Hard-earned fish and forage in a national park that’s far from the crowds
Freshman-year procrastination still in full effect, a handful of my closest friends and I picked up the last of our food, fuel, and supplies on our way to the Queen IV ferry dock in Copper Harbor, Mich. We figured we had enough. Ready or not, we watched the shoreline creep away. Our weeklong public lands adventure in Isle Royale National Park had begun.
Isle Royale is a 45-mile-long island on the north end of Lake Superior. Only accessible by seaplane or on a wavy 3.5-hour ferry ride, the park hosts fewer visitors in a year than Yellowstone National Park sees in a single day, but that’s just the way we like it. None of us had ever attempted a trip like this. We were car campers at best, with most of our fishing days spent on the decks of our parents’ motorboats. Canoeing and portaging our way from one waterway to the next through a secluded national park would be exciting, unchartered territory.
The remote island is protected by 450 smaller islands and peppered with dozens of inland lakes, making the archipelago an ideal destination for anglers but also quite a challenge. Fishing while paddling six miles against the wind on big water proved difficult, and we ended our first day with sore backs, blistered hands, and exactly zero fish.
On day two, we tried a calmer three-mile paddle into a protected cove of Lake Superior. From here, we conducted the first of our trip’s seven portages, lugging our 60-pound backpacks to the destination, doubling back, and then making the trek a third time with our aluminum canoes over our heads.
No wonder we were the only fools doing this.
Our campsite that night was on an inland lake 2.5 miles in, making it a 7.5-mile afternoon. We were quickly rewarded, though, with a plethora of northern pike. We ate our fill that night.
It is critical for any hunter or angler to know the regulations of the area—it’s the part we all play in conservation—and we were armed with a Michigan fishing license for Lake Superior and its banks. We were surprised to learn that no license at all is needed to fish the island’s inland lakes, where you’re only limited by how much you can eat—no need to catch more than that, though you could. Additional rules apply, of course: Barbless hooks are required and, to keep the fishery productive, instead of minimum size requirements, park regs insist that we don’t keep fish above a certain size. Brook trout are off-limits, too.
Once we hit the island’s lakes, we couldn’t keep the fish out of our canoes. We caught northern pike, walleyes, and even some big lakers. We coated the fillets in fry mix and seasonings, then pan-fried them over our camp stove. Our remaining rations—flaked potatoes, pasta, beans, and rice—became side dishes instead of entrees. The chipmunks looked mighty jealous.
Even with the bounty of fish, we quickly realized that we underestimated the number of calories needed for six men on a weeklong backcountry excursion; our food supplies were getting low and we couldn’t eat enough. Fires are not allowed at most campsites, and frying fish over a camp stove uses quite a bit of fuel. Once we ran out, we’d have no way of cooking the fish or boiling water. We were saved when a group camping nearby watched us pull fish in one after another and commented on how tasty a fresh fish dinner would be. Turns out they had overpacked on fuel and were happy to shed some pack weight. Some good ol’ backcountry bartering ensued and we struck a deal: three filleted walleye for two cans of isobutene-propane.
We hit Lake Superior again the next day and pulled in a 41-inch northern pike, a Coho salmon, and two whitefish. We chilled the stringer in the frigid waters of the deepest and biggest of the Great Lakes to stretch our supply over multiple meals. Just when we thought it couldn’t get much better, we stumbled upon a jackpot of wild blueberries.
The park fed us, and I’ll never forget how proud I was of our self-reliance. With so few visitors, it felt like we owned those waters and wild areas. As the debate over federal land ownership continues, I realize this is exactly the case: We do own these lands. So, as we celebrate the National Park Service Centennial, I’m proud to remind others of the true value of public lands and the treasures they hold.
Even if you’re months away from your next backcountry hunt or hike, you can sign the petition to keep public lands in public hands right now.
Andrew Farron holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan. He resides in Traverse City, Mich. with his fiancé, Sarah, and black Labrador, Luna. Andrew seems to always catch more – and bigger – fish than his older brother, Kevin.
All month long, we’re celebrating the National Park Service centennial with a blog series about our most significant experiences in the parks. Check back here for new posts from the TRCP staff and special guests, and follow the hashtag #PublicLandsProud on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram