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Isle Royale Trip: Navigating the Rough Waters of Lake Superior – Again

Farewell to Isle Royale

And so it ends.

Boarding the Isle Royale Queen IV ferry fills me with melancholy, as my Isle Royale adventure ends. All that remains is another rough ride back to Copper Harbor, followed by a two-day car trip back to Syracuse. According to the forecast, and all the concern conveyed by the ferry’s crew and the park personnel, the trip back should turn out rockier than my trip across Lake Superior when I arrived two weeks ago.

Rather than sitting inside the ferry’s cabin as most people decide to do, I continue to the stern, where I can remain outside in the fresh, but cool air. Since I will be stuck in my car for the next two days, I might as well enjoy the fresh air for a few more hours. One of the vinyl benches along the cabin’s wall remains unclaimed, so I sit down and prepare to watch Isle Royale recede into the background as we head back to Copper Harbor.


View Day Fifteen, Part Three in a larger map

I pull out my Garmin eTrex Legend HCx and set a single waypoint before the ferry gets a chance to pull away from the dock. To provide a record of the trip back, I plan to mark a single point every fifteen minutes as the ferry makes the several hour journey back to Copper Harbor.

Section Stats:
Date: September 12, 2011
Length: 58.0 miles
Difficulty: QuEasy

It is nearly quarter to three in the afternoon before the ferry fires up its engines and begins to pull away backwards from the dock. A knot forms in the pit of my stomach when the ferry pivots about and begins to pull away from Rock Harbor. I dreaded this moment since arriving on Isle Royale, the beginning of the slow and agonizing good-bye to my Island home for these past two short weeks. I watch intently as the ferry pulls away, with the sky looking a little less foreboding as it did just a few short moments ago.

The Rock Harbor dock quickly recedes, and then suddenly disappears behind the America dock peninsula as the ferry departs Snug Harbor. Fortunately, the Rock Harbor lodge buildings remain in view for a while, slowly shrinking as the Queen navigates through the Smithwick Channel and out into Lake Superior.


My position in the ferry’s stern affords me some excellent views of both Raspberry and Smithwick Islands, the twin sentinels on either side of the channel. The sight of these two islands brings back the memories of the excitement when I first laid eyes on them upon my arrival some fifteen days ago. These joyful memories, full of potential and promise, contrast with my current and exceptionally more morose feeling. The dark and cloudy conditions were similar both times, although the sky to the northeast appears considerably brighter than down to the southwest today.

As the ferry enters into the vast stretch of Lake Superior, the conditions get significantly rougher now with the modulating influence of the Island. The forecast is for waves up to 6 feet, and I can believe it from the size of some of them. White caps appear regularly, rolling across the surface of the lake. The frequent changes in direction, apparent from the jerking movement, accompanied by the loud whine of the ferry’s engines, the Captain must be finding it difficult to maintain course to Copper Harbor.

Intently, I continue watching Isle Royale shrink in size as the ferry continues to move away. At about four-thirty in the afternoon, I finally lose sight of the Isle Royale in the distance. With great sadness, I mark this moment as the main object of my obsession for the past several weeks disappears, perhaps forever. Hopefully, another opportunity to journey to Isle Royale is in my future, but with so many places to explore in the world and so little time, it may never happen.

Raspberry Island and beyond

Raspberry Island

Although I enjoy watching Isle Royale recede from my view, sitting at the back of the ferry forces me to endure a couple annoying distractions.

The constant roar of the engines proves to increasingly intolerable. This loud white noise drowns out nearly all other sounds, including the yelling of my fellow passengers not more than a few feet away from me. The noise is so all encompassing that I shall forever associate it with Lake Superior. Between this roaring clatter, the dark skies and the waves buffeting the ferry back and forth, it is amazing that I fail to feel the effects of seasickness.

What makes me nearly sick to my stomach is the air quality. One might imagine an exceptional improvement in air quality given the open air of the stern when compared to the confined space of the inner cabin, where the stink of my fellow passengers remains trapped for all to endure. This would probably be true if not for the popularity of the stern with smokers. Between the three smokers, unwilling or unable to give up a completely disgusting and dangerous addiction, I rarely get a break from someone smoking near me. Even the wind plots against me in this regard, since regardless where they perform their dirty habit the smoke blows right in my direction. I might as well be licking an ashtray.

Good-bye Rock Harbor Lodge

Final farewell to Isle Royale

When the smoking is not gagging me, I spend much of my time observing my surroundings. One of my personal objects of interest is a gull following behind the ferry. The large bird flies back and forth, buffeted by the winds, sometimes disappearing altogether for a while, only to reappear a short time later. Why is it following us? Is it because the ferry is the only land within miles? Or, is there something on the boat that is wants? Perhaps it does not want us to leave. I guess I will never know.

The weather continues to threaten, but never completely follows through. The winds remain stiff, creating waves that knock the boat to and fro, as the ferry continues its relentless journey toward Copper Harbor. Rain falls intermittently, but never as hard as the dark swirling clouds overhead portend. Off to the north, I see several flashes of lightening, far in the distance. Despite the foreboding weather overheard, the skies to the south remain sunny, which explains the beautiful rainbow forming off the port side.

A fly appears on a nearby railing. It looks like a common housefly, but I am certainly no expert. The insect’s appearance inspires some woolgathering about what goes through a fly’s mind, as it remains trapped on a ferry going across one of the largest freshwater lakes on the globe. That is, if a fly has a mind that contemplates such things. It is probably just thinking about its next meal, much like a certain human being excogitating about a fly’s thought process, on a ferry going across one of the largest freshwater lakes, on a planet spinning through space as it rotates around a star.

Waves on Lake Superior

Rough waters of Lake Superior

When the fly disappears, my attention turns to a poor gull attempting to land on the turbulent surface of Lake Superior. The large, white bird makes several attempts, each one aborted just before touching down on the water’s surface. Finally, it commits to the idea, landing near the crest of a wave. The gull bobs up and down, floating on the surface of the waves, just as a duck would do. Occasionally, it disappears from view, blocked by a wave forming between our locations. How does it keep from getting seasick? I doubt it has Dramamine tucked under a wing.

The urge to pee finally forces me into making the unsteady but necessary trek to the restroom. Walking through the cabin proves more difficult than when I journeyed to Isle Royale over two weeks ago. Fortunately, after observing more than a few of my fellow passengers awkwardly stumble around, I strategically move with the rocking of the boat instead of fighting against it. Using the restroom remains awkward, especially given all the rocking caused by the rough waters. Luckily, I refrain from peeing on myself, despite how much Lake Superior attempts to get me to do so.

Angry Lake Superior

Rainbow over Lake Superior

Since there is little point of going back to the stern, I work my way up to the bow of the boat to watch the approaching Copper Harbor. As the ferry approaches the mainland, it heads for the opening of Copper Harbor, where numerous buildings of varying sizes adorns the coastline.

After entering the harbor, the ferry takes a hard right turn as it positions itself to draw up against the dock. People come out of the buildings along shore, waving to the ferry as it passes. Obviously, the community appreciates the business the ferry brings to their little community. At Harbor Haus restaurant, a group of servers decked out in tradition German garb, perform a dance, welcoming us back from the island.

When the ferry finally pulls up to the dock, the Captain welcomes us back to Copper Harbor, instructing us on the disembarking process. He makes a point to warn us of a coming severe storm, suggesting we exercise extreme caution as we drive home this evening. Luckily, I have a room for the night at the Bella Vista Motel, so there will be no racing home until tomorrow morning. Given the sky is now mostly clear, with late day sun shining on many of the surrounding treetops, it is hard to believe a storm is bearing down on the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Arriving at Copper Harbor

Upon departing the ferry, I stand around with everyone else patiently waiting for the unloading of his or her gear. After retrieving my backpack and the small remaining amount of fuel, I continue to wait for my hiking pokes, which I attached together with rubber bands before departing Rock Harbor. And I wait. And wait. And wait. When the crew appears to be wrapping up the unloading, I step up and call to their attention that my hiking poles must be still up there in the cargo area. After some anxious moments of them scrambling around to find them, my relief must be palpable when they finally discover them off to the side.

Cradling my poor hiking poles like a recently found lost child, I set down my pack before entering the gift shop to search for some souvenirs before departing for my motel room, and the promise of a nice, warm shower. By this time, I remain the only customer in the place, as I peruse the numerous Isle Royale related t-shirts. Selecting the few mediums available with attractive designs, I pull out my largely neglected credit card and purchase them from the patient and attractive young woman behind the counter before departing.

After leaving the gift shop, I return to the parking lot to pick up my car so I can get to my room and take that well-overdue shower. Unfortunately, as soon as I pull out of my parking spot on the short trip to the Bella Vista, a scraping noise emanates from underneath my Honda Fit.

Final approach to Copper Harbor dock

Damn it! Just what I need to hear after a near-perfect two weeks away from civilization. Everything from a stuck brake to a porcupine eating the wiring ran through my mind. Braking to a quick stop and starting again fails to relieve the annoying noise.

Rather than freaking out over it, I continue to the Bella Vista Motel’s office to check in my room. The rain continues to hold off, but the sky is growing increasingly dark and threatening; there is definitely a storm brewing, and it is not going to be pretty. After paying for the room, I grab my key and quickly make my way back toward Isle Royale House.

Room number 9 is a little cottage in the rear of the Isle Royale House (where I stayed on my arrival), adjacent to the house but not physically a part of it. It has its own private entrance, equipped with a quaint little porch, and painted white with red trim on the exterior, the opposite of the main building. The room’s interior has a similar appearance to my previous room, quaint and outdated wallpaper, with knotty-pine trim; comfortable but not extravagant.

At this point, I barely notice the decor, as a shower and shave remains my main focus. After unpacking a little to allow my equipment to dry, I quickly discard my disgusting hiking clothes and take a long, warm shower, followed by a close shave. When I am done, the person in the mirror actually looks almost human.

Darkening clouds over Copper Harbor

Threatening sky over Copper Harbor

After cleaning up, I focus on eliminating gnawing hunger in the pit of my stomach. I drive my still screeching car out to State Route 41, heading east, looking for a restaurant open, and serving warm food on this Monday evening. This proves more difficult than I imagine, as most places are dark and largely abandoned. In a short distance, the small village of Copper Harbor disappears, the road surrounded by only dark forest on both sides.

When I see a turn around, I swerve off the road, braking steadily, until I turn around in the soft gravel and head back toward Copper Harbor. Thankfully, the constant rubbing noise, irritating me since leaving the ferry parking lot, ceases after this little maneuver. Whether caused by a stuck brake or a family of mice living on my engine, it is now gone. At least for the time being.

On my way back through Copper Harbor, I notice the Mariner North is open, so I pull into their large parking lot just as a downpour commences. Parking as close to the side entrance as possible, a quick dash allows me to remain largely dry, although anyone coming in after me will not be so lucky.

Canada geese welcoming committee

Being one of the few establishments remaining open, there are no available tables, with a raucous crowd feasting equally on both conversation and meals. Several people I recognize from the ferry are present; they remain largely unwashed, as if they headed immediately here after making landfall. Going to the bar, I order a dinner of local fish, which arrives quickly, which I devour with equal rapidity.

With personal hygiene and dinner taken care of, the last immediate need of a good night’s rest still requires satisfaction. The flash of lightening, roar of thunder and the continuing downpour do little to sway me from returning to my room behind the Isle Royale House where a comfortable bed awaits. At comfortable compared to my sleeping bag and camping mattresses.

After watching a little TV, on a limited number of stations, I turn out the lights, as I wish to get an early start back to Syracuse tomorrow morning. The roaring wind, frequent cracking of thunder, flashes of lightening and the pitter-patter of heavy rain fail to inhibit my sleep long, as I quickly drift off on my first night’s slumber in a bed in over two weeks.

Dreaming of a two-day long drive home, no doubt.


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