp

Summer 2000