Isle Royale on Fire

Hidden Lake with a low fog, Isle Royale National Park.

When we last checked in, Russ and I were on Isle Royale, a wilderness national park in Lake Superior. It was our final day. Before we had to catch our boat back to the mainland in the afternoon, we had plans to canoe across Tobin Harbor to a rugged trail that leads to Hidden Lake, Monument Rock, and an overlook high on the backbone of the island with the prosaic name of Lookout Louise.

A boardwalk over a wetlands near Hidden Lake.

The weather had other ideas for us, however. A gray sky and drizzle greeted us as we carried our friends’ canoe down to the harbor. To me, it didn’t feel like we were in for a downpour, just a steady drip, so we decided not to let a little rain keep us from my old haunt and one of the most spectacular overlooks on the island. On a clear day, a person can see the other side of the island and all the way to Canada.

After about a half-hour paddle from the sea plane dock on the crystal-clear waters of Tobin Harbor, we reached the Hidden Lake dock. We hauled our canoe ashore and began the mile-long hike to the lookout. While the beginning part of the trail at Hidden Lake is flat, the grade gradually rises until it reaches a steep pitch on the way to Monument Rock and the lookout. Because of this, the difficulty is considered moderate to difficult.

Fog shrouded part of Hidden Lake, adding to its mystery. We found a pile of super-fresh wolf scat next to the trail along with lady slipper orchids.

For entertainment one evening earlier on our trip, we attended a park ranger talk at Rock Harbor. The topic was the fire that occurred on this part of the island last year (2021). Named the Horne Fire, it began as a lightning strike and ended up burning 335 acres and threatening cabins on Tobin Harbor. People were evacuated, tourism was disrupted, and a fire crew was brought in to fight the blaze.

Russ by Monument Rock, which was in the path of the Horne Fire in 2021.

From attending the talk, we knew that the Lookout Louise Trail would take us right through the burned area, so we were ready for the black chaos when we found it. Huge trees were uprooted, soil was blackened. Dead trees, denuded of branches, reached toward the gray sky like iron spikes. But some greenery was returning in scattered patches.

One unexpected benefit of the Horne Fire was that the view of Monument Rock – a large sea stack that sticks up from the hillside – was easily visible. Usually, it’s shrouded by trees. Reaching the landmark means you’re over halfway to the lookout. Once past the rock, the trail becomes a bit less steep.

We didn’t have much time to enjoy the view at the lookout for fear we would miss our boat home, but our gazes drank in what they could of Duncan Bay and Lake Superior. On a clear day, Pie Island, the Sibley Peninsula and Edward Island in Canada are visible.

I heard two days ago that Isle Royale is on fire again. Visitors were evacuated from Three Mile and Lane Cove campgrounds. Those campgrounds are currently closed as are some trails in that area. For more details, please see news article(s) about the fire. Of course, fires are natural on the island, but it is distressing to see the destruction they leave behind and how they impact the lives of the people who live and work on the island in summer.

The view from Lookout Louise.

According to the park service, the lookout was named for Louise Savage of St. Paul, Minnesota. Her family owned one of the cabins on Tobin Harbor before the area became a park.

As we hiked back to the dock, the drizzle grew into a light shower. But we didn’t mind. We had accomplished our goal and were feeling good. The fresh rain seeped into our jeans and into our bones, a reminder of our closeness to nature. We were able to return to Rock Harbor in plenty of time to catch our ride home.

Hidden Lake, Isle Royale. You can see evidence of the Horne Fire on the hillside in the upper right.

I left the island feeling peaceful. I was glad to see that lodge employees still gather on the sea plane dock to watch the sun set every evening like I used to back when I worked there decades ago. It’s obvious that the island still works its magic on employees and visitors alike.

I was taking sunset pictures on the dock during the final island evening of our trip. As oranges and pinks filled the sky, we could hear the rattling trumpet calls of distant sandhills cranes. These birds were not on the island when I worked there in the 1980s, but I guess they are more common now.

Then, right when the sun dipped behind the island’s Greenstone Ridge, a lone wolf howled somewhere near Lookout Louise (was it his/her scat we found the next day?) The small group gathered on the dock all looked at each other in wonderment, as if asking, was that a wolf we just heard? The wolf’s mournful, long howl was followed by a second. No other wolves replied.

As I stepped off the dock onto the land with my camera gear, a man sitting on a bench said, “I’ve been coming here for thirty years and that’s the first wolf I heard. That’s pretty special.”

Darn right it is! I told him the howls were also a first for me. That’s one of those mystical Isle Royale moments I won’t forget.

Isle Royale visitors take time to watch the sunset on the sea plane dock in Tobin Harbor.