Isle Royale National Park – at which we almost had mini-moose

I am sure everyone is dying to hear more about the miniature moose island I referred to in my last post!  Your wait is over!  You may have figured it out based on the title of my blog post, but the place that almost had miniature moose is….drumroll, please….. Isle Royale National Park!  Isle Royale is probably most famous as a place where the predator-prey between moose and wolves are very closely watched.  Yes, this is related to the miniature moose that could have been.  More on this later….

Let me back up a bit.  While in Grand Portage, MN, on Lake Superior’s north shore, near the Canadian border, we took the opportunity to visit one of the least visited National Parks in the nation (in fact – the 3rd least visited overall, and the least visited in the continental US (the two less visited are both in Alaska and only accessible by airplane!).  It is located on the largest island in Lake Superior, and is technically located in Michigan. There are two main areas on the island, and it takes hours to get from one area to another.  The main visitor’s center and park headquarters is a few hours by ferry from Houghton, Michigan.

The visitor center we went to, Windigo, is a short ferry ride from Grand Portage. The ferry has a pretty specific schedule for day-trippers like ourselves, and trying to decide whether to go, I did lots of internet research and the reviews were kind of mixed as to whether the day trip was worth it, given the time and money it takes.  We decided to go for it, and I will say it was fairly interesting.  Worth it? Hard to say. I’m not sorry we went, but it wasn’t the most exciting day.  We were just one moose sighting away from it being awesome, but sadly that didn’t happen.  As with most national parks that we find to be just so-so, I think it was more because of the time (or lack of) that we put into exploring and seeing all the island had to offer.  And I really wish we would’ve seen a moose (not just moose-sized mosquitos 😉)!

We woke up bright and early and headed to the small marina where the Sea Hunter III left from, and hopped on the boat for our 8:30am departure.  There was limited space inside, but I and the two boys staked our claim while C &A had a chilly ride outside.

The Sea Hunter III docked at the Marina in Grand Portage

Once we got to the island (around 10:00am) we were greeted by a Park Ranger, who told us a bit about the island and about the programs available while we were there for the few hours until our boat departed again at 2pm.  First stop of the day was the Visitor Center for the boys to work on their Junior Ranger books and to plan the rest of our day.


L next to a moose skeleton – it shows how big they are!

We decided to do a ranger-led hike before heading out on our own.  The hike was fairly interesting, and we learned about the huge impact the moose had on the island – they have a few exclosures set up (which my spell check doesn’t believe is a word), which are small fenced areas that moose are not allowed in.  They use these exclosures to show the impact the moose have on the island.  Most of the island has only small trees, so lots of sunlight gets to the ground. In the exclosure we got to walk through, the trees were huge and full of leaves, blocking the sun and leaving lots of tree debris on the dark ground.  The moose eat the trees, so the aren’t able to grow as large as in this exclosure area.

After the ranger walk, we headed out on our own, to the campground, the spot the ranger said was most likely to have moose.  We braved the mud (it had been raining for the few days prior to our visit) and mosquitoes and had a picnic lunch by the river, keeping an eye out for moose.


Sadly, we didn’t see any :cry:.  I really wanted to see a moose, so I was a bit bummed.  But, just for you, I am going to put a picture of a moose on the blog post.  At least YOU get to see a moose.


After the walk, we just had time to attend one last ranger program before heading back to the boat. This one was on a really cool topic – animals!  It was fascinating –  Isle Royale has been cut off from the mainland for a long time, so there are numerous species that have adapted over time to become their own species or sub-species, such as the red squirrel. Others who have changed their adaptations due to predators on the island (such as garter snakes, up to 40% of whom have “extreme color variation – such as blue or black – since their main predators there can’t see well), and some that just never made it – like racoons and chipmunks.

There is a frog that grows very large on Isle Royale – the ranger told the story about how another ranger on the Michigan side of the island read an article about a record-setting frog being found on the mainland in Michigan.  The ranger thought that didn’t seem so big, so she set out that night on Isle Royale with a flashlight to see if she could find frogs of the same species that were as large.  The first four frogs she found were as large or larger than the record setting in the mainland of Michigan!  Why – because their main predators never made it to the island, so these frogs got bigger!

The most famous relationship is between wolves and moose.  Neither are native to the island, but both found their way to the island.  Moose are strong swimmers, so they are believed to have swam across Lake Superior from MN in the early 1900’s (wow!) and wolves are believed to have crossed an ice bridge from Ontario around 1950.  Since 1950, these two species have varied in size – with moose numbering between 500 and 2,450 since they started keeping track and wolves have peaked at 50, but there are only two left now, due to inbreeding and disease (discussions are going on right now as to whether to introduce more wolves).

The ranger told us that a scientist studying the moose said that in the 50 years before the wolves made it to the island, the moose were getting smaller and smaller, because, without predators, it was the smaller wolves who thrived, since they needed less food.  Once the wolves arrived, being larger had its advantages, to fight off prey.  The scientist believes that if wolves hadn’t arrived, the moose would have continued to get smaller and smaller, until the island was filled with miniature moose.  Fascinating! (or is it just me…?)  We will have to watch what happens with the wolf population, and if it does go extinct, maybe we will get mini-moose after all!  Note to kids when you grow up – please check on the moose size at Isle Royale!

After the ranger talk, we had just enough time for the kids to get sworn in as Isle Royale Junior Rangers before we headed back to the boat.

“I promise to research the Isle Royale moose size when my mom is old, and tell her whether they have mini-moose yet!”

The ride back was uneventful, oh, other than the boys getting to drive the boat (yes, we all survived).


We will wrap up our time in Minnesota in our next blog post – a bit more north shore and then we head to the “Cities” of Minneapolis and St. Paul to unpack and repack to head overseas.  Stay Tuned!

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