copping a royale attitude

A man and his wife travel to Isle Royale in Lake Superior to fish for the northern pike. They stay at a hotel which is very close to the wilderness, where they spend time hiking. They also set out in a canoe, but do not catch any pike, perhaps because the weather was too warm.

On this Lake Superior island, even the baby critters want to rip your fingers off.

ON THE SELDOM placid waters of Duncan Bay all the young mergansers were scared stupid. Osprey, eagle, fox, wolf every predator eats merganser chicks like fluffy Doritos; But in my mind there was only one reason those manic fuzzballs skittered in panic across the bay: northern pike, big mothers.

Of course this was mostly wishful thinking. My wife, Gail, and I had come to Lake Superior’s Isle Royale to canoe and camp and fish for the giant pike we’d heard live in bays and lakes on the island. We knew that Isle Royale National Park–which includes the 45-mile-long main island and an archipelago of 200 surrounding islets–is one of the least visited national parks in the lower 48 states. We knew, too, that it contains some of the last unruined country in the Great Lakes region. This vestigial wilderness in our backyard had always loomed big, like a famous aunt in the family. But somehow we’d never taken the time to visit.

We arrived on a Sunday morning in July, after a bouncy five-hour trip from Copper Harbor, Michigan, on a ferry known affectionately by locals as “The Barf Barge.” As we came within sight of the tiny natural inlet at Rock Harbor, we were reminded of Newfoundland–scalloped coves overwhelmed by rock; hills thick with spruce and pine; a few simple buildings made smaller by immensities of water, forest and sky.

On the dock, waiting for us as we disembarked, were two of the happiest park rangers in America. They had the bright eyes and luminous smiles of people bolstered by One True Religion or by fat trust funds, and they couldn’t wait to tell us how lucky we were to be there. They seemed genuinely wounded when a few in our group displayed a lack of enthusiasm. Some of them had passed the trip purging themselves of their last 20 meals. A few others had arrived dressed for a day at the country club and were looking around in bewilderment. There’s a lodge in Rock Harbor–at $230 a night it promises more luxury than it delivers–and a restaurant with a two-entrees-per-evening menu. But you’ll find no televisions, no golf courses, no roads, no telephones, for God’s sake. If you don’t like to hike, boat, fish or search the beach for semiprecious stones, days on Isle Royale can seem very, very long.

Gail and I set off immediately for the backcountry. It’s not far. Thirty feet from the dock is a footpath connected to 165 miles of hiking trails. Moose sometimes clomp down to graze on the goldenrod growing around the park store. We carried our canoe and gear over a short asphalt trail and put in at Tobin Harbor. A half-mile across is Duncan Bay portage, the first hard leg of any canoe trip on the island.

Our plan was to paddle and portage to the bays and islands that shield the northeast third of the island, then follow a string of lakes and trails that make it possible to complete a 33-mile loop back to Rock Harbor. The loop usually takes four to six days, though a pair of rangers told us with modest pride that they did it once on their day off in 13 hours.

The plan was solid, but we had arrived during the hottest and windiest summer anyone could remember. Waves pounded every shore, and the lake was so warm that you could skinny-dip in water that seldom sees voluntary immersion. Superior is almost always brutally cold. But now the surface was a balmy 65 degrees on the open lake, 10 degrees warmer in the bays.

We rode the wind down Duncan Bay, underswept by rollers that made the canoe yaw in every trough. Near the mouth of the bay we went ashore. There we met a pair of optometrists from Bloomington, Minnesota, who had motored from the mainland in a 20-foot runabout equipped with GPS and ship-to-shore radio. It takes some brass. Lake Superior is almost as big as Maine. When it storms, small boats blow away like leaves. We stood on a rocky point and talked fishing. Beyond us, on the open lake, eight-foot swells rolled across the horizon. Even here, in relative protection, the wind scythed the tops off whitecaps and flurried the water in cat’s-paws a quarter-mile wide.

The optometrists said they’d been coming to the island for 10 years to troll for lake trout and steelhead. They wore week-old beards and carried themselves like men who wrestle grizzlies for the fun of it. It’s an interesting phenomenon: A place like Isle Royale either makes you so environmentally hyperconscious that you begin worrying about color pollution–should we have brought a green canoe instead of a red one?–or it makes you a wildman. You spend 51 weeks a year discussing fashionable eyewear and following your wife around the Mall of America, then you come to Isle Royale, carry a knife on your belt for a couple of days, and you’re transformed into a poor-grammar-speaking, raw-meat-eating whup-ass from Wildville.

I mentioned that Gail and I hoped to catch pike on artificial flies, from our canoe. One of the optometrists hawked and spit. “No friggin’ way,” he said.

“You might hook ’em,” his buddy said, “but you ain’t gonna land ’em. A few days ago we was trolling for lakers and a big pike grabbed the spoon. I didn’t have a chance, not even with 15-pound-test and a salmon net. I don’t know how big he was. Over 20, for sure. When he decided to run–boom, crash, adios, motherf—-r. After that I was scared to throw another lure in the water. Hell, I was scared to put my hand in the water.”

“Besides,” the first guy said, “the water’s too warm. All the pike have gone deep.”

IT TOOK TWO DAYS TO REACH Herring Bay, the jumping-off point for the open-water crossing to McCargoe Cove. This is the halfway point and a critical junction if you plan to paddle the loop back to Rock Harbor. Between Herring Bay and McCargoe is a three-mile crossing of unprotected shoreline. Some days Lake Superior is so calm you could paddle a canoe to the mainland. But usually not. Now we were facing 25-knot winds from the northwest, the worst possible direction. Waves detonated along the shore, sending spray as high as the trees. Squalls swept toward us. The lake roared. When Lake Superior roars you can hear it miles inland. It’s no time to go out in a canoe.

We camped in an alcove in the balsams, with a view across 15 miles of water to the Ontario shore. Thunder Bay dented the horizon, and the Sleeping Giant, a mountain of vaguely human shape considered holy by the Ojibwa, rose in smoky ranks.

We waited three days while Lake Superior threw its tantrum. While we waited we explored. For such remote terrain, Isle Royale has a rich human history. The portage trail beside our camp had been used for thousands of years, first by ancient copper miners who left shallow-pit mines everywhere, and later by trappers, fishermen, miners and loggers intent on wringing as much profit from the place as possible. The island has been (and still is) the subject of enough scientific research to sustain a small university. Biologists crisscross the trails and waterways, studying wolves and moose, monitoring the loon population, netting and tagging coaster brook trout.

Early in the 20th century, a half-dozen resorts and lodges promoted Isle Royale as a getaway for the well-heeled and a haven from hay fever. Some boasted day tennis courts and miniature golf courses. Ambitious developers were buying the shoreline wholesale until a few far-thinking people succeeded in lobbying for national park status in 1931. Since then the island has reverted to something like its natural state, though wilderness fanatics won’t like the daily use fee and the strict camping regulations, and will be disappointed to learn that they must share the island with 200 people on any given day.

But of course 200 people should be able to share a space to times the size of Manhattan, especially when most of them are camped at Rock Harbor or enjoying the spartan amenities of Rock Harbor Lodge. In a week during the peak of the tourist season, Gail and I encountered just a dozen people.

You soon realize that though Isle Royale is not true wilderness, wildness rules. Frequent fogs nurture beards of moss on every branch and trunk and give sustenance to the lichens that paint the rocks and to the ferns and thimbleberries that clog the understory. A few steps in from shore is plant growth so lush it rivals rain forests for impenetrability. It’s not a place that encourages bushwhacking. Moose sign is everywhere, from the piles of droppings on every trail to the pie-sized footprints marching across every bog and shallow bay. Though the moose population has taken a nosedive of late, a result of recent hard winters, hundreds of them live on the island–so many that it’s a rare backcountry visitor who doesn’t spot at least one.

Less easily seen are the island’s top-of-the-chain predators. Wolves first arrived in the winter of 1948-49, crossing an ice bridge from Ontario, and immediately began preying on moose that until then had been limited in number only by available food. In the last 40 years, the wolf-moose relationship on Isle Royale has been among the most carefully studied in wildlife annals. In recent years the wolves have declined in number, probably due to inbreeding and the loss of genetic variation, and researchers fear they may be sliding inexorably to extinction on the island. At last count only 14 remained, divided into three packs. Each pack roams a territory of about 300 square miles. They carefully avoid human contact. When I asked a ranger what chance we had of seeing or even heating one, he said, “Almost zilch.”

WE BROKE CAMP FINALLY, beaten by the wind, and retreated from Herring Bay to the long, sheltered finger-bays to the east. Mornings and evenings we canoed to outlying islands, hiked beaches and the backs of rocky promontories, cast Dahlberg Divers the size of whisk brooms among logs and weedbeds. While I fished, Gail, bless her heart, paddled. She maneuvered us along shore, sculled to hold the canoe steady against the wind. I cast a thousand casts and never caught a fish. The optometrists were right. All the big pike had vanished. Then we found where the offspring of the giants lived.

At the foot of one of the bays is a creek entering a marshy valley. It’s too shallow for powerboats, but in a canoe you can push through the lily pads. The streambed deepens and narrows until it is barely wide enough for a canoe. Still we continued on up. Moose sign was ubiquitous. Where tag alders formed a canopy overhead and the banks brushed the sides of the canoe, we chanted “Hey, moose! Hey, moose!” to avoid surprise encounters–cows with calves can be dangerous when startled. We stopped to photograph wildflowers. The spot was opulent with flora, the creek clear over weedy bottom. I held the boat steady while Gail leaned forward, focused, and shot. It was a nice moment. The last thing on my mind was carnage.

For the hell of it, after Gail finished with the camera, I cast a big deer-hair bass fly 20 feet downstream, where the creek widened slightly at a dogleg. The fly touched the water and tripped some kind of fiendish booby trap. Something vicious launched from the bank, tipping the creek apart, and devoured water, air and popper in a ravenous gulp. My leader drifted back unadorned. Gaff screamed as if she’d witnessed murder.

“Cripes,” I said.

“Try again.”

“I’m not sure I want to.”

I tied on another popper–attaching it to a length of 40-pound-test shock tippet–and cast again. The pike slaughtered the bug and went insane, slamming from bank to bank until exhausted. I grasped it behind the head and lifted it into the canoe and it went insane again. When it calmed I put pliers in its mouth and it clamped down, like a dog with a pork chop.

We caught baby pike all the way back to the bay. None was bigger than 24 inches, but on a 6-weight rod and surface flies the action was spectacular. Maybe “baby” is the wrong word. These infants had malevolent eyes, and teeth designed to eviscerate. Play coochie-coo with them and they’d eat your fingers. Fly-fishing for trout is a gentle sport, a lyrical interlude. Fly-fishing for pike is like playing hot-potato with fragmentation grenades.

THE BIG PIKE ELUDED US. Locals say a good time to try is late May, when the gators lie like logs in the shallows waiting for something stupid to blunder past. The moose eluded us, too, which surprised the rangers back in Rock Harbor. They suggested we were unlucky, but we didn’t feel unlucky.

Our last night we stayed in an Adirondack shelter at the foot of Duncan Bay. The shelters are the Holiday Inns of the island, raised structures with roofs and screened fronts and fire grills. At sunset we waded the water where giant pike were said to roam but didn’t and watched young mergansers sprint across the surface in fear of just about everything. Then we went to bed and slept the good sleep of the virtuous.

In the night we woke half-dreaming to music–bell-clear, chiming music that filled the space around the stars; songs of unspeakable sorrow, of loss and loneliness and mystery. I swam to consciousness, Gail prodding me. We lay listening. There was only silence. We tried to remember what we had heard, but it had ended before we were fully awake and we could not be sure what made it. Not coyotes; none live on the island. Maybe loons. Maybe breeze strumming boughs. Maybe nothing.

“Wolves,” Gall whispered.

It was lovely to think so.

Jerry Dennis’s latest book, a collection of essays, is From a Wooden Canoe (St. Martin’s Press: 212/674-5151; $21.95).

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