Like many of our remaining parks, Isle Royale takes a lot of planning. It’s not one where you can drop in unannounced. A small ship makes daily runs from the closer Minnesota side of Lake Superior, while a larger ship does the same from the further Michigan side. For the wealthy, seaplanes come and go at any time, to the consternation of the loon population. The tourist season consists of only a few short summer months. All that to say, November 2, 2022 is the day we bought tickets for the Isle Royale ferry departing from Grand Portage, MN, wincing at their stern cancellation policy and praying we would make it out there on schedule. Eight months later, we boarded the Sea Hunter III for our long-awaited trip to the least visited national park in the lower 48!
How did we get to Minnesota? Good question. Grand Portage is on the Canadian border, about 20 hours from Charlotte, so we intended to fly into Minneapolis or Duluth and drive from there, but after waiting for airline prices to come down and eventually giving up on that happening, we embraced the idea of another week-long road trip and mapped out a route that would take us past the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin, up to Grand Portage to catch our ferry, across Minnesota to Voyageurs National Park, and then home.
As our itinerary filled in, we noticed the trip was almost exclusively water based. Besides Isle Royale (an island), Voyageurs is 40% water and primarily accessed by boat. Besides the Isle Royale ferry, we made plans for two private boat rentals, a sunset cruise, and canoe rentals. Nervous about northern temperatures, especially out on the water, I ordered the kids fleece lined waterproof jackets from Lands End and packed our long underwear + winter hats just in case.
Another fun purchase was a set of glass mason jars with colored lids and spoons. We settled into a routine of filling the jars each night with muesli & almond milk and passing them out each morning. My goal was an easy car-friendly breakfast and this worked out really well!
We left on June 27 and drove up to Indianapolis (a familiar route, after last summer’s trip to Indiana Dunes National Park), with a stop in Cumberland Gap for a picnic lunch at the Pinnacle Overlook and a peek at President Taft’s house in Cinncinati. Dinner was burgers at our Home2 hotel, with a side of french fries from the Chick-fil-A next door. The second day took us into Madison, with a lot of excitement about crossing the Wisconsin border. We ordered a bunch of grilled cheese sandwiches from Everly and strolled around the Olbrich Botanical Gardens. The Olbrich gardens are a better (free) version of our Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens in NC. I left with handmade wrapping paper, a colorful fungi puzzle, and of course a magnet for my refrigerator. It was hot and sunny and surprisingly smoky outside! We knew about the Canadian wildfires but it was still odd to see northern cities and fields covered in thick gray smoke.
The end of Day 2 found us just outside of Bayfield, WI in a charming little house just over the Michigan border. I made bbq chicken in my instant pot which is always a crowd pleaser. We got up early to make sure we could get tickets for the Madeline Island ferry in Bayfield. Don’t you hate when places are first come, first serve? I’m a reservation person all the way. With a big family, it’s so much peace of mind to know you have a spot! Anyway, we arrived in Bayfield with plenty of time, snagged an excellent parking spot at the dock, and ferried out to Madeline Island to pick up our power boat rental from Adventure Vacations. Adv-Vac had informed us that Lake Superior is one of the most treacherous lakes in the country, with all kinds of possible dangers out on the water. It’s interesting how information like this can have the opposite effect on two people.
The Apostle Islands are a group of 22 tiny islands off the Wisconsin coast, designated as a national lakeshore. Our first stop was at Raspberry Island to get a passport stamp from the park office there. This island was so pretty that we ended up picnicking there, and they even had a croquet set out for the kids to play with! Back on the boat, we continued on to the furthest island, Devils Island, to see the sea caves and wish we were being tossed around them in kayaks (Greg). It was a choppy day out on the open sea -er, lake – but the kids loved this and shrieked with glee as we sped through the waves in between islands.
We retraced our steps after returning the boat, ferrying back over to Bayfield, and then got back on the road with coffee & cookies from Wonderstate Coffee. This is where our plans took a slight turn, since we were headed straight for the Canadian border without our passports. Neither Greg nor I can figure out how on earth we left our passports at home, but it seems we were meant to stay on our side of the border this time. We don’t know why, but we trust God to protect and guide us on every trip. So we drove up the Minnesota coast toward Grand Portage, which is in the middle of nowhere and consists of a gas station, general store, and a casino/lodge. We considered staying at this lodge in the early stages of our trip planning, but the top review was from an outraged older couple who found a pair of used panties in their bed, so we quickly discarded the idea of staying there. Well, it turned out we needed a place Thursday night, so you can guess where we ended up. We felt fortunate that our room at the casino only contained a stray man’s sock.
Friday it was finally time for the Isle Royale ferry. It seemed like a miracle that we were in the right place, at the right time, with everyone healthy and ready to spend the day on a remote island. We loaded up our backpacks, bundled up in our coats, and boarded the Sea Hunter along with a large group of enthusiastic college kids wearing huge camping packs. Most of the ferry seating is open air, where passengers experience icy gusts of wind and splashes of frigid water, but we were ushered into the cabin thanks to safety concerns about our active toddler. We gratefully squished ourselves onto narrow benches and watched as frozen outside passengers ventured in for cups of steaming coffee during our 2-hour ride. This ferry was more like a plane ride (hard to move around) than our comfortable Dry Tortugas ferry, which had restaurant-style booths with tables and snacks. However, we didn’t have to wear masks this time, so it’s still a toss-up which was better.
Isle Royale is a truly lovely place. We didn’t see a moose BUT we still had a great time on the island. First stop was lunch, on a secluded picnic table with a clear view of the harbor, and then we were ready to explore. I found out ahead of time that the Windigo park office owned two canoes, and after a mad dash to reserve them when the ferry landed, we ended up on our own personal excursion to Beaver Island, a small wooded island in the middle of Washington Harbor. Rachel napped in the bottom of my canoe as we paddled around in the warm afternoon sun. When she woke up, I took her to the visitor center to shop for souvenirs and color pictures while Greg took the big kids on a nature trail. We met up to hear a ranger presentation about loons (Minnesota state bird) before our ferry back to Grand Portage. The turbulent ride back took us past the Rock of Ages lighthouse, soaking the unfortunate outside passengers with giant waves. We stayed dry, if a bit nauseous. This was the perfect Isle Royale experience for us right now. Camping is quite popular there, and hiking the entire 40 mile island is another challenge, but neither of those were a good fit for our family. Greg is already talking about going back one day for a backcountry hiking trip. Men seem to enjoy the feeling of conquering an island.
We spent Shabbat in Grand Marais, just south of Grand Portage, in a stunning vacation home called the Skyhouse. It’s a tall skinny house with five half-floors, designed by a local Minnesota architect named David Salmela. From the top balcony we had an incredible view of Lake Superior. Candle lighting this week was at 9.44pm, so we had plenty of time to stop and have dinner at My Sister’s Place and then unpack in our rental house before kiddush. (As we traveled further north, we had to adjust to the long summer days. It doesn’t get dark in northern Minnesota until almost 10pm, and sunrise is around 5am each day.) We try to keep our Shabbat routine the same whether we are at home or on the road. I found that the braided challah from Cannelle et Vanille Bakes Simple freezes better than my basic oat challah, by the way.
Our time in Grand Marais included a few picturesque walks along the North Shore and the Fall River waterfall, hunting for agates at Paradise Beach, and catching up on rest. You can see in one of the photos below how gray mist rolls in over the lake water. Minutes later it will be be sunny again! We saw a lot of Lake Superior and loved it. Greg went for a swim at Paradise Beach and declared his new goal to be swimming in all of the Great Lakes (two down, three to go).
Sunday morning we picked up coffee from Java Moose and strolled out to Artist Point before starting our drive across Minnesota. To be continued with the story of our visit to Voyageurs National Park!