Lake Superior Service, Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14292A, Service/ Volunteer


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


  • Passage to and from the island on the Range III ferry
  • All meals (except one dinner)
  • Transportation to work sites, all work equipment, and park staff to provide oversight and support


DatesAug 15–23, 2014
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 has the fewest visitors of any national park in the nation. Considered to be an international biosphere reserve, Isle Royale is probably best known for its moose and wolf population and the ongoing research to study them. The annual study conducted in January and February show the wolf population at its lowest levels since the study began 55 years ago. The moose population has increased to over 700 animals, which is still low from historical standards, and the wolf population was estimated to be only eight. We have been lucky enough on previous trips to see moose and to hear wolves howling, but it is never a given.  

Because of its surface relief and geographic location, Isle Royale supports a diverse flora. Most of the island is forested and along the cool, moist shoreline you will see trees such as the jack pine and quaking aspen.  Common trees on 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 the thimbleberry, which is the most common ground cover on the island -- its tart berries should be ready for picking while we are there.  Many other wildflowers, including 32 varieties of wild orchids, wild blueberries, and raspberries are usually plentiful.

The Project

We will work alongside and under the direction of the National Park Service trail crew.  Our assignment will be to work on a portage trail between Rock Harbor and Belle Isle, a smaller island that is popular with paddlers visiting the island. We will work on trails in Tobin Harbor, Duncan Bay, Stockly Bay, and Lane Cove. We will be camping in the Rock Harbor group site, which has some amenities other campsites do not have, including fresh running water and a camp store for cold drinks or ice cream. There are even showers (that are seldom hot) for purchase.

The work will include cutting back trees and brush as well as doing tread work on the trail base, which includes building rock bars and drains.  We will be transported to our work sites daily by boat and/or canoe. You'll take pride in seeing the dramatic improvement in the trails following the completion of our work.


Our first day will be Friday August 15. We will meet early in the morning in Houghton, MI at the Ranger III ferry dock for departure to the island. We will gather on the boat for our pre-trip meeting and settle in for the five-hour trip to the island. Storms can alter our schedule and delay the boat's departure or return. We will stop at park headquarters on Mott Island before continuing on to Rock Harbor, our base camp for the trip. We will have a “picnic lunch” on the ferry and should arrive at Rock Harbor in plenty of time to set up camp and prepare dinner.

We will spend the next five days working on the trails, starting our days around 7 a.m. with breakfast, packing lunch to take with us to eat on the trail, and returning to camp for dinner. We will have two days at the end of the trip as “free” days for hiking, canoeing, and exploring the island.

On our final day, Saturday, August 23, we will depart for the mainland at 9 a.m. Our last official meal will be lunch on the boat and we should be back in Houghton around 3 p.m.

Please 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, MN; 200 miles from Green Bay, WI or Duluth, MN; and 400 miles from Chicago. There is a small airport (Houghton County Memorial Airport) located in Hancock, MI, which is about five miles from our hotel and departure location. Houghton and Hancock are sister cities, connected by a lift bridge. There is air shuttle service to Hancock from Chicago O'Hare twice daily. There is also bus service to Houghton.  We can arrange transportation from the Houghton County Airport or the bus drop off location to the hotel if you choose to come into Houghton. We will also share participant info to explore carpooling opportunities.

Accommodations and Food

The Rock Harbor group campground will be our base camp for the trip.  Our campsite will have picnic tables, and pit toilets and fresh water are nearby. There is running water, flush toilets, and pay showers in the main campground about 500 yards or so from the group sites. For most of us, a dip in the lake after a day of work proves very refreshing. There is also a camp store and coffee shop in the main campground.

All meals will be provided except for one dinner, which we will eat at the lodge restaurant, and all meals are vegetarian friendly.

Trip Difficulty

The trail work will be moderately strenuous and you should be in good physical condition for this trip. The minimum age for the trip is 16. No special skills are required and the safe use of all tools will be demonstrated and discussed. The ability to work with fellow Sierra Club members and the Park Service trail crew is a must. We will need to transport all of our personal and group gear from the ferry dock to our campsite, which is about a half mile.

We will hike in to our work sites daily and we may need to carry our tools in and out as well. Hikes to work should be two miles or less. Trail conditions vary greatly and include trail that is smooth, rocky, root encrusted, and hilly. Daytime temperatures could reach 80 and nighttime temperatures could be in the 50s. We hope for great weather this time of year, but need to prepared for rainy and cool conditions. We will work, rain or shine. Bugs are always a potential problem, but they are usually on the decline at this time of year.

Equipment and Clothing

A detailed equipment list will be sent to all registered participants. Leather work gloves, a day pack, and waterproof boots that are well worn and broken in are a must. Cotton clothing is not recommended.

All group commissary and cooking gear will be provided. Participants will need their own non-disposable eating utensils (cup, bowl, plate, fork, knife and spoon), a small tent, sleeping bag, and good rain gear (not a poncho). A backpack is not required for this trip. A duffle bag will work, but keep in mind you will need to carry all your stuff from the ferry dock to our campsite.


The following materials are available from the Isle Royale Natural History Association at 800-678-6925 or


USGS map: “Isle Royale National Park, Michigan” (48088-A5-PF-062). Also available from Isle Royale Headquarters, Houghton, MI 49931; U.S. Geological Survey, Denver, CO 80225; The Isle Royale National History Association, 800 E. Lakeshore Dr. Houghton, MI 49931 and online from several topographic map services.


  • DuFresne, Jim, Foot Trails and Water Routes of Isle Royale National Park.
  • Peterson, Rolf, Wolves of Isle Royale: A Broken Balance.
  • Huber, N.K., The Geological Story of Isle Royale.
  • Foerster, Vic, Naked in the Stream: Isle Royale Stories.



Though Isle Royale is quite isolated, it is still exposed to many environmental dangers, including climate change, invasive species, and pollutants. Global climate change may already be significantly impacting the moose population on the island. The wolf population on the island is dangerously low and extinction from the island is inevitable if something is not done. We will discuss the solutions that are being considered to address the decline. We will make every effort to meet with Rolf Peterson, the person doing much of the scientific research related to the moose and wolves while we are on the island, but we do not know if our schedules will coincide with his time at Isle Royale. We will also explore historical mineral extraction and the impact it has had on the island, going back to early Native Americans mining for copper on Isle Royale.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.
While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.



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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