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Book Review
Superior Reading
Before taking a trip to Isle Royale National Park, check out these informative and entertaining books.

 

Wolves of Minong: Isle Royale’s Wild Community
By Durward L. Allen
University of Michigan Press, 598 pages

Isle Royale lies only 20 miles from Thunder Bay, Ontario, and probably would belong to Canada if British and American negotiators had not used a primitive map showing the island out in the middle of Lake Superior when they drew the international boundary in 1783. It was an easy day’s paddle for Ojibwa Indians who hunted, fished and mined copper on the island, which they called “Minong.” But it was a dark, mysterious place for the first Europeans who explored Superior Country in the 17th century and to some extent remains so today. Many Yoopers—natives of Michigan’s sparsely populated Upper Peninsula, which is bordered on the north by Superior’s blue waters—have never heard of the place. However, the study of Isle Royale’s wolf and moose populations—launched in 1958 by Purdue University ecologist Durward Allen—brought this little known national park a measure of fame, especially among wilderness lovers. And Allen’s classic bookabout the project’s early decades is a marvelous story of science and adventure. His opening chapter, “The Founders,” vividly imagines the night in the winter of 1949 when wolves first ventured over a rare ice bridge between the mainland and the island. Allen details the tumultuous history of Isle Royale’s moose herd; the researchers’ arduous winters at a primitive camp, counting predator and prey from a low-flying ski-equipped plane; how wolves select and kill moose; more pleasant summer fieldwork, and the lives of  “The Followers,” the ravens, whiskeyjacks (or Canada jays) and especially red foxes that exploit wolf kills. There’s much more to hold readers’ attention, including a penultimate chapter, “Contemplations on Wilderness,” that should be required reading for every college student contemplating a career in wildlife biology.

 

 

The Wolves of Isle Royale: A Broken Balance
By Rolf Peterson
University of Michigan Press, 192 pages

Illustrated with more than 100 dramatic color photographs (there’s a great shot of the author posing with a cow moose and her calf who are stranded on glare ice and unable to move), Rolf Peterson’s fine book more or less picks up where Durward Allen’s ends. Rolf came to Isle Royale as a Purdue graduate student in 1970 and stayed, becoming a professor of wildlife ecology at Michigan Tech in Houghton and still leading the study 38 years later. This is a very personal account of the adventures of Rolf with his wife/research assistant, Candy. In one anecdote, he recounts their first discovery of a wolf den, in an old dry beaver lodge. “Once the wolves had left their den, we were able to prowl around the site and imagine what had gone on there. A moose calf had been eaten, and its well-chewed bones littered a beaten-down area in front of the den entrance. Two beaver skulls lay abandoned after suffering much wear and tear as wolf toys. A maze of tiny pup trails went everywhere, and logs were worn smooth from traffic around and through them. Seven homebound pups had left their mark. The den itself had three entrances, enlarged beaver passages and airways. All entrances converged on a comfortable center chamber, just large enough to accommodate a nursing mother and her batch of newborn pups.” The Petersons spent many a night that summer camped with earshot of the pack, listening to group howls and the barks and yips of the youngsters. The book is stocked with stories to convey a sense of awe and discovery that few of us will ever experience. “A Broken Balance” in the title refers to the outbreak of deadly canine parvovirus in 1981 that shattered Isle Royale’s dynamic balance between predator and prey.

 

 

Superior Wilderness
By Napier Shelton
Isle Royal Natural History Association, 176 pages

You couldn’t ask for a better introduction to the geology, history, wildlife, plant life, and landscape of Isle Royale than this easy-to-read book by a former National Park Service staff writer. First published in 1975 and revised in 1999, its 174 pages are enlivened by dozens of thumbnail photographs, many of them in color. Chapters about the island’s various habitats are titled for and introduced by key wildlife species: the lake trout (Lake Superior), herring gull (shorelines), black-throated blue warbler (maple–birch forest), loon (inland lakes), beaver (ponds and streams), and kestrel (open ridges). And the red squirrel of spruce–fir forests: “Birdsong and the gray light of dawn wake the red squirrel, curled in his grass-lined, leafy nest in an old woodpecker hole,” Shelton writes. “All the summer birds are back and are insistently proclaiming their territories. To the squirrel’s ears come the ringing song of an ovenbird, the sweet loud whistle of a white-throated sparrow, the flutelike rising swirl of a Swainson’s thrush. . . . None of these sounds is important to the squirrel, though they indicate the general locations of nests he might rob. But then a long, chattering tcher-r-r-r from down in the swamp electrifies his nerves.” An intruding squirrel, of course. Highly recommended for first-time or repeat visitors, of which Isle Royale has the highest percentage in the National Park System.

 

Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails and Water Routes
By James DuFresne
Mountaineers Books, 144 pages

Geologists tell us that 11,000 years ago, two miles of ice lay atop Isle Royale, sculpting its topography. The retreat of the ice sheet exposed a pattern of parallel ridges, troughs, lakes, and long narrow satellite islands that offer a unique wilderness experience for the 17,000 visitors who journey here by boat during the brief summer season. How about this for superlatives: Ryan Island in seven-mile-long Siskiwit Lake is the largest island in the largest lake on the largest island in the largest freshwater lake in the world! Dufresne’s 144-page guide, illustrated with black-and-white photographs, is essential for planning a backpacking or paddling trip. His “Foot Trails” section includes information on the distance, terrain, difficulty, and highlights of each of the park’s trails, which total 165 miles and connect to all of the main island’s campgrounds. (Off-trail travel is permitted but very difficult because of dense vegetation, bogs, and swamps.) The “Water Routes” section for canoeists and kayakers likewise details input and output sites, portages, and amenities found at each destination. And as one reviewer noted, the author “understands the special love that binds hikers, fishers, and canoeists to nature: dewy mornings, mischievous wildlife, lonely shorelines. And he describes those things endearingly.”

 

Shipwrecks of Isle Royale National Park: The Archeological Survey
By Daniel J. Lenihan
Lake Superior Port Cities, 240 pages

The remains of 10 major shipwrecks lie in the cold, clear waters off Isle Royale National Park, attracting divers from around the world who charter park-sanctioned dive boats based in Minnesota. One popular site is the notorious Rock of Ages off the island’s southwest end. Two wooden ships, a side-wheeler and a freighter, were lost there in the late 1800s before a famous lighthouse was erected at great difficulty and cost in 1908. It stands eight stories high and has an unusual steel skeleton, like a skyscraper. However, its screaming foghorn could not save the steel-hulled luxury liner George M. Cox, which rammed the reef at 17 knots on its maiden voyage in May 1933. The lightkeepers managed to rescue the 125 passengers and crew, many of whom spent the night on the steep spiral staircase. This 240-page book, illustrated with black-and-white and color photographs along with foldout underwater archeological drawings, resulted from a detailed National Park Service survey and is of considerable interest to divers, historians, and shipwreck enthusiasts.

 

Isle Royale: A Photographic History
By Thomas Gale & Kendra L. Gale
Isle Royale Natural History Association, 160 pages

To create Isle Royale National Park in the years before World War II, the federal government acquired land held by lumber and mining companies, resort owners, commercial fishing families, and summer residents. The latter were given a choice of selling their properties outright or accepting life leases for family members alive in the late 1930s. The authors, whose daughters belong to the fifth and last generation of Gales to come to the family’s cabin on Tobin Harbor, assembled 150 photographs taken between 1868 and 1951 for this enchanting 160-page paperback. The ship on the cover is the America,which brought mainlanders and supplies to the island (famous as a retreat for hay-fever sufferers) until it sank in 1928—a fatal blow to Isle Royale’s vacation communities. Many of the images were made on glass plates with large box cameras. And like a photograph from the early 1900s of two fishermen and their catch of immense lake trout, these pictures provide an indelible glimpse of where and how people lived on the island and their independence and determination. The well-written text and detailed captions provide a concise history of the island, including a chapter on copper mining with a photo of a 5,720-pound mass of copper hammered loose with stones by prehistoric miners a few thousand years before the first French missionaries reached the island in the 1600s. The final chapters detail the birth of Rock Harbor Lodge, the island’s only remaining resort, and the park’s creation, including shots of Civilian Conservation Corps crews hard at work during the Depression.

 

A Superior Death
By Nevada Barr
Berkley Books, 320 pages

When Nevada Barr gave up a less than dramatic career as an Off Broadway actress and sometime waitress to work as a seasonal National Park Service law enforcement ranger and off-duty novelist, one of her first assignments was boat patrol at Isle Royale. In the second of a now hugely successful series of books, Nevada’s fictional alter ego, murder-solving Ranger Anna Pigeon, delves into a mystery in the cold, clear waters surrounding the park. The body of a professional diver—without any gear—has been discovered in one of the park’s famous shipwrecks. There’s also the matter of the missing wife of a particularly obnoxious and abusive male ranger. (All of Nevada’s literary antagonists seem to be men.) As the story unfolds, readers are rewarded through Anna’s eyes with a vivid picture of the island, a ranger’s job, park politics and the tenuous relationships of people isolated from the mainland for six months at a time.

Now Ranger Pigeon returns to Isle Royale in Nevada’s new book, Winter Study, a mystery set in the cold dark days of January when the island is inhabited only by wolves and moose and the scientists who come there each January to count them. This winter, however, they have undesired company—an official from Homeland Security who wants to keep the park open year round to guard against the infiltration of terrorists from nearby Canada, an unlikely scenario. On Anna’s first night at the Windigo camp, a pack of seven wolves visits the camp, an extraordinary and somewhat scary experience. Soon thereafter she sees a truly gigantic wolf; a research assistant is apparently mauled to death by the pack even though the big carnivores have never attacked a human on the island; Anna finds the message “HELP ME ” scraped on an ice-coated cabin window; another scientist vanishes, and she uncovers buried secrets, hidden agendas and blackmail among her snowbound companions. It’s a chilling twist on your classic Victorian house, locked-door murder mystery. Putnam will publish Winter Studyin April in a hardbound edition.

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