Isle Royale

PAUL BROOKS,editor in chief of Houghton Mifflin Company, has written previously for the ATLANTIC about wilderness areas tn which he and his wife hare traveled during their holidays and whose preservation is one of his chief concerns. He has visited the Quetico-Superior canoe country, the Olympics, and the Great Smoky Mountains, and here he describes Isle Royale in Lake Superior.


WE WERE flying: higher than the gulls, though an eagle might have looked down on us. The ranger naturalist sat up front next to the pilot; in the back scat, wedged tightly enough to make safety belts a formality, were the ranger’s wife, my wife, and myself. An island in a long lake was just disappearing beneath our pontoons. The map described it as “the largest island in the largest lake on the largest island in the largest fresh water lake in the world.” We were over Ryan Island in Siskiwit Lake in Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, getting literally a bird’s-eye view of the country where we planned to camp for ten days. Below us lay two hundred square miles of roadless wilderness.

There had been a sporting quality in our takeoff. When the pilot had looked over the total load, including the naturalist’s heavy cameras and tripods and projector (he was on his way to lecture at the park campground) in addition to our ample knapsacks, he had shaken his head doubtlully, finally shrugged: “Either we go up or we don’t.” Slowly he taxied out into the narrow bay, which was protected from the big swells of the lake, though the water was choppy. As the plane gathered speed and spray, it must have looked like an overfed cormorant trying to take wing. The pontoons hit the wave tops faster and faster, harder and harder. They skipped a beat, two beats; then with a final spine-jarring bang they rose dripping, free. My wife, who had had some qualms about this experiment in aerodynamics, relished every moment. “You can have your turbojets,” she shouted in my ear. “Give me a plane that tells me when it’s in the air.”

One of the least publicized of our national parks, still used largely by neighbors from the mainland of Michigan and Minnesota, Isle Royale has a growing number of devotees, who go there between mid-June and mid-September for boating and lake fishing, for hiking and nature study, for the bracing pollen-free air and the salubrious climate — all the elements of an ideal summer resort.

The main island lies like a huge fossil fish in the northern part ol Lake Superior, in an archipelago of lesser islands, only a Paul Bunyan step from Canada. The fish is looking southwestward toward Grand Portage, Minnesota, famous gathering place of the voyageurs in the heyday of the fur trade. Between its eye, where there is a small inn, and its tail, where the park boat lands and where most visitors stay, there are forty miles of unspoiled woods and lakes, reachable only by boat and by trail. This is what attracted us to Isle Royale.

From above, the bony structure of the island stood out sharply in the late afternoon sun. Down the center ran a rounded ridge, paralleled by lesser ridges, with swamps and long narrow lakes lying in the valleys between. Compared with the Great Smoky Mountains, where stream-sculptured gorges run every which way from the main divide, the low hills and shallow valleys below us seemed strikingly neat and regular. We learned that this washboard surface was the result of ancient lava flows, deposited one on top of the other, later folded and uptihed. The whole island, whose highest point is only eight hundred feet above the level of Lake Superior, was completely covered with ice during the last glacial age and remained submerged after the ice melted, only gradually emerging into the light as the waters of the lake slowly sank to their present level of six hundred feet above the sea. Now, as the valleys extend out into Lake Superior, they become pencil-thin bays and harbors, all running in the same direction, like raindrops on a windowpane. We could see the ridges stretching out for miles as chains of islands, substantial and densely wooded near the mainland, then broken into smaller and smaller slivers till they became mere pinpoints of black rock. A few minutes later, as the plane dropped down for a landing, the scene sharpened into a pattern of fiord-like inlets and rocky promontories crowned with wind-swept evergreens, reminding us of the coast of Maine

Islands have always had a fascination for civilized man, beyond their intrinsic beauty. Like mountaintops, they have the aura of mystery that goes with remoteness and inaccessibility. But whereas throughout most of history mountains have inspired dread, and still, to those who know them, inspire reverence and awe, islands have an almost opposite connotation. They suggest refuge and escape, but most of all they promise the blessed simplicity of a self-contained world. From the point of view of the modern biologist, this is not just romantic nonsense. The isolation of an island makes it the ideal environment for biological research: a study area with a permanent fence around it, a laboratory in which the relationships between different forms of life can be investigated free from outside influences. Isle Royale is today such a living laboratory. It was, in fact, so considered more than fifty years ago, when some forms of biological research were still in their infancy. The modern science of ecology — the new natural history, as it is called, that deals with the relation of living things to their environment — did not rise full-blown like Venus from the foam. But if one had to pick a single spot for its birthplace, that spot might well be this very wilderness. Before leaving home, I had taken from the library a formidable tome entitled The Ecology of Isle Royale, by Charles C. Adams, a pioneer work when it was published in 1912. An area that has so long been under observation is, of course, particularly valuable for study today. As I write, for example, there is a fascinating project under way to determine the relationship between the Isle Royale moose and the timber wolves that prey upon them. No scientists, my wife and I hoped to get at least a fleeting glimpse of these mysteries in the few days at our disposal.

OUR camping gear was not very chic, but it was light. No mysteries here, as we frequently tell our noncamping friends, who think there must be some particular know-how involved. We have, to be sure, learned a few tricks for saving weight. Glass is heavy, so we carry our powdered coffee, Pream, marmalade, sugar, and salt in weightless baking-powder tins with reliable screw tops and adhesive-tape labels. We use dehydrated potatoes, carrots, fruits, soups. We often take our own bread, to avoid the typical store bread that gets squashed into a shapeless mess after a few hours in a knapsack. Our tent weighs five pounds, including aluminum poles, and we carry lightweight air mattresses. Our sybaritical objective is to achieve the maximum in luxury for the minimum in weight.

This trip began, appropriately enough, on a bleak and rocky coast that suggests the beginnings of Isle Royale itself. Wherever a land is exposed to the full violence of the weather — high winds, cold, fog, driving rain, or spray — one finds a vegetation that exists on the borderline of survival. Most successful are primitive plants such as lichens, which were presumably the first to take hold when the bare rock of Isle Royale emerged many thousands of years ago from the waters of the glacial lakes.

Now, as we stood on the tip of one of the eastward-pointing promontories, bracing ourselves against the cold wind, the scene before us suggested those far-off beginnings: bits of gray-brown volcanic. rock projecting above the surface, mottled with black lichen near the water line and bright orange higher up; here and there a bit of green where moss had found a foothold; on the larger islands, the twisted mass of a few stunted firs.

At our feet lay a world in miniature. Every niche in the rock nurtured some tiny plant. The shallow, boggy basins, twenty or thirty feet across, held whole plant communities: dwarfed spruce near the center, surrounded by low-lying juniper, blueberries (we found them rather tasteless), hardy flowers like the little three-toothed cinquefoil, sedum, ferns, and club mosses. Everything was Lilliputian: fronds of wood fern, knee high under forest conditions, were two or three inches long; shining club moss a half inch or less. Here in the war for survival the rule was clearly, “Keep low, keep your head down.” The spruce trees spread out in skirts, as they do on mountaintops. The junipers, whose central trunks looked old and gnarled, flowed down over the rocks like ivy covering a wall.

There is a strange mixture here of the inland and the maritime. No tide rushes in and out of these narrow fiords. A fairly deep draft vessel can squeeze through them at any hour scarcely a boat-hook’s length from the sheer rock on either side, perhaps herding before its bow wave a family of American mergansers, as a canoe does on a river trip. But the soaring, screaming gulls belong to the sea, and the waves of Lake Superior, which is over a thousand feet deep in places, are ocean waves. They pound the rock with bursts of spray and swirl high up into the crevices and grind the loosened stones below. Far back from the present shore line, half concealed beneath trees and undergrowth, we saw a cave that is believed to have been hollowed out by this wave action in prehistoric times, when the lake level was higher than it is today.

As we turned inland, the trees became taller and straighter. We entered the quiet darkness of the spruce-fir lorest, the forest that thrives in the cool moist places of the earth, that once extended, the botanists tell us, along the line of the retreating glacier, from the Pacific Northwest to New England. And here on isle Royale we had an elementary lesson in forest succession. The trees among which we stood were for the most part evergreens, white spruce and balsam fir. This is the climax forest — the end product, so to speak — on those parts of the island most affected by the coastal fogs and cold waters of Lake Superior. But a forest is never static. After a fire or a blowdown, the first trees to take over the freshly exposed areas are not evergreens but fast-growing, sun-loving paper birch and poplar. Once grown to maturity, however, the birch-poplar forest casts a deep cool shade, in which its own seedlings grow poorly but young spruce and fir thrive. So at last the latter take over completely, and their offspring continue to grow up at their feet, maintaining the pure stand of conifers until a fire or other cataclysm lets in the sun, and the cycle then starts all over again.

EARLY in every wilderness trip there comes a moment of awareness, a sudden sense that you are there. I felt it in the Olympics at the end of a fifteen-mile walk through the rain forest; in the Quetico canoe country when we had put three or four portages between us and the last settlement. It is as if, somewhere along the way, a door has silently opened and you have been invited to come in. So I felt as I lay in my sleeping bag two nights later on Isle Royale, at the edge of a remote inland lake. The purest voice of the North Country, the wild unearthly cry of the loon, was pulsating through the darkness like northern lights through a night sky. A white-throated sparrow whistled softly. An incongruous note reminded me that I was on an island: the regular moan of a foghorn out on Lake Superior. I knew what I horeau meant when he wrote of “an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me.”

There is no antidote for rapture like a broken egg, taken raw. Eighteen broken eggs discovered before breakfast, gumming together the contents of a tightly packed knapsack, will complete the cure. I had noticed a stickiness on the ax handle. Now I discovered that those new plastic egg boxes that had looked so pretty on the store shelf were cracked and oozing from end to end. We had not been so smart about our containers alter all! Wiser but eggless, we started out on the short, steep climb leading to the central ridge that runs the length of the island. The woods here were strikingly different from those on the coast, only a foghorn’s voice away. The trail led through pure stands of paper birch, beneath which lay a waist-high blanket of thimbleberries, tempting to the eye as raspberries, but rather sickly sweet to the tongue. Dark clumps of cedar grew here and there on the shaded north slope. The boggy spots were lush with ferns, mingled with the bright green spikes of the club mosses and the tall feathers of the swamp horsetails.

We had covered perhaps two miles when, as abruptly as a new slide on a lecturer’s screen, the picture changed. Now we had another lesson in the complex life history of a forest: a lesson this time in the effects of fire. Beneath the dense shade of the birches the ground had been moist and springy, the air cool. Suddenly, as if we had stepped from an air-conditioned building onto the hot city pavement, we emerged into the glare of a recently burned-over area. The dry open slopes were barely covered with scrubby vegetation. Grasshoppers rose crackling at our feet. Blue jays darted overhead; the brushy hollows were alive with song sparrows and black-throatecl green warblers; but the hairy woodpeckers, the nuthatches, and the brown creepers had been left behind, and the song of the vireos and winter wrens was no more.

Next to man and works of man, fire is the greatest threat to a forest. Isle Royale has suffered three major fires in the past hundred years. We stood now on the edge of the great fire of 1936 that burned almost a fourth of the island. But if manmade fires, caused by carelessness, ignorance, or just indifference, are a constant menace to our few remaining wilderness areas, fire itself has always been a part of the pattern of nature. When much of America was covered by a vast canopy of virgin forest, the occasional conflagration started by a bolt of lightning would open up an area to the sun, providing a variety of new habitats, and consequently of living forms. The seedlings of many plants, including the great Douglas firs of our Northwest, need full sun and exposed soil in order to start their growth. To take an extreme case, there are in the West several species of pine whose seeds germinate only when the cone has been exploded by fire.

In many instances, fire is the clue to the character of a woodland. The uniform stand of birches through which we had just passed, where the trees were all approximately the same age, was undoubtedly the result of a fire many years ago. Now, in the clearing, so much more recently burned over, the only evidence of past glory was isolated, arrow-straight boles of great white pines, weathered to a silver-gray, one of them topped by an olive-sided flycatcher, who darted and swooped every few moments to pick an invisible insect out of the air, others by sparrow hawks and cedar wax wings.

Soon we were clawing our way up the last steep slope to the summit of the ridge, where it flattens out to a broad whaleback. And here, at the end of our climb, we found ourselves again at the beginning of the plant story, back to where we came in, so to speak, on the coastal promontory. The top was bare rock, spotted with patches of dark, papery lichen and dry reindeer moss, a region reduced by fire to the first stage of forest succession. Exposed to full sun and warm dry winds, and to wide variations in temperature, it provided an even harsher climate for new growth than the moist, cool habitat of the storm-swept shore. Fire had left a scar that would outlast many generations of trees and men.

Before nightfall we had returned to our camp in the lush woods by the inland lake. A walleye sizzled in the pan, and my hands were scarred from unhooking the less choice northern pike that had kept snatching at our trolling spoon. The family of goldeneye ducks that had dived around and under our canoe had retired to the reeds, but a great blue heron was coming to roost clumsily in the treetops, teetering with outspread wings until he finally got his balance. The loons were calling again from lake to lake. As the light faded, I noticed how the silhouette of the farther shore was enriched by a few ancient white pines — live trees, these, not skeletons — that stood out above the forest canopy, and I thought of the great pines Thoreau describes that once rose above the Concord River, only to fall at last to the lumberman’s ax. I was glad I was in a national park.

OUR most memorable campsite was at the southwest end of the island, within reach of one of its wildest areas, untouched by either fire or ax. We were on the bank of a shallow, curving estuary connecting a nearby river with the bay, its shores rich with cattails and marsh grass and tall purple asters. Higher up the slope grew red osier dogwood, Juneberry, wild sarsaparilla. A perfect base for further exploration. One trail led inland through an ancient forest of mixed hardwoods and conifers: tall firs, massive cedars, and white pines, a paper birch so old that its main trunk was gray and deeply seamed, with no remaining trace of the papery outer bark, and each of its limbs the size of a large birch tree in our New England woods. Where a recent blowdown had let in the sun, we entered a patch of chest-high Solomon’s seal and ate our way through a thicket of wild raspberries. Then, abruptly the trail vanished, and we were knee deep in ooze, amid the hummocks of a great swamp.

The other, longer trail wound its way for five miles to the northern shore. Halfway along, where the path skirted a broad beaver flow, we heard an unfamiliar, squeaky call that suggested some kind of hawk — and then a deep rumble that made me think for a moment that I was in a zoo. We froze, our eyes searching the underbrush. Only a few steps below us in the shallow pond stood a cow moose with twin calves. They waded slowly toward the bank, and then, with a few graceful bounds, emerged dripping from the slough, crossed the trail ahead of us, and disappeared in the forest. Farther along, where the water was deeper, we spotted a young bull almost completely submerged, in retreat, I suppose, from the everpresent flies.

At last we reached the lake front and were again struck by the dramatic contrasts of this comparatively small island. Instead of the fingerlike points and island-studded harbors that had welcomed us where we first landed, we now found sheer cliffs where the unbroken land mass meets the full force of the waves, where wind-sculptured evergreens cling to pinnacles of rock like the gnarled pines of a Japanese landscape. At the trail’s end was the nearest thing to a harbor on this part of the island, a crescent cove, the beach of which consisted of wave-polished boulders, strewn with bleached and rounded tree trunks that reminded us, though the scale was smaller, of the gigantic forest debris on the Pacific beach strip of Olympic Park.

IF YOU are getting up at daybreak, there is no alarm clock to compare with a few hungry moose. Each morning their splashing awakened us as they came down to feed and then stood around in the shallow estuary like a herd of cows grazing in a pasture. In one sense, Isle Royale has been a paradise for moose, an isolated area in which they are protected from hunting and in which, until about twelve years ago, they have had virtually no natural enemies. But the web of life is not so simple as that. In any natural community, the lack of predators to keep the numbers of a species within bounds can be the greatest enemy of all. So it has been with the Isle Royale moose, whose story is particularly significant because it involves another of our finest, but much maligned, American mammals, the timber wolf.

The story opens early in this century, when the moose began to breed on the island, presumably having crossed over from the mainland on the winter ice. Protected from natural predators, and at the same time confined to a limited area with a limited food supply, they went through a cycle of overpopulation, during which the young trees and other browse on which they feed suffered severely, and subsequent decline, as their numbers were reduced by starvation and disease. The cycle was then repeated, with a second population peak in the late nineteen forties. But at this point, a new actor appeared on the stage. In 1948, tracks of timber wolves were first discovered on Isle Royale, and there was evidence that they were preying on the overabundant moose. Today, more than ten years later, the moose population is down again to a healthy level, the vegetation is recovering, and the predator and prey have apparently reached some sort of dynamic equilibrium. The concept of ecology, of the balance of nature, begins to make sense when you stop to think that the seedling tree at your feet may ultimately depend for its life on the existence of the wolf.

One does not, in a few days, learn much about such mysteries. One picks up a fragment here and there of an infinitely complex mosaic, and one gets some idea of how the trained naturalist painstakingly fits such fragments together to make the living picture of the whole. Best of all, one gets a glimpse of the natural world through the eyes of men who have grown to love it, not sentimentally but by hard work and exact knowledge.

My last impression of Isle Royale is perhaps the sharpest of all. The scene is neither deep forest nor wind-swept rocks. It is the interior of a log cabin on one of the outer islands, a remote ranger station where we awaited a boat to take us back to the main island. The young summer ranger is out of uniform; he has spent his day off taking us to his favorite camp spot on a birch-clad point nearby. Though off duty, he has an ear cocked for the short-wave radio muttering in one corner of the room. His pretty wife comes to the kitchen table with the baby on one arm; with the other she reaches for the coffeepot, always waiting on the back of the stove. Alone for days at a time, she is never lonely. For both of them, the “unaccountable friendliness” of the forest has made the summer slip by all too fast. She has news for her husband. Last night, for the first time on their own island, she heard the cry of a wolf.