Michigan not only has great lakes, we have great islands. Fox, Grand, Bois Blanc, Drummond, Poverty, Shoe and Snake. North Manitou, South Manitou, Whiskey and Waugoshance. Garlic, Gull, Ripley Rock, Partridge, Wood and Naomikong. Neebish, Two Tree, Goat and Memory. Their names roll off your tongue like pebbles skipped across the water. About 400 are named, and hundreds more aren’t.
Our islands don’t appear in the open hand we use to show the world where we live. We don’t have nearly as many as Alaska or Florida, but we’re near the top of the list. And of those islands, two are unique in the world. We owe one island to the persistence of journalist Albert Stoll, a conservation columnist for the Detroit News who championed its designation as a national park, which was finally achieved in 1940. We owe the other to a simple idea: no cars allowed.
I finally got to Isle Royale this summer with my son Jon, who left the heat and bustle of Chicago for the cool nights, starry skies, woodland flowers and rocky trails of one of the nation’s most pristine parks. Our least-visited national park is as far from Detroit—about 485 miles as the crow flies—as New York and Des Moines. In the middle of Lake Superior, you can’t get there by car, which is what protects it from the harm too many visitors would inflict. Life is precarious on Isle Royale. Fragile flowers cling to rock. Ghostly fir trees wear lichen coats of translucent green. (The lichen appearing to either cause the death of the skinny trees or, at least, to have taken advantage of their frailty.)
Nature’s delicate balance is most troublesome for the island’s wolves now, as scientists consider whether to import wolves from the mainland to refresh the pack. Without new blood for 18 years—the wolves must cross frozen Lake Superior from Minnesota or Canada—the pack has dwindled to eight members, leaving the moose to multiply to 900 or so. The moose population obviously likes this arrangement. (You’d think 900 moose would be enough incentive for the wolves. Or, just put up a billboard on the Canadian shore of Lake Superior: a picture of a moose with an arrow pointing to the island. Wolves are smart, right?) We saw neither animal on our hikes, but heard wolves howling and saw moose droppings.
Wilderness areas, like Isle Royale, give us a chance to recharge, connect with our primal beings, and simplify our lives. Not many of us would choose to live for long without the trappings of modern life, but it’s nice to have those places where we can. People of all ages take advantage of the Isle. We met homeschool campers, adventurous young adults, families, and retirees on the trail. One encounter, though, left us puzzled: We met an elderly couple from Alabama who had driven from Huntsville to Houghton, then caught the plane to the island so he could see for himself the little copper mining pits dug by natives centuries ago. After a couple of hours, they flew back. We saw those little copper pits, and though interesting, they alone aren’t worth the trip.
When you’re on the Isle, you’re off the grid. There’s little or no cell phone service, spotty internet if you happen by the Isle offices at a good time, and no television. It’s like living in rural America before co-ops electrified it. The National Security Agency would have a hard time tracking you there. Not so on Mackinac Island, we discovered during a recent summer: Japanese teenagers chat in their native language and English, wear flip-flops, shorts and t-shirts with English messages, and take pictures of everything. “Let’s get this over with,” says one teenager in a group photo. A large Finnish family of all ages tries to agree where to go next. A newly married couple from England drives for 15 hours from Philadelphia to spend the night, because the bride wanted to see the place where the movie “Somewhere in Time” takes place.
You may think Detroit is the international destination in Michigan, but I’d argue that for the summer months that distinction goes to charming Mackinac Island. You can hear every language under the sun there on any given day. Horses and bicycles rule—alongside cell phones. It’s hard to pretend you’re “somewhere in time” when modern technology keeps bumping into the past on every street and in every restaurant and fudge shop. (I wonder if Kindles now outnumber real paper books in the hands of folks reading on the Island’s many porches?)
I hear that you can’t stop progress. Though Mackinac Island might be a calmer place without it, progress could ruin Isle Royale. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
(On a positive note, technology can help you keep that Mackinac Island spirit alive all year long. Sign up for Bree’s Mackinac Island Blog, bree1972.wordpress.com. It’s filled with photos and commentary as the author chronicles Island life. For Isle Royale, watch for the independent movie “Fifty Lakes, One Island” by Chicago filmmaker George Desort, who spent 80 nights on Isle Royale in 2011 traveling alone, by kayak, with his camera. You can see it at the Besse Center Theater in Escanaba on Sept. 12, baycollege.edu/filmseries.)
– Mike Buda is editor emeritus of Country Lines. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment on his columns at countrylines.com/ramblings