Editors' Choice

Superior Sanctuary

by Michele Bergstrom

On the island in the lake she found her own divinity.

Fog. Like delicate tatting, it weaves silver filigree between white birches and gnarled cedar roots, coating with the tiniest of drops the spider webs and orange-and-pink woods orchids along its soft path. It makes no sound but all things are aware it has arrived.

Floating wild and unpredictable in Lake Superior mists off the southern Ontario coast, Isle Royale gives mystical isolation fresh meaning. Human history is but a flicker to the forty-five-mile-long island. One billion-plus years ago, the first blink was forced by hot lava. That was followed millions of years later by a white-tight glacial shutdown, then, recently—within ten thousand years—a melting to wakefulness. The current epoch has encouraged a magnificent greening.

Within human hindsight: The First People tapped out copper chunks from basalt for tools and jewelry as early as 4,500 years ago. Many centuries later, in the 1800s, an invasion of Europeans exploited the island’s copper until mining finally ceased in 1899. During that same time, ancient trees were leveled for profit and abundant fish were over-pulled from the cold waters. Even the nights were violated by revelry stomping loud and long in log lodges.

The 1931 designation authorizing Isle Royale as a national park protected the island from further pounding or pilfering. In 1976, Congress, citing the importance of resource restoration, declared Isle Royale part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. When this ancient archipelago joined the International Biosphere Reserve System in 1981, it became an outdoor laboratory for wilderness students. The island’s seasons, dressed in shades of green, gold and white, flowed again like rapids rushing down a rocky stream.

Everyone needs a sanctuary. After much planning and exhaustive preparations, my husband Randy and I motor our large powerboat due north from Saxon Harbor, our homeport on the southern shore of Lake Superior, to this remote island in mid-summer. Three days, one wild stormy night and 150 nautical miles later, four-footers propel Root Beer Float into Windigo, the main harbor on Isle Royale’s southwest side. After paying the daily fee of $4.00 per person and registering our plans with National Park Service personnel, we motor thirty-two more miles to our first moorage at the very end of McCargoe Cove, a serene channel edged by weathered conifers and dotted with lily pads and surfacing loons. Carefully, with respect for the muddy, shallow bottom, we secure the boat to the sturdy dock. Then I walk uphill through perky daisies. The late afternoon sun is warm, breeze soft. Turning at the peak, I look down the long inlet.

A trip to this ancient island is a dream-come-true. For Randy, it’s a captain’s challenge to safely navigate a big boat all those nautical miles atop boisterous Lake Superior seas. Now he can’t wait to explore the island’s hidden coves and deep fjords, fish its icy waters, hike the trails, then cozy up in a gently rocking boat anchored under the moon. He’ll pilot us home with equal care and caution, totally refreshed.

I seek the solitude of observation. It’s easy for me to wander about, then quietly absorb the essence of anything I focus on, be it pink petals of the wild rose flourishing everywhere on the island or a brilliantly striped agate on a beach. I reflect on the island’s throbbing existence, its continuous cycle of renewal flowing with no beginning, no end.

Deeply appreciating the current human hands-off policy, I want to learn how Isle Royale’s thirty wolves and four-hundred some moose, in one of nature’s strangest survival contests, balance each other. I want to know the reasons behind the decline of beavers, and what value a buzz of tiny midges is to an island spider. How are all those exotic flowers—orchids, roses, lilies—able to thrive on rock? I also have an uneasy must-know: Have acid rain, or toxins floating on air currents from far away, turned the clean, clear waters of the island’s interior lakes to vinegar?

I don’t come from a scientific background; I come from the heart. I’m disturbed over what we humans do to our surroundings, areas as simple as our backyards. I worry about carelessness with precious water, soil, trees, air—especially on one of the few remaining true wildernesses. Isle Royale, on only 572,000 acres, provides one of our last chances to recover what this land once was.

Still, my purpose is simple. I’m here for the interconnection of all things, all creatures, all forces—down to pebbles and cattails and up to eagles and sunlight—within this isolated, protected spot.

Over several days, we learn that hiking boots are a must to traverse the rocky trails snaking the island. Narrow paths wind through vast thimbleberry thickets where leaves grow big as dinner plates. Trails wander along the shores of pristine inland lakes filled with huge fish, and climb high into moose-browsed meadows. Knots of wolf fur, recently shed, cling to bushes. Beaver dams, taller than a man, bottle up ponds but allow trickles to form new streams. In any direction, a far-off patch of fog hovers. Every marsh, stand of trees, and lake viewed from a high ridge beckons. Clumps of ancient horsetails and the simple elegance of tiny calypso orchids growing in a rock crevice tug at me. I get lost in the intricacy of lichens, those dualized plants—half algae, half fungi—growing in gray-green patches on rocks and trees.

We move the boat to Pickerel Cove, a passage dotted with small rocky islands and narrow channels fanning out like outstretched fingers, and anchor in a sheltered bay. Overcast, chilly, there’s a hint of rain. Time to fish. Randy plops the rubber dinghy off the swim platform, loads his fishing gear, and fires up the four-horse. I follow him through binoculars as he heads down a distant channel, mist rising over the cold water. My man looks like he’s on a modern day quest for the Holy Grail. He returns elated. Not only has he caught three sizable lake trout, a moose swam in front of the dinghy. His cup overflows.

The next day we motor carefully through the Amygdaloid Channel, a narrow strait lined with long rocky outcroppings, summer home to cormorants and ring-billed gulls. Rough and pitted, age-old lava fingers point north, the direction we’re headed to round the tip of the island. We drift through pockets of dense fog, grateful for radar and the GPS. Blips on the screen warn us in time of sport fishermen blurring in and out as they troll the coast. We wonder if they see us. We wonder what they catch.

Needing gas and showers, we dock at Rock Harbor, main port on the northeast side of the island. Along with Windigo, it’s a harbor for the large mainland tourist boats—and occasional seaplane—unloading or loading hikers and campers. One is there now, disgorging eager hikers. Those ready for home sit in weary groups on the dock, weathered backpacks no longer tidy. Our boat sucks fuel. Prices are scary, but we want to get home. We pay. Deciding to stay the night, we rent a slip. My sea legs beg for a stretch. Stepping along a high rocky trail jutting into Lake Superior, I retrace the boat’s course into the harbor.

As I stand in the mist at the very end of those ancient volcanic fingers defining Rock Harbor, the visible vapor flows past me like a soft sigh, smelling of fish and moss and starlit waves. The tough, pitted rocks making up that spit of land give me solidity; a curious gull, circling a few feet above my head, briefly offers companionship.

In these moments, the mix of all that beauty and noise and power opens something deep. Everything inherent in all I’ve ever touched, smelled, seen, heard, even tasted, dwells in the physical of me—down to the tiniest mineral amount. I, too, am earth, air and water; my soul banks the fire. Suddenly, I know. I am a part of it, as essential as the water crashing against the rocks right below. I’m out of the fog and into the wonder, the beauty, the divinity of it all. I’ve always belonged. I am.

Here, as everywhere else on the island, white-throated sparrows sing as if whistling down rain barrels. Two feet off the trail, a wolf track is frozen in mud, right next to the huge split-hoof print of a moose. Bright orange lilies bloom everywhere. Like the hikers we saw bent by fifty-pound backpacks, my senses stagger under the load. What is filtering all these stimuli into such a huge feeling of awe? What is at the other end of that wonder?

Sometimes when I’m in a big crowd, I wonder how I can be considered important when everyone surrounding me has a story, a contribution, a message, for sure a raison d’etre, that helps the world spin. Standing on that rocky pinnacle, fog swirling, waves spraying, I feel the same wonder—what is my role? Is it important? Does anyone care? And, most importantly, who/what keeps all this together?

Maybe I should kneel. Instead, I throw open my arms.

All creatures, all things, down to microbes and sub-atomic particles, travel along a survival path. Yet there is a much larger purpose than mere survival. I need only to look around to understand. Through constant evolutionary flow, Nature provides flawlessness—witness the perfect symmetry of a daisy or a spider web dotted with dew—confirming the need for beauty on all planes. Life flows in powerful, deliberate and sometimes deadly cycles, but its magnificent displays are unending. “Namaste,” I whisper, bowing low to the endless energy surrounding me.

A rumble of thunder startles me. Low clouds scudding in from the southwest are about to clash with cold ones hovering over the island. I’m two miles from the boat. With a last look over the water, I turn back down the trail, respectful of lightning and its ability to strike objects, even trotting ones, in open spaces. I think about Randy waiting in the boat. Tonight we will listen in awe to the storm. Surrounded by a warm season’s din, we’ll embrace this ancient island as sanctuary, and be as sheltered as star flowers under the spreading boughs of the balsam.

Then we’ll watch the full moon part the clouds.


Michele Bergstrom is a writer who lives in Eagle River, Wisconsin. This story won the Silver Award for Cruise Story in the First Annual Solas Awards.


About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.


Read more from Editors' Choice, Michele Bergstrom

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