VERNON COUNTY - The ride across Lake Superior on the Voyageur II today is serene. I sit with my back against the iron wall of the boat’s bow, eyes closed, the sun warming my face. My hands are folded in my lap as if in prayer. I’m not praying though—not this time. Today, the deep blue water is as smooth as glass.
There are only four ways to get to Isle Royale, five if you have your own seaworthy boat or are an experienced canoeist or kayaker. Ferries make the trip from Houghton and Copper Harbor, Michigan, while Grand Portage, Minnesota, has two boats running to and from the island, starting in May and ending in late September. Or, if you have deep pockets, you can book a seaplane.
Lake Superior is not a lake for foolhardy people, the inexperienced, or anyone prone to motion sickness.
We’ve all heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank in 1975 with 29 men on board, but that’s probably the only shipwreck most people are familiar with, and only because of the popular ballad written by Gordon Lightfoot. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum estimates 550 ships have been lost in Lake Superior, and more than 6,000 ships in all the Great Lakes combined, along with over 30,000 lives. Some experts believe those estimates are too low.
On Dane’s first visit to the island, we decided to take the ferry from Copper Harbor. I brought plenty of candied ginger with me to combat motion sickness. Knowing the lake could become choppy at any moment, I wanted to be prepared to help make Dane’s first trip a dream and not a nightmare.
The crossing was pleasant, with colorful Captain Ben at the helm, narrating the passage across Superior with wonderful tales of his island adventures. On the way back, we weren’t so lucky. The waves were dipping and crashing, water was coming over the bow, and people were hurrying to get below deck and hoping not to get sick.
Dane asked for ginger but I had none left—I had been nibbling on it during our backpacking trip on the island. After a look of dread, we grabbed each other's hand and made our way down the stairs where, thankfully, we rode out the rest of the bumpy journey back to the mainland without feeding the fish.
That trip back to Copper Harbor remained for a long time the only crossing where I was concerned for my safety—until my return trip from Windigo several years ago on the Voyageur II after seven days of blissful backpacking.
On the dock, at the Windigo harbor, I spoke with a group of three gals who were ecstatic to have finished their first stay on the island. We exchanged tales from our trips, talked about gear and, of course, the food we would eat once we were back on the mainland.
The ferry pulled up and, still chatting, we handed our packs to the skipper and boarded the boat. Immediately, we all went to the bow for the best unobstructed view. We were still talking 90 miles a minute, our adrenaline pumping with the exhilaration of our adventures. The sky was clear, the water slightly choppy. With the motion of the boat, the endless lake in front of us, and the wind and sun on our faces we settled down, each with our own thoughts.
Five, maybe ten minutes later I couldn’t hold my seat. My rump was bouncing up and down on the hard metal bench, my head occasionally slapping into the wall of the bow. Wide awake now, we picked up our conversation where we had left off, trying to ignore the rise and fall of the boat as she cut through water that was now turning white. Soon it became impossible to ignore the drop in temperature, the increasing winds, and the water being tossed up on the deck.
We couldn’t stand up without the risk of being thrown off the boat like a rag doll, never to be seen again. My heart was pounding, my brain searching for a possible solution. I grabbed the gal next to me and shouted over the crash of waves breaking on the deck, “Get down, we’ll crawl!” She yelled something back to me but I couldn’t hear her over the roar of the sea, wind, and waves.
The first mate appeared, lugging a heavy knotted rope, one end tied to the door, the middle wrapped around his waist, and the other end dangling from his hands. He motioned for the gal next to me to grab the rope, and calmly but cautiously guided her into the cabin.
I was next, and I thought, “Good Lord, this could be it.” I was nearly paralyzed with worry about how steeply the boat was leaning and the power of the water coming at us.
Inside the cabin, I tried to calm myself down. Several boxes and totes of stowed gear, brought aboard by scientists who’d been doing research on the island, were straining against their loose cords as the boat heaved and rocked. It appeared the situation was going to get worse before it could get better.
The people around me looked green in the face and many were being sick. Since they couldn’t go out to the back of the boat and throw up over the rail, they were using food bags, water bottles, and even bandanas to catch their vomit. The sound and sight of people retching was enough to make us all start gagging.
By the time we could see land, the storm that had come from nowhere had gone back to where it came from.
It was my first experience with what I learned was called a squall. I’d begun praying while I was sitting at the front of the boat, when the squall hit. When I finally walked down the ramp to dry land, I was soaked, cold, and weak-legged as I carried my backpack to my car to make the long trip back home.
Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, earned my respect that day. I now refer to her as Mother Superior. I don't fool around with her.