When Rich Jamsen invited me on a week-long boat-camping and fishing trip to Isle Royale aboard the Vagabond, I jumped at the chance like I would a date with privileges with Paris Hiltunen. Who wouldn't want to take an 8-hour cruise so leisurely it makes the Isle Royale Queen IV and Ranger III seem fast? Both ships and most boats rush right through the crossing in a comparably quick 3-6 hours. Aboard the Vagabond, you see the Queen twice a day, once when you leave and again when it's coming back.
Powered by a seething 28-horsepower Saab diesel capable of doing 6 knots wide open, the Vagabond made the 60-mile voyage from Copper Harbor to Rock Harbor in eight hours flat, avoiding the bloodthirsty pirates of the Keweenaw who plunder these northern waters. Metaphorically, it's a slow boat to China. In real life and real time, the 23-foot double ender is a slow boat to Chippewa. Plowing through gently rolling, pudding-like swells so lazy they could barely undulate, let alone wave, our cruise was so smooth a watermelon rode across on her roof.
Designed as a one-man fishing boat, the Vagabond was carrying a capacity crew of three. Captain Rich, Nate Miller and I took sun on the aft deck while the auto pilot kept us on course, towing a 10-foot Zodiak with a 6-horsepower Johnson we used for shallow water trolling and fish procurement purposes.
In keeping with the true spirit of this column, Isle Royale offers woods, water and worse at their finest. No matter where you go, you're walking on lichen-covered billion-year-old basalt bedrock that emerged from ancient glaciers during the last ice age, quite a while before God created earth. There's wilderness, wildlife, moose, wolves, nature, science, history, geology, flora, fauna and fish everywhere. Fortunately, there are enough eagles, osprey, loons, gulls, and visiting volunteer fishermen to keep the fish from taking over completely. Still, there are close calls.
"Holy #%@!!*, they're everywhere from top to bottom!" Nate shouted. Sure enough, the fish finder was black with fish from 10 to 180 feet. Before he could say "We're done for! We don't have enough lines, nets or gebbus to defend ourselves," the aft deck of the Vagabond was awash with mutinous native redfin lake trout with role reversal on their minds. We survived the salvelinus onslaught and limped into Chippewa Harbor slimed but happy, keeping our limit of captives for a celebratory fish fry. We caught 'em all fair and square, one at a time, some in self defense.
Fish are, indeed, everywhere. We caught them long-linin', flat-linin', and suomalainen, an exciting new technique developed in Finland. We fed them Finn Spoons, Syclops, Laker Takers, Rapalas, Rjs and Reef Runners on surface lines, downriggers, dipsy divers, and planer boards, all to the accompaniment of raucous gulls and loons.
We mined for lake trout at 250 feet and trolled and casted shallow reefs all over the place from Chippewa to Five Foot Shoal off the northeastern tippa the island between Blakes Point and Passage Island. We caught northern trolling the shorelines, casting topwater plugs into lily pads and splish-splashing them over the toppa shallow weedbeds in Chippewa Harbor, and fought hard-fighting, acrobatic steelhead in Middle Island Passage off Conglomerate Bay.
The bottom line: We ate fresh fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner, fixed plain, fancy and exotic, sharing some with appreciative hikers who'd been living on granola. The Finn in me loved the delicious kala mojakka (fish booyaw) recipe Captain Rich inherited from Viola Jamsen Davies, a lake trout and steelhead stew with carrots, celery, redskins, onions, garlic and canned milk. There's nothing like redfins and redskins washed down with cold beer.
Isle Royale observations: Wild celery grows in profusion to 6-7 feet all over the island, taller near outhouses. At 57 degrees, Lake Superior is so cold it hurts to brush your teeth and rinse your mouth out, but just right for mixing with scotch and bourbon. On island time, cocktail hour is observed several times daily.
If you want to get there quicker than the Vagabond, you can cruise to the island in three hours aboard the Isle Royale Queen IV from Copper Harbor, call 289-4437 or visit isleroyale.com; six hours aboard the Ranger III from Houghton, call 482-0984, or visit nps.gov/isro. If you're really in a hurry, call 218-721-0405, 877-359-4753 or visit royaleairservice.com to book a half-hour seaplane flight. To stay at Rock Harbor Lodge, call 337-4993 or visit isleroyaleresort.com.
WW&W Outdoor Calendar:
Aug. 15, Lac la Belle Lodge Kids Fishing Derby, 9 a.m. sign-up. Free to all kids 3-15. Every kid wins a prize. Volunteer fishermen take kids out on their boats. Free hot dog lunch and pop. Bring your own rod and reel. To volunteer a boat or for more info, call Dave Menominee, 289-4293.
Jim can be reached 24/7/365 at email@example.com.