Since I began talking about women’s solo hiking and women hiking on Isle Royale, I received a lot of feedback, some heated and some not. The heated responses invite me to develop thoughts on people, including women, staying safe while hiking Isle Royale.
This past summer as I was returning from my Minong Ridge Trail solo hike, I met a lovely young couple on the dock at Windigo. These two were obviously first-timers as they came with an array of gear, blatantly inappropriate for backpacking, demonstrated their lack of knowledge of hiking and of Isle Royale. Clearly, they made efforts to prepare for their hike and their safety on the island. They had sandwiches in plastic-lidded containers, were wearing blue jeans, and carried bear spray “for protection.”
All their gear was inappropriate. To start, there is no minifridge for to keep the egg salad sandwiches cold. Blue jeans absorb water, weigh a lot, and do not dry quickly, making them less than optimal for hiking. In addition to a wallet chained to his belt loop, the guy had a hatchet strapped to his waist. I guess it was better than a machete, but there is no need of a hatchet on Isle Royale because cutting trees is not allowed, and fires are allowed only in approved fire rings, of which Washington Creek has none.
They did not reserve a camper cabin and did not bring a tent; with the Washington Creek campground full to capacity, they were going to be sleeping in the open in their sleeping bags, without pads to protect from the dampness and cold of the ground. I said a small prayer for the two that it did not rain, but it was forecast for that night. I hoped the rangers would notice and help them to overcome at least some of their packing gaffes and even locate a shelter or a couple of other campers who would be willing to share a shelter for the night.
But let’s get to the heart of safety on Isle Royale. The environment poses the greatest danger, and the remote location impacts everything, both in terms of safety and of risk. Being prepared for the backcountry environment is your most important safety measure.
Know how to secure your hammock. In 2016, when a tree holding up their hammock gave way and landed on them, rescue crews carried two girls injured in the accident several miles in the rugged terrain–at night–to the airlift location. Read the story here.
Choose trails that are within your navigational skills, or use guide services that can lead you and keep you safe. Also, carry enough purified water for an extra few hours in even that you have an unplanned issue. In 2018, Park Rangers were called for evacuation of three dehydrated hikers who had become lost and were unable to replenish their water. While all three were dehydrated, one was so dehydrated that she was slipping in and out of consciousness. You can access the news story here.
Hike with appropriate gear, in safe conditions, giving yourself enough time in event of the unexpected, such as thunder storms on the ridges or high winds and rain. In 2020, the Coast Guard was summoned to airlift an injured hiker. The Rangers requested the evacuation and packed the hiker to the airlift location. Access the article here. Research about what is required must be done prior to departure because you can’t change after you have arrived on the island.
The remote environment itself poses the most immediate threat, but a machete or bear spray will not be of assistance. In fact, bear spray is prohibited, as are firearms. To stay safe, hikers need to plan for gear appropriate to their environment. This requires appropriate clothing and footwear. It requires trekking poles to assist hiking on uneven or unstable surfaces. It requires packs that are not too heavy, and food and fuel sufficient to needs. It requires planning and anticipating needs in case of the unexpected.
The ability to locate, purify, and carry sufficient water is important. A .4 micron water filter and water treatment tabs or UV Purifier are required because all water, save that obtained at the spigots in Washington Creek/Windigo and Rock Harbor, MUST be purified—no exceptions. Still, Algal blooms may appear and contaminate water sources so they cannot be made safe. Over a summer, some inland lakes may develop algal blooms and must not be used as water sources, reducing the overall number of sources and impacting itineraries as the season progresses. Lake Superior is the most reliable water source.
The remote environment also poses a threat in terms of maintaining body temperature without experiencing hyper- or hypothermia from hot or cold temperatures and/or rain or snow. Appropriate shelter and rain gear are important. Understanding the temperature ranges one must prepare for is important. The need for a puffy, base layers, and changes of clothing are important. A sleeping bag with a 15-degree rating is important. Knowing how to navigate, to set up, and to protect from insects may seem like small things, but they are important.
Many hikers are concerned with the potential threats posed by chance encounters with wildlife. In response to moose, the way to stay safe is to be near enough to a tree to duck behind it in event that the moose lunges toward you. Moose are huge and unpredictable. So be mindful of where they are, and do not approach a calf or come between a cow and her offspring. It’s good to know, too, that there has never been a moose-human encounter on Isle Royale.
People also fear wolves. Be aware that there is no record of any wolf-human encounter on Isle Royale. If you see a wolf, get big and make noise. Wolves are not interested in humans. If you stumble upon wolves feeding at a kill, back away and go around. Wolves are predators with keen senses of sight, hearing, and smell. They will sense you and move away long before you are aware they are near. You will likely only hear their eerie song in the night.
When I searched for reports of incidents or crime on the island, the Horne fire in 2021 and the Mt. Franklin fire in 2022 top the list. I can find no reports of crime on the island, other than some miscellaneous littering charges for discarded gear left by hikers who misjudged their needs and were unable to carry the extra weight.
Other incidents I uncovered involve injuries from accidents and illness. “Injury Patterns at Isle Royale National Park” (2015), published in the Journal of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, notes that
The majority (58%) of cases were trauma-related, most commonly involving falls or soft-tissue injuries. Medical complaints comprised 42% of cases, most commonly involving skin infections and gastrointestinal complaints. The most common presenting chief complaints included ankle pain, lacerations, extremity pain, blisters, and lightheadedness. Several patients also presented with upper respiratory symptoms, skin infections, insect bites, hypothermia, eye complaints, and allergic reactions.(Saxon, White, Eddy, Albertus, & Bassin, 2015, p. 84)
The article affirms that the primary safety issue on Isle Royale has to do with its remote environment.
But let’s talk about why the couple on the dock brought the bear spray. Because Isle Royale is remote and they would be hiking alone, the couple feared that people might find it an opportune place to prey on them.
An island, however, is not remote in the same way that areas of the Appalachia Trail are, where people can lie in wait for passing through-hikers, accost them, and then disappear into the wilderness. There is limited access—and exit—from the island. It is not like someone can fade into the wilderness. They can fade into the wilderness until they get to the water, and then they need a boat.
There are two ferry companies and the National Park Service itself that serve Isle Royale. Visitors are listed on the manifest and recorded upon entry with the park. All guide service providers are required to register their clients with the park, so there is no unfettered access to or exit from the island. The Border Patrol monitors the park.
Any would-be attacker would surely know that Isle Royale is an island where ingress and egress are strictly monitored.
Fear of physical attack by humans appears not to be of major concern.
Preparation to meet your needs in the remote environment of Isle Royale is of primary concern. In addition to being prepared for the rigor of hiking the island, having packed for actual, not imagined needs, and being cautious and sure-footed during your excursion, the appropriate safety gear for Isle Royale is a satellite beacon, such as a Garmin, with an SOS feature that will send help to your location. Pressing your beacon will dispatch an armed Law Enforcement to you. If you are injured, a Search & Rescue Team will come to your aid.
In 2014, a woman who broke her leg can thank her satellite beacon for her rescue. The coordinated efforts of Canadian officials, the Park Service, and the Coast Guard Station in Traverse City resulted in a rescue within 30 minutes of her setting off the beacon. See the article here.
Rest assured, if you push the SOS beacon in non-emergency situations, you may find yourself charged for services rendered, but—in spite of the remote location—help is available on Isle Royale.
Saxon, K. D., White, J. M. B., Eddy, M. M., Albertus, D. L. & Bassin, B. S. (2015). Injury patterns at Isle Royale National Park: An epidemiologic review of injuries and illnesses sustained in a remote environment. Journal of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, 26(1), 36-88. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wem.2014.08.010