Lake Superior Service, Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 13278A, Service/ Volunteer


  • Experience the least visited national park in the nation
  • Cross the largest body of fresh-water in the world
  • Give back while having a great experience


  • Passage to and from the island on the Ranger III
  • All meals, vegetarian friendly
  • All work equipment


DatesJul 19–27, 2013
StaffKen Rubin

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Join us on the 'Eye of the Wolf,' Isle Royale National Park, located in western Lake Superior. Isle Royale typically has the fewest visitors of any national park in the nation. An International Biosphere Reserve, Isle Royale is probably best known for its wolf and moose populations.

The annual study, conducted in January and February of 2012, reflected a decrease in the wolf population to 9, the lowest count during the 54-year study. The moose population increased to an estimated 700, which is still low from historical standards.  A major concern is there may be only two female wolves, and both are older.  In 2012, our group saw a moose cow and calf and we were very fortunate to hear a wolf pack howling.  

Because of its surface relief and geographic location, Isle Royale supports diverse flora. Most of the island is forested, and along the cool, moist shoreline you will see such trees as jack pine and quaking aspen. Common trees in the interior and higher parts of the island include northern red oak, white pine, and big-tooth aspen. You will also see smaller plants such as thimbleberry and blueberry, and wildflowers, including 32 varieties of orchids. During the 2012 trip we enjoyed raspberries, but thimbleberries -- typically plentiful -- were scarce. 

The Project

We will work alongside and under the direction of a National Park Service trail crew. Our assignment will be to work on two canoe portages.  We’ll be camping at Chippewa Harbor an excellent site we have worked out of before. The first portage is between Chippewa Harbor and Lake Whittlesey. The second portage is between Lake Whittlesey and Wood Lake, requiring part of the crew to canoe the length of Lake Whittlesey (over 1.5 miles) in order to reach the portage.  Lake Whittlesey is very narrow and protected, so it should be easy canoeing unless there is a strong head wind. 

The work will include cutting back the trees and brush, and doing tread work, which involves adding drains and rock bars. We’ll rotate the crews between the two portages to allow everyone to work at both locations. You'll take pride in seeing a dramatic improvement in the trail following the completion of our work.


Our first day will be Friday, July 19.  We'll meet early in the morning in Houghton, Michigan, for a light breakfast and a brief pre-boarding meeting. The exact meeting place will be announced in future correspondence. We'll board the Ranger III in Houghton for a 9:00 a.m. departure to Isle Royale. Our travel time to the island will be approximately five hours.

Our first stop will be at Mott Island, the park headquarters. Our gear will be unloaded at Mott Island, where we'll board a smaller park service boat and be shuttled to the Chippewa Harbor dock on the south side of the island.    

Not counting our travel days to and from the island, we'll spend five days working and have one and a half days off to hike. On our last day, Saturday, July 27, we'll depart for the mainland at 9:00 a.m. Our last official meal will be lunch on the boat. We should be back in Houghton by 3:00 p.m.

Note: On previous trips, storms have delayed our return to the mainland, so travel plans need to be flexible. 



Getting There

Houghton is approximately 350 miles from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A small airport (Houghton County Memorial Airport) is located in Hancock, Michigan, about five miles from our departure location. Houghton and Hancock are twin cities connected by a lift bridge. There is air shuttle service to Hancock from Chicago (O’hare). There is also bus service to Houghton. Carpooling may also be an option. 

Accommodations and Food

The Chippewa Harbor campground will be our group base camp for the majority of our trip. Our campground will have a picnic table and a pit toilet. After working on the trail, a dip in the lake before dinner is very refreshing. 

On Thursday we’ll be moved to the Rock Harbor campground, where we’ll stay until we return to Houghton on Saturday. At this point we'll have lodge-related amenities like showers, a camp store, and coffee shop.

Our menu will accommodate both vegetarians and meat eaters. A food survey will be sent to participants prior to finalizing the menu. 

Trip Difficulty

You need to be in good physical condition. The trail work will be moderately strenuous. The minimum age for the trip is 16. No special skills are required; the safe use of all tools will be demonstrated. The ability to work in cooperation with the Park Service crew and fellow Sierra Club members is a must.

We'll probably need to carry the tools in on the first day and out on our last work day. However, we will not have to carry tools to and from the site each day. Trail conditions vary, and include smooth forest trail, rock-covered trail, and root-encrusted trail. Be prepared for daytime temperatures in the 80s, and nighttime temperatures that may drop into the 50s. We expect great weather at this time of the year, but you must be prepared for rainy and cool conditions.  

We need at least a few participants with canoe experience.

Equipment and Clothing

The leader will send a detailed equipment list to registered participants. You must bring a pair of good leather gloves and a day pack. Cotton clothing is not recommended.  A pair of good boots, preferably waterproof, for hiking/trail work is mandatory.  Don't bring new boots; they must be broken-in before the trip. A pair of lightweight camp shoes (e.g. Tevas) is recommended for use after a long day on the trail.

The Sierra Club provides cooking gear, but you will need your own non-disposable eating utensils (cup, spoon, knife, fork, and plate). A small tent with a rain fly and a rain suit (not poncho) are required. Your equipment need not be expensive, but it should be made of quality materials. A backpack isn’t required for this trip -- a duffle bag will work. 


You can obtain many of the following materials from the Isle Royale Natural History Association, at (800) 678-6925 or


  • U.S.G.S. map: "Isle Royale National Park, Michigan" (48088-A5-PF-062). Also available from Isle Royale Headquarters, Houghton, MI 49331; U.S. Geological Survey, Denver, CO 80225; the Isle Royale Natural History Association, 800 E. Lakeshore Dr., Houghton, MI 49331-1869; and online from several topographic map services.


  • DuFresne, Jim, Foot Trails and Water Routes of Isle Royale National Park. The third edition is probably the park's most authoritative guidebook.
  • Huber, N.K., The Geological Story of Isle Royale. A classic study of the geological history and landscape.


  • "Exploring Isle Royale," a 28-minute VHS video produced by the National Park Service, shows how to best enjoy the island's many attributes. 


Though Isle Royale is quite isolated, it is still exposed to many environmental dangers, including global climate change, invasive species, and pollutants. We'll discuss each of these issues, focusing on the causes and impacts. We'll also discuss steps we can take to halt the environmental degradation. Global climate change may have already played a significant role in impacting the moose population on the island.

Though we normally think of the West when discussing forest fires, fire has already played a role in sculpting Isle Royale. The role of fire and fire management will also be discussed. 



Ken Rubin has spent much of his life in the outdoors enjoying a variety of activities. In his professional career he has worked as a naturalist, resident camp director, and youth worker. He has led youth trips backpacking, canoeing, whitewater rafting, and hiking. Recently he became a Sierra Club leader as a way of sharing his love of nature with others. Ken is certified in Wilderness First Aid and CPR.


Barry Brenneman's first service trip was to Isle Royale. He also participated in the service trips to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Canyonlands National Park. This will be his 10th service trip to Isle Royale. He is active with the ParkLands Foundation in central Illinois, which focuses on preserving and restoring natural areas along the Mackinaw River.

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