The “Road Trip to Isle Royale” changed character at a wharf in Houghton, Michigan. It continued aboard a 165 foot long passenger ferry, the Ranger III. We sailed from Houghton at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, June 14—a perfect day for a big voyage on a little ship. We were barely aware of the two foot waves and arrived at Isle Royale’s Rock Harbor at 3:30 p.m.
Just a two minute walk from the wharf a short trail leads to the point at the entrance to Rock Harbor. Burna and I were so eager we dropped our luggage in our room at the Rock Harbor Lodge and “hit the trail.” Another five minutes and we arrived at the old “America Dock” where an early 20th Century passenger ferry, the America, tied up to deposit tourists and park staff.
From that slightly decrepit old dock at the end of the small peninsula forming Rock Harbor we could see perhaps six of the Isle Royale archipelago’s over 450 islands. Waves gurgled and splashed against rocks covered with lichens and bright green mosses. It was an enchanting sight punctuated be the mesmerizing swelling of waves against rocks.
I stood on the America Dock, looking southwest toward Mott Island where we had just left some campers, then back up the trail toward the lodge. I was aware that I was confused. I was experiencing something unfamiliar, but couldn’t quite grasp what it was. My mind seemed blank. I was puzzled that I felt unable to form thoughts.
My brain was overloaded. I was overwhelmed by the newness of this place and my mind had gone fuzzy. Too many new and unfamiliar sights and sounds were coming at me and I had lost my familiar bearings: buildings, blocks, sidewalks, street lights, stop signs, telephone poles, TV dishes, traffic sounds, and the myriad et ceteras of my native habitat—the urban world.
When it docked, I had hurried off the Ranger III, rushed off to the Lodge, and hightailed it down the trail toward the American Dock. Now it occurred to me that I had just stepped onto and into something new. I didn’t need to hurry, rush, or hightail it anywhere. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t even really arrive here if I didn’t slow down and allow this island to reorient me to itself.
I said to Burna, “Let’s walk very slowly on the way back.” We talked as we walked and naturally remarked about what we saw. Tufts of grey caribou lichen were everywhere and “Old Man’s Beard” lichen hung from the trees. Many varieties of moss carpeted the forest floor. There were many luxuriant patches of Canadian Dogwood and Kinnikinick. Old snags, fallen trees, rotted wood, and other natural debris made it nearly impossible to leave the path.
I was becoming acquainted with a quintessential boreal forest of the perpetually cooler north.
Many years ago, Francis Blake, an Objibway man I visited at his home in the sugar bush near Red Lake in Northern Minnesota, posed a provocative question: “Can you see into the forest?” Isle Royale has posed a related question: “Can you see beyond yourself?” The answer to this question bears on how I travel across country: do I fly? take the Interstate? or drive on secondary roads through the towns and countryside?
On Isle Royale, just asking the question slows me down and opens my eyes just a little wider. Our guides, Ann and John Mahan, help me to see a nearly hidden patch of rare Calypso orchids and decide to spend unhurried time along the path.