The weathered fisherman held his faded VHF radio to the sky as our group huddled together, straining to hear a crackling voice deliver the unwelcome news. Wind gusts were forecast to reach 30 knots the following afternoon, swells topping eight feet.
The old man could only shake his head.
“When that east wind comes whipping right into this bay, that’s not good,” said Dave, who had been coming on fishing trips to Isle Royale for three decades.
It was day five of our week-long paddling expedition when we finally reached Belle Isle and saw the man sitting alone, writing in a notebook. Accessible only by water, Dave seemed to enjoy the solitude of this isolated campground nestled into an idyllic cove in the northeast corner of Isle Royale National Park.
Located in northern Lake Superior, Isle Royale features a breathtaking blend of over 200 square miles of lush forest, pristine lakes and majestic shoreline. Known for being a backpackers’ paradise with over 165 miles of hiking trails, the island also features more than 450 smaller islands, making it an underrated destination for paddlers.
So when Aaron Black-Schmidt, an outdoor photographer and avid standup paddler, proposed we take inflatable standup paddleboards to Isle Royale, it seemed like a no-brainer. Exploring a remote archipelago in the middle of the world’s largest lake, what could go wrong?
“When I saw you guys come around that point, I almost fell over,” said Dave. “I never thought I’d see paddleboards out here. But I thought the same thing 20 years ago when I saw kayaks for the first time.”
It was a line we heard from several people during our time on Isle Royale. In fact, even prior to our trip, the park’s head ranger warned us about the dangers of Lake Superior and mentioned they already rescued standup paddlers that summer. “While hikers can sometimes get by with sub-par preparation on land, the waters of Isle Royale are another matter,” she ominously added.
I thought back to our circumnavigation of Mott Island two days ago. A fierce headwind had whipped up out of nowhere and immediately transformed a five-minute paddle into a 15-minute grind through unruly water and gusty winds. While we kept our composure and slipped into a protected inlet, we wouldn’t want to be out there during an actual storm.
“It really does look like the ocean, there’s nothing out there,” said Andrew Koch, after we completed that treacherous stretch of paddling.
No stranger to big water, Andrew is an NRS athlete ambassador and long-time kayak instructor from Asheville, North Carolina. While comfortable charging Class V rapids around the globe, standup paddling on Lake Superior presents a different challenge.
Of course, calling Superior a lake is akin to calling Everest a hill. It behaves like an angry ocean and shipwrecks lying among submerged rocks marked our detailed map of the island. The unforgiving coastline and violent storms represented just a few of the hazards facing mariners. While we planned to utilize protected inlets and islands to shelter us from the dangers of open water, our route still took us into plenty of exposed stretches.
Yet for all of its danger, Isle Royale has another side—a magical side—where non-existent cell service forced us to replace the constant barrage of push notifications, emails and text messages with conversation, reflection and appreciation for Isle Royale’s confounding beauty. We could plan our lives based on the light in the sky, not the number on the clock.
Each day became its own adventure.
Too Much Happiness
Yesterday’s adventure began with us packing our lives into Bill’s Bags and portaging across a muddy trail complete with slick rocks and narrow footpaths over swampy bogs. Foxes, hares and birds kept us company amongst the decomposing logs, moss and colorful mushrooms that define the North Woods ecology.
Once on the water, we discovered the winds switched directions overnight and we would be battling headwinds for a second day in a row.
“In hiking, you never have to hike uphill both ways, but in paddling, sometimes you have to paddle upwind both directions,” quipped Olivia Harrell.
Sporting an omnipresent smile, the physical therapist picked up paddling a few years back after taking a kayaking class from Andrew. While the two regularly chase whitewater together in Asheville, standup paddling into a stiff headwind requires a different style of teamwork.
Opting to paddle smart, not hard, we snuck up Tobin Harbor’s tree-lined channel in a draft train, sprinting from lee to lee created by mini islands—little tree-covered rocks with curious names like Tallman and Fire.
As we passed Moose Point, the vivid memory of a half-ton bull moose chasing us down the trail flashed through my mind. The hair-raising encounter had taken place right after we stepped off the ferry on day one, certainly a memorable welcome to the island.
A few more hard strokes put us at Rock Harbor, the main hub of civilization on Isle Royale’s east side. The unfamiliar sound of an engine broke the silence and we turned to watch a seaplane drop from the sky and onto the most beautiful runway on earth—Tobin Harbor.
With our VHF radio on the fritz, our mission was to find out what Mother Superior had in mind for the next few days. We walked over to the ranger station, only to discover that our situation had deteriorated. A storm front was blowing in from the east, expected to hit in a couple of days
While reaching Belle Isle would not be a problem, the return trip was now in question.
With no time to waste, we grabbed our gear and hopped on our boards. After a short paddle across Tobin, it was time to conquer the portage we’d been dreading since the inception of this trip –– a steep hike up and over the Greenstone Ridge.
The narrow trail featured grueling climbs, treacherous downhills and hairpin turns, not the ideal combination when you’re carrying a 14-foot paddleboard and have nearly 100 pounds of dry bags strapped to your chest and back. Completing the trek took plenty of sweating, swearing and teamwork, but we finally reached Duncan Bay.
With the wind finally at our backs, we cruised deep into a secluded bay where a paddle-only campsite awaited, fellow humans nowhere in sight.
“So you want the lake view or the enchanted forest?” Andrew asked Olivia after surveying the lodging situation at the campground.
A smile crept across my face as I looked up at the wall of the wooden rain shelter –– the lake view option –– and noticed three words carved into the weathered wood: Too Much Happiness. Tomorrow we would meet Dave.
Embers of the Past
Isle Royale holds a unique distinction: it’s the least visited, yet most revisited national park in the continental 48. Few people actually know about it, but for those fortunate enough to experience it, it’s a place they want to return again and again.
Dave first came to Isle Royale in 1989 for a fishing trip, and he’s only missed one summer since that maiden voyage. Listening to him talk of the island, immediately gave us a sense of what this place meant to him. It was his escape.
“I put everything I do into this log right here,” said Dave. “You guys are in here.”
He wasn’t the only one to journal about his experiences on the island. While walking around the campground, we came across a dusty old notebook in the corner of a rain shelter––a community log.
Thumbing through the tales, we weren’t the only ones to sense a mystical quality surrounding the island. Jim recounted the old days on Isle Royale when a dollar would get you a shelter, axe and firewood in 1966. Others described their journey as the “adventure of a lifetime” at a “truly magical place.” Though it was father and son duo, Ken and Steve Scolma, who best summed up the Isle Royale experience.
“I’ve forgotten how loud silence is, stress doesn’t exist out here.”
Earlier that morning, our crew was in the midst of a picturesque paddle from Duncan Bay to Belle Isle. With the wind at our backs, we arced around Hill Point and enjoyed a downwind run through a spectacular open channel. Craggy coastline with yellow and orange fissures loomed to our left, primitive and untouched forest towered to our right and a bald eagle soared overhead.
Later that evening, we tossed some logs into an old stone fireplace that once warmed guests of the Belle Isle Resort. Prior to becoming a national park in 1931, Isle Royale had a long history of commercial fishing, mining, and resorts dating back to the early 1800s.
Belle Isle Resort opened in 1912 and featured a lodge, 28 cottages, a nine-hole golf course, a tennis court and shuffleboard courts. Now the fireplace is all that remains, nature had already reclaimed the entire island.
As the conversation and golden embers began to dwindle, I looked out at the calm bay illuminated by brilliant moonlight. Would the next day bring howling winds and overhead swell like the weather forecast predicted? It was a perfectly still night, but the concern on Dave’s face from earlier that afternoon was unsettling.
We would assess the situation in the morning and decide whether to charge back to Rock Harbor or hunker down on Belle Isle. I closed my eyes and drifted off to the mysterious calls of the loons.
Escape from Belle Isle
My eyes opened to brilliant streaks of amber and red across a bay of glass. The sun was yet to crest above the tree line but Olivia and Andrew were already paddling, relishing the opportunity to witness nature’s masterpiece from the water. I grabbed my board and paddled out to a mini-island at the mouth of the cove, the silence broken only by the faint sound of the board gliding across the golden water.
Back on shore, one of the most magnificent sunrises we had ever witnessed didn’t seem to faze Dave. No doubt it’s one of many he’s had the fortune of witnessing out there.
“Those east winds can come up quick,” said Dave while haphazardly throwing piles of camping gear into his boat. “I’ll be back in Rock Harbor in 40 minutes.”
Leaving Belle Isle wasn’t easy but despite the pristine morning conditions, we chose to heed the warning of a man who’d been coming out here for 30 years. Though it only took a few strokes before we got one final taste of Belle Isle magic.
“There’s a beaver at your six o’clock,” said Aaron.
Sure enough, a beaver was languidly cruising the golden shoreline, totally impervious to the human demands of schedules, steep portages or impending weather.
Our crew finally bid farewell to the beaver, Belle Isle and life on the edge as we began our journey back to Rock Harbor and civilization. We hoped Dave’s prediction about the east winds would not come true but as the calm gave way to a steady breeze, we grew concerned about the next progression.
Despite running low on energy, we had to win this race against the weather. With winds picking up, we used a draft train to cross Duncan Bay and reach our final challenge, the Greenstone Ridge portage. The climb wasn’t any easier the second go-round, but we eventually made it to the top—celebrating our achievement with a mountain mocha featuring Folgers and Nestle.
We arrived back in Rock Harbor in mid-afternoon, with the storm still brewing out on Lake Superior. By dusk, I began questioning whether we had made the right call to leave the solitude and extraordinary beauty of Belle Isle. But as I noticed Dave’s small boat in the harbor, the trees began to whistle. Within an hour, heavy rain and wind assaulted our three-walled shelter. And above the din of the storm, we could hear the swell crashing against the shore.
Dave was right, those east winds did come up quick.
The Final Adventure
With an extra day on the island and residual swell in the water from the previous night’s storm, our crew opted for one final Isle Royale paddling adventure.
We paddled east along Tobin Harbor and were accompanied by a rotating cast of wildlife. Lake trout darted beneath our boards, a family of otters watched suspiciously and a red-headed woodpecker paid us no mind –– preoccupied with transforming a tree into his home.
Several old homes and docks lined the channel, a reminder of the early days of Isle Royale that featured a rich fishing culture. While a few are still occupied with lifelong leases from the government, most had been left for nature to reclaim. The rotting walls, collapsed roofs and sunken docks gave an eerie reminder of the past.
Leaving the history and wildlife of Tobin Harbor, we approached the unprotected waters of Lake Superior. As the unmistakable rumble of crashing waves grew louder, a cove greeted our crew with an unforgettable surprise.
Waist-high waves were rolling into an open cove and breaking along a cliff wall. Without hesitation, Andrew took a few hard strokes and dropped down the face of a Lake Superior wave. The Isle Royale surf session was on.
Before long, our whole group was whooping it up and cheering each other on. We caught 50-yard rides from the outer point to the beach, the lichen-covered cliff whizzing by in a colorful blur of white, yellow and orange.
After getting our fill of freshwater waves, we paddled back to Rock Harbor along the rugged shoreline. Superior did not make it easy.
Head-high wind swell mixed with chop and refraction from the craggy cliffs turning the water into a mangled mess. After paddling all afternoon, our legs felt like noodles as we attempted to navigate the turbulent waters on 14-foot boards. We all took a few tumbles but managed to power through the unsettled waters, even waving to a few surprised hikers along the way.
As we approached Rock Harbor, we all sat on our boards and took a few minutes to appreciate the moment. The unspoiled wilderness and pristine paddling of Isle Royale was unforgettable, but it was the deafening sound of silence that we would truly miss.
Maps, photos and videos may entice people to visit Isle Royale, but the sacred solitude of the island is what brings them back.
“Just sitting out here in the middle of nowhere,” said Andrew.
There was nowhere else we’d rather be.
Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Jack Haworth is a professional writer and avid outdoorsman. Fascinated by the human experience and the incredible beauty of wild places, Jack is passionate about telling the stories of people, places and events that too often go unnoticed. His work has appeared in Men’s Journal, Outside Magazine, SUP the Mag, Canoe & Kayak, and more. All photos by Aaron Black-Schmidt.