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May 25, 2009

Isle Royale is located in the northwest portion of Lake Superior. It is ~50 miles long and ~8 miles wide.

Isle Royale is home to a population of wolves and moose. These wolves are the sole predator of the moose, and moose represent ~90% of the wolves’ diet.

The wolves, the moose, and their interactions have been studied continuously and intensively since 1958. This is the longest study of any predator-prey system in the world.

The following is an excerpt from my journal as I participated in the wolf-moose study from May 9-17, 2009.

Day 1:

I made it to Grand Portage, MN right around 6:30 am and boarded the Voyager II for the 2 hour trip to Isle Royale National Park. The boat ride was very rocky as the vessel moved to the rhythm of the swales. Occasional snow flurries would obscure our view as we approached the island. When we docked at Windigo, we were met by Leah Vucetich, who gave us our orientation for the team’s assignment. Team 1 consisted of 12 participants and was split into Team 1A and Team 1B with 6 team members each. I was assigned to Team 1A with Tim Pacey as the expedition team leader. After a few hours of repacking our supplies, we headed down the Greenstone Trail for a 7 mile hike with our 55 pound packs to Island Mine Campground, where we would spend our first night. We finally arrived at out night’s destination around 5:30 pm and quickly setup camp.

Day 2:

After a frigid night’s sleep, we wake up to start heating water for a warm beverage. There is frost on the ground and the water is partially frozen. Some hot cocoa was a nice warming refreshment. After breakfast and tearing down camp, we shun the trail and begin a cross-country trip toward the north shore of Siskiwit Bay. Along the way, the team spreads out as we scan the ground looking for moose bones while keeping track of our compass heading, and trying to keep the closest two team members in sight. Many times, one or two team members would fall behind and get slightly disorientated. So we would stop and call their names until they finally found us again. A few times, Tim would have to go searching for them. This slowed our progress several times throughout the day.

On one of earlier breaks, we spotted a pine martin slipping through the forest. It seemed as curious about us as we were of it. Pine martins are a rare sight on the island. Only in the past few years have they established themselves here and hopefully this is a good sign that their population is growing.

Shortly after a relaxing lunch, we found our first moose bones. After a thorough search of the area, we recovered a skull, leg bones, scapula, several vertebrae and ribs. We would pack up the skull and one of the leg bones called a metatarsal. When we find them, we typically would also bring back the skull, metatarsal, mandible and incisor teeth along with any other bone that showed any injury or disease.

Not long after our first find, we make a second and found a skull and metatarsal as well.

As the time was getting late, we decided to make a push for the shore to make camp. On our beeline to the shore, we encountered several cedar swamps. Going was slow while looking for footing and trying not to get out packs snagged in the branches. Finally we could see a body of water up ahead. To our dismay, we ran into a large beaver pond. We were getting low on drinking water, so we decided to filter some here. This is where I made a critical mistake! I took my pack off and laid it down on the wet boggy mat to the water filter out. I completely forgot about my camera strapped to the front of my pack. As I went to put my pack back on, I saw my wet camera. I took the batteries out and hope it will be able to dry out, but if you don’t see many pictures from the trip, now you know the reason why.

After meandering around the pond, we finally make it to the north shore of Siskiwit Bay, where we setup camp in the fading light and eat supper by headlamp. After the long day, we all head off for a night’s rest.

Day 3:

After a much warmer night and waking up to sunshine, we take an extended morning break to dry out our foot gear. Today will be just a day hike and we’ll leave camp setup for another night here.

We finally strike out around noon and find a number of piles of moose bones left by teams from previous years. We find two more sites of unrecorded moose bones. So far all we are finding are bull. Fortunately none still have their antler rack still attached to the skull. The antlers add a considerable amount of weight that would need to be packed around. On the way, we also find several antler sheds, which we stop to measure and record in our field notes.

Finally around 5:30 pm we make it to our lunch destination right on the shore of Lake Superior. We take a relaxing lunch and top off our water bottles. We then take the shoreline back to camp just before nightfall.

Day 4:

The morning started out bright, sunny, and calm. While eating breakfast, Tim turned the radio on to listen for a weather report. Gale force winds and thunderstorms were in the forecast for this afternoon. We needed to enjoy the sunshine while it lasted.

We broke camp and headed toward Hay Bay. After negotiating more swamps, we find a few moose leg bones but nothing else. Eventually, we encountered the Little Siskiwit River which we needed to find a way across. Down by the bay, the river was too wide to cross, so we head up the ridge to find a narrow spot to hop across. As we headed upstream, the river took on a new character turning a churning whitewater and cascading falls. The falls are very unique and uncommon here on Isle Royale. We climb and climb to hopefully find a safe crossing. Finally we come to a spot which is narrow enough with a log to cross on.

After making it across the river, we hiked the ridge until it was time to make camp. We headed downhill to the north shore of Hay Bay and setup camp just east of Finn Point. In total, we found two more sets of moose bones to pack along.

Day 5:

We woke to some light rain showers in the morning. Tim had over-stretched his calf muscle yesterday and was feeling a bit rough. We needed to make our way to Spruce Point to investigate a kill site seen during the winter study. It was decided that we would split up the team for the day, sending the faster hikers over to Spruce Point to retrieve the moose bones while the others would stay near shore and scout around for any other moose bones. Tim had to stay in camp and rest his leg. I was on the team that went over to Spruce Point. As we hiked along the shore we could see fresh wolf tracks in the sand. After reaching Spruce Point we spend about 1-1/2 hours of searching until we finally find the kill site in a thicket of spruce trees. It was another mature bull and fortunately it had no antlers. Since we had on day hiked over there and I had no backpack, I strapped the skull unto my hiking stick and carried it back hobo style.

Meanwhile, the other half of the team had found another kill site, so we packed that one back as well. As we neared our base camp, yet another kill site was discovered bring the days total to 3 moose. So far, no sightings of any live moose.

Day 6:

Today we decided to breakdown camp and begin out journey back. The plan was to leave shore and head inland to climb back on top of the ridge and follow it westward to Island Mine Trail. Unfortunately, things did not good quite so smooth. Reaching the top of the ridge was no problem and we followed that back to Little Siskiwit River. Crossing the river was a little less exciting than the previous day, as we were now at the top of the ridge with the rapids below us, so we simply waded across the stream. As we continued going west along the ridge, we quickly came upon one kill site after another, plus several antlers which need to be measures. In all, we found four new kill sites and daylight was beginning to fade. We were still on the ridge and had no water source for a camping spot. Finally, we were lucky to stumble upon a vernal pond that wasn’t on the map and setup camp just as the sun was setting. Although the past few days had been warm, a definite chill was now in the air.

Day 7:

This morning we had a curious visitor to our camp. A fox wandered in and seemed fascinated at these strangers camping in the middle of the forest. The fox explore where we made last night’s supper and didn’t appear to be very nervous of our presence.

We strike out along the ridge hoping to find the trail. After about one mile, we come across one more kill site. This time it was a moose calf. It was fairly fresh as there was still plenty of hair on the ground. After a couple more hours of hiking we finally walk into the old Island Mine and eventually the trail. Once we hit the trail, it was just another ½ mile to the Island Mine Campground.

Day 8:

We woke to snow once again and breakdown camp for the final 7 miles back to Windigo where the research station is located. After about 2-1/2 hours of trail hiking we arrive at our destination in time to meet Team II fresh off the boat and ready to begin their week in the wilderness.

After a refreshing shower and delightful spaghetti dinner, we then go through all of our findings with Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich.

Note: The camera never had a chance to dry out during the trip, but after returning home the optics finally defogged and seems to running fine. Next year I will bring along a waterproof camera.

Hope you enjoyed reading my little adventure on Isle Royale.

~Happy Howls~

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Posted: Monday May 25, 2009, 8:49 am
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Don Gossett
male, age 57, married
Babbitt, MN, USA
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