The goal? Explore Michigan’s only National Park, Isle Royale in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, by paddleboard. The reward? Remote shores and epic memories. Grab the trip logistics + dive in for the full experience.

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When a few hundred strokes are the difference between a comfortable night’s sleep or shivering in a damp tent pitched on uneven ground, you make them count.

As we dug our paddles into the confused water, waves broke over our boards, and a 30-knot wind pushed us farther and farther from our destination. We made brief eye contact with each other in the rain as we realized we weren’t just fighting for a good campsite, but also our lives.

You may be wondering why three guys are sitting on paddleboards during a violent Lake Superior storm. Let’s back up.

For generations, Isle Royale served as a port for many vessels. From the beginning, Native Americans paddled their birch-bark canoes to its basalt shoreline in search of copper and game. Mackinaw boats followed, sailing around the island in search of fish and furs. At the turn of the century, steamships whisked passengers to luxury resorts while fishing tugs bobbed in protected coves as they hauled in their catch.

Today, most people who explore this wild place travel by foot, kayak or canoe. The three of us—Liam Kaiser, Grant Piering and myself—are longtime buddies and avid paddlers; we wanted to experience the park by paddleboard and prove it can be done safely while having a great time.

We set sail on the ferry from Copper Harbor to Isle Royale with calm seas, and a few hours later Greenstone Ridge broke the horizon line; at 45 miles long and 1,394 feet tall, this prominent feature acts as a backbone for the swamps, bogs, ridges and valleys we’d soon be exploring.

Gear at Isle Royale National Park

Photo by Liam Kaiser

On the ferry at Isle Royale National Park

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Map of Isle Royale National Park

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Isle Royale is Michigan’s only true national park (Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks are national lakeshores). It contains 99 percent wilderness and is known for the population of moose and wolves that call it home. The park’s list of superlatives is long, but my favorite one describes Ryan Island in Siskiwit Lake, which is in the middle of Isle Royale. Ryan Island is “the largest island in the largest lake in the largest island in the largest lake in the world.”

As we slowly motored into Rock Harbor—the island’s main arrival point and home to a visitor center, lodge and marina—passengers clung to the cold steel railing on the bow to soak in the views. A recent wildfire on the island’s northern end smoldered, and clouds of gray smoke wafted ominously from the charred remains. Were we crazy to consider paddleboards as worthy crafts to explore these waters?

Yes. The park ranger raised her eyebrows when I told her our itinerary, and visitors beamed glances of concern and even confusion as we unloaded our boards from the crowded ferry.

Once on shore, we crammed our drybags with supplies. If we forgot something it was too late now; if something didn’t fit, we crammed it harder. Boards loaded, snacks packed and life jackets snugged, we hoisted the sails of our adventurous spirits, left the skeptics and headed south toward our first campsite at Caribou Island Campground. The first few strokes from Rock Harbor were revealing; with eight days of provisions, our boards were heavy and cumbersome, and we had 49 miles to paddle and 18 miles to portage over the next week. But as we worked our way south, we found our cadence and settled into a rhythm.

Paddling is meditative. When your board carries everything you need to survive, moving the craft goes beyond a chore and becomes a necessity. We embraced each stroke—refining our technique, demanding more from our core and encouraging each other with hoots and hollers.

Our journey would take us on a clockwise loop around the northeastern tip of the island (see the map below). On the first day, we paddled south from Rock Harbor toward Moskey Basin. Once on the basin’s swampy edge, we portaged and paddled our way inland to connect with four tannin-stained lakes—Richie, LeSage, Livermore and Chickenbone. We’d get to know the island’s interior well as we carried our boards and drybags through the glacially warped terrain of drumlins and moraines under a dwarfed mantle of white cedars, black spruce and paper birch.

Eventually, we’d weave our way through McCargoe Cove where the fjord-like walls would guide us out of the protected waters and onto the northeastern shoreline of Isle Royale, also known as the Five Fingers. There, we’d be exposed to the prevailing winds and swells on Lake Superior as we paddled in open water back to Rock Harbor—the same elements that drove the wrecked ships in these icy waters to their graves. A risk worth taking, according to everyone we spoke with—just not on paddleboards—but for us, once we arrived, there would be no turning back.

Photo by Tim Hussey

Isle Royale hits everyone a little differently and getting to know it would take a lifetime. For me, I wasn’t surprised that a 206-square-mile ecosystem nestled into the world’s largest freshwater lake (by surface area) made me ponder my existence. And exploring these waters with two good friends could make or break the friendships that brought us here.

Paddling in a stiff headwind in the rain for a few hours reveals the depth and quality of someone’s character. I found myself asking: “Can we endure? Will they still like me? Did Liam bring enough food?” We used our strengths and leaned into each other when we needed help. Liam provided comedic relief and Grant’s calm and calculated demeanor never let things get too out of hand.

Trips like this give us an increasingly rare chance to really see what we’re made of beyond the stage of social media—what a relief. How deep can we dig when no one else is watching? If we do something radical, and Instagram doesn’t know about it, does it still count?

Paddle, camp, eat, explore, eat, sleep; this was life, and we were getting used to it. It had been four days since we’d seen anyone else. Our minds and bodies were adapting to the stillness, and sleep came easy after a few nights, even with Liam’s snoring. The island became a part of us—the lakes hydrated and bathed us, and squishy carpets of moss cradled our ragged bodies while we peeled callouses off our hands during portage breaks.

Our daily camp routine revolved around a system of different colored bags that defined our rhythm; unpack, pitch the tent, fetch water, put on dry clothes.

In the mornings we did it in reverse, putting everything back in the correctly colored bag, sliding into a smelly shirt and lashing everything back onto the board. I admit to instinctively reaching for my phone while sipping coffee the first few days. But that faded. The essence of this trip was escape—and I was reminded that when we remove ourselves from our modern lives and focus our distracted minds on the tribal mentality of survival, everything else seems trivial.

On our itinerary, we had eight days to paddle a distance that most experienced paddlers can do in four or five. This was intentional. In the past I’ve regretted packing on miles and not allowing enough time to savor the places that I worked so hard to get to. Our daily mileage wasn’t brutal (never more than six miles) and we typically didn’t spend more than four hours on boards.

We woke when we felt like it and sipped coffee without the nagging urge to pack up. We took naps on sun-warmed striated bedrock slabs, casting lures on the edge of weed beds for pike and frying SPAM in foaming puddles of butter in the warm morning sun.

Paddleboarding at Isle Royale National Park

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Prepping for travel at Isle Royale National Park

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Carrying paddleboard at Isle Royale National Park

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Most days, we’d set up camp and then head back out on our unloaded boards to explore the coastline without the burden of gear weighing us down. One of those days, the wind was in our favor for a change, so we lashed our paddleboards together to create a large raft—Tom Sawyer-style.

From our expanded platform, we sunbathed and munched snacks in the middle of the four-mile long Amygdaloid Channel while a two-knot breeze scootched us back to camp. I sent a lead lure down into 100 feet of water and jigged the rod as the current swirled around us. I caught and released a Coaster—an endangered species of Brook Trout only found in Lake Superior—and kept a whitefish that we roasted in tin foil over glowing coals for dinner that night.

Many visitors choose to hike the island, and backcountry hikers are required to camp in designated campgrounds. One of the major perks of paddling is the isolation. Paddlers have the option to camp on smaller islands off Isle Royale that are only accessible by boat. These campsites feel wilder and don’t make you feel as bad about skinny dipping.

Beyond the luxury of having a quiet campsite, paddling provides access to the best part (in my opinion) of the island—the Five Fingers. On the northeast corner of Isle Royale, long ridges and small islands emerge from Lake Superior and run parallel to the mainland creating a playground of protected water and a glimpse at the impressive geologic history that makes this island so unusual. It’s truly hard to comprehend the volcanic action and glaciers that formed this paradise billions of years ago, but paddling the Five Fingers gives your imagination plenty to work with.

The elevated view from a paddleboard gave us a clear glimpse into the serene waterscape just beneath us. Granite ledges, boulders and fallen logs join the layered volcanic and sedimentary bedrock sequence that cascades down into the depths. Fragments of the island’s human history—docks, buildings and fish shacks—stand in various states of decay, reminding us of the resilient souls who made a living on this island before it was a national park.

For a closer look at the depths, we grabbed boulders from the shallows, taxied them to the middle of the inlet on our boards, bear-hugged them, and rode them to the bottom of the lake. Forty feet down, with a snorkel mask and lungs full of air, we embraced the stillness of the lake while our heartbeats thumped in our ears and silt swirled in the frigid blue thermocline.

The trip was going well. The days were pleasant and warm in a place with famously fickle weather. No injuries, only a few bug bites, and all of our gear was still dry—but Lake Superior wasn’t done with us, yet.

Swimming at Isle Royale National Park

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Camp at Isle Royale National Park

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Lighthouse at Isle Royale National Park

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Fishing at Isle Royale National Park

Photo by Liam Kaiser

On our second to last day, we woke to rain on Belle Isle, a long is- land in the Five Fingers known for its productive lake trout reefs. As we packed our gear, the wind picked up from the south, but it was hard to tell how strong it was from the protection of our little cove.

Once we paddled out, we saw that the wind had reached a sus- tained 30 knots and was violently sweeping across the channel we had to cross. Three-foot waves forced us to straddle our boards and ride them like seasick cowboys on bucking stallions.

Wind gusts pushed us toward Canada as we fought the turbulent lake swell, but once we’d started, it was too late to turn back.

I squinted through the rain and lake spray to see if the guys were struggling as much as I was. Liam shouted above the howling wind, “I can’t do this.” His voice quivered with fear.

We decided to pull over on the leeward side of Dead Horse Rocks, a small island about the size of a two-car garage. We knew we had to cross this channel to catch the ferry leaving tomorrow. We made a plan—paddle quartering downwind to the point on the opposite side of the channel.

We tried again. The wind increased. It rained harder.

We failed, again.

We sought protection on the leeward side of Green Island and decided to wait for the wind to die. This long skinny island was our last resort. If we left this spot and were blown out into open water, our next landfall would be Canada, 50 miles away.

I looked for a campsite. With one bar of cell service, I sent a text to my wife, “Lots of wind, might miss ferry, we are safe, love you.” I was also able to pull a forecast that said the wind would die at 3 a.m. That meant at first light we could paddle the last 14 miles to the ferry dock before it left at 12 p.m. If the wind died.

So, we waited. The sun came out, but the waves still raged as we cinched our hoods around our faces, napped on weathered driftwood logs and nibbled wet chocolate bars while weighing our options. The only sliver of flat ground on the island wasn’t flat. Everything was damp. As I sat on a bed of moss in the scraggly dwarfed forest, I could feel the waves reverberate through the soil as they crashed on the shoreline. Was this home for the night?

Then, even though our passage was still a frothing mess of confused waves and wind gusts, the wind direction shifted. Now it was coming out of the southeast—worst-case scenario, we would get blown back to the island instead of to Canada.

The rain stopped and the passage no longer looked as ominous, but it still filled us with dread. I spoke with Grant, and he agreed we could now make the crossing. I approached Liam, told him I wouldn’t ask him to try if I didn’t think he could make it. He was ready.

It was only a third of a mile but it would be the hardest paddle of the trip, maybe our lives.

About to get on the water at Isle Royale National Park

Photo by Liam Kaiser

We rounded the leeward point of the island to face the wind head on and began paddling across the channel. We moved backward with the first few strokes, not anticipating the strength and resilience of the elements that still swirled around us.

After a few more heartfelt strokes into the wind, we finally made some headway. I glanced to the north where giant waves farther out on Lake Superior made the horizon look like a distant mountain range, jagged and foreboding. After 20 minutes, we were in a swell shadow from an island just south of us; 10 more minutes and we made it across.

Thirty minutes of terror, but our journey wasn’t over yet—there were still six more miles to go. We’d made it to the north side of the island, but with a southeast wind, we could judiciously follow the coves and inlets to escape its menacing presence. The next mile was pleasant, but we had one more open water crossing to go, harder and longer than the first. Isle Royale, clearly, wasn’t going to let us off that easy. And I’m glad she didn’t. We should have assessed conditions that morning in camp before we left, and now, we were paying the price for our ignorance.

That final grueling crossing made the last miles seem effortless. I began to feel a sense of closure; our dry bags were lighter, portaging was a breeze and our blisters were healing. We glided across a protected inlet toward our final campsite of the trip.

We woke to rain, but no one seemed to mind. Spirits were high, despite a growing head wind; soon swollen rain drops made the placid cove come alive as they crashed into the water. A park ranger motored up to us as we coasted down the inlet, paddling the last few miles between us and the dock at Daisy Farm.

“Was that you guys crossing Belle Isle channel yesterday?”

“Yeah, that was us,” we sheepishly replied.

“I was watching you guys from the mainland; you’re crazy.”

“Yeah, we know.”

It’s not that we’re careless—we spent weeks planning this trip and would never recommend it to novice paddlers. It’s just that people have yet to see how capable and functional paddleboards are for long excursions. We believed in them— and ourselves—and were rewarded with fellowship in wild places and the valuable life lesson of trusting our instincts.

Three men with paddleboards at Isle Royale National Park

Photo by Liam Kaiser

Outside at at Isle Royale National Park

Photo by Liam Kaiser

The Logistics: Paddle Isle Royale National Park

A trip to Isle Royale requires planning and forethought. Don’t let the details overwhelm you and take them one step at a time. Visit the NPS website for more information.

Man with travel gear at Isle Royale National Park

Photo by Liam Kaiser

TRANSPORTATION: How to Get to Isle Royale

Plan ahead; the ferry books up well in advance and the schedule changes based on the seasons.

Ferry: From Michigan, depart on the Queen IV from Copper Harbor or The Ranger III from Houghton, which drop you off and pick you up at Rock Harbor.
Sea Plane: You can take a sea plane to Isle Royale from the Houghton Sea Port. Since they can- not accommodate boats, kayaks or paddleboards, this is a great option for backpackers. You can rent canoes on the island or arrange for a water taxi to drop you off somewhere on the island.

PERMITS: Isle Royale Permits Needed

Once you’ve secured transportation, buy your permits. Isle Royale charges a $7 per person daily entrance fee, which can be paid online. You can also buy a season pass for $60, which is good for three people.

Those venturing out on the island need to secure a backcountry permit upon arrival. The permit is free and park rangers will need to know your itinerary for the duration of your stay.

Mapping out travels at Isle Royale National Park

Photo by Liam Kaiser

GEAR: What to Pack for Isle Royale

There’s a lot of it. Pack like you’re going backpacking. While paddle trips offer the luxury of not having to worry about weight, once the portages come, you’ll regret those extra pounds.

Pack wisely. Everything, I mean everything, needs to be stored in a durable waterproof bag. We each packed in a 65-liter and a 55-liter NRS bags. We packed heavy. A 65-liter backpack for a six-to seven-day backpacking trip on land is usually more than enough.

Grab a handful of different colored stuff sacks in various sizes. This will help you keep your gear organized— red bag has the snacks, blue bag has dinner, green bag has clothing, or was it the black one? You get the idea.

FOOD: What Food to Pack for Isle Royale

Plan your meals and then add some extra. We ate dehydrated meals for dinner, which aren’t that bad. Our favorites were the pad Thai and chana masala from Backpacker’s Pantry and lasagna and chicken and dumplings from Mountain House.

Breakfast was oatmeal and lunches were high-calorie and fatty foods that didn’t need to be heated up: sardines, peanut butter, smoked oysters, meal bars, candy, jerky. Don’t forget to leave the tent vents open after chili night. Actually, every night—keep the vents open every night.

FISHING: Isle Royale Fishing Tips

Toss a spoon or a bucktail lure, any color and any size, into an inland lake on Isle Royale and you’ll catch a northern pike. I used a lightweight spinning rod with 12-pound test with a steel leader.

On Lake Superior, many people have success trolling the drop-offs with deep diving lures in the 10- to 14-foot range. I had more success vertical jigging on calm days in 75 to 100 feet of water. You do not need a fishing license to fish the inland lakes on Isle Royale, but you’ll need a Michigan DNR license to fish on Superior.

WEATHER: Unpredictable Isle Royale Weather

Your biggest foe is also the most unpredictable one. If you’re exploring on foot, you don’t have as much to worry about. Those on watercraft will want to heed the forecast and your intuition wisely.

There is no cell service on the island. Weather radio reception is spotty. When you arrive at Rock Harbor, take a picture of the printed-out weather forecast on the visitor center message board, it may be the last one you see. Satellite emergency beacons like the Garmin inReach can pull weather forecasts, send text messages and alert authorities in case of an emergency.

WATERCRAFTS: Paddle Isle Royale National Park

Paddleboards are remarkably stable and can handle swell and wind better than a canoe or kayak. One of the worst things that can happen on a canoe or kayak is “swamping it” during an open water crossing. You can’t swamp a paddleboard. When you fall off, you get back on it—this isn’t always an option with other vessels.

Beyond any safety concerns, paddleboards are remarkably efficient. Unlike paddling from a seat, a paddleboard allows you to engage your entire body for the stroke. It’s more powerful, you get more glide from each stroke and you can cover a lot of ground.

We paddled touring boards that are high-volume boards built for long distances. Our boards averaged 12 feet in length, 30 inches wide and 6 inches thick. This trip would not have been possible without quality gear rentals from Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak in Empire. Thanks, Ella!

Sam Brown writes from Empire where the land, lakes and people inspire his writing. Tag along with his outdoor pursuits on Instagram @gnarggles.

Liam Kaiser is a visual storyteller with a strong love for the outdoors and the grit that comes with it. Follow his adventures on Instagram @LiamKaiserCreative.

Photo(s) by Liam Kaiser