Lessons from Travels: Isle Royale Moose and Wolves

by Carl Strang

My short list of greatest adventures always will include my circumnavigation of Isle Royale by sea kayak in the second half of August, 1996. Isle Royale is the big island in northern Lake Superior that, to me, looks like the eye in the lake’s wolf’s head shape. The paddle around it is a 100-mile journey. I got there by ferry from Houghton, Michigan.

There was plenty of room in the hold for kayaks and camping equipment.

On the way out I had a happy encounter with Rolf Peterson, a fellow graduate of Purdue’s wildlife program, who took over the Isle Royale wolf-moose study from his mentor, Durward Allen. It turned out I was able to help. With my kayak I could reach a few moose carcasses Rolf had spotted from the air during the winter surveys but which were in remote places. There were some data and samples that needed to be collected on the ground.

I never had seen a moose, and Isle Royale is one of the best places in the U.S. to find them. I encountered around a dozen during this trip.

This fellow walked right through camp one morning.

Isle Royale is better known as a backpacking destination, but I’m really glad I did it by sea.

This is the kind of trail the backpackers must negotiate in places. I felt a mixture of respect and pity as I watched them staggering into camp at the end of the day, when I had done my relatively easy paddling in the morning and could explore the trails with a light day pack.

A sea kayak can carry everything one needs for a two-week trip. A micro-filtering pump allows one to strain the lake water for drinking and cooking.

I still have this tent, though it got a tear during a storm on a later sea kayak expedition. Shortly after taking this photo I lost the camera remote I was holding in my left hand.

Along the way I saw occasional moose skeletons previously inventoried by Rolf and his students.

Wolves and weather have scattered some of the bones.

In the southwest quarter of the island there are no established camps, so I set up on the beach that night. There I saw my first wolf sign.

The tracks were very fresh, but I knew my chances were slim of seeing one of these shy canids.

This was a very remote location, with only the occasional calls of golden-crowned kinglets to break the August silence. The following photo, which I took just before pushing off the next day, conveys some of the eerie mood of the place.

I liked to make an early start, so as to have as much of the afternoon as possible for day hiking.

The following camp at Huginnin Cove, on the north shore just east of Isle Royale’s tip, provided the next clue to the presence of wolves.

Stinkin’ fresh wolf scats on the trail near the campground.

There is a long stretch of the north shore which provides no good landing for a sea kayak.

Here you can see why.

Nevertheless, one of Rolf’s moose was there, just inland from a little break in the shoreline. I found the spot, wedged Water Strider (my kayak) between a boulder and the cliff, and climbed up carrying my tow line/anchor rope.

The little waves gave Water Strider some scratches from the rocks which she bears to this day.

After some searching I found the carcass, a female, and I bagged the smelly sample for transport to Rolf. I dubbed her Miss Moosie, and she was my companion for the remainder of the trip.

Moose were part of the northeast Illinois fauna in the wake of the last continental glacier, and wolves still were here in historical times. It was a pleasure to share a landscape with them for a while, and to imagine the days when such creatures left tracks and deposited scats on trails now occupied by Ogden Avenue and Army Trail Road.


  1. Hal Atherton said,

    November 15, 2011 at 7:53 am

    That was truly a great adventure.

  2. November 15, 2011 at 11:49 am

    […] Link: Lessons from Travels: Isle Royale Moose and Wolves « Nature … […]

  3. January 24, 2013 at 7:02 am

    […] of my favorite adventures was a solo sea kayak circumnavigation of Isle Royale in 1996. Islands have relatively few species, and this helped me to solve a puzzle that had bothered me for […]

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