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On The Lookout For Moose On Michigan’s Isle Royale Press "Enter" to skip to content

On the Lookout for Moose on Michigan’s Isle Royale

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with travel restrictions in place worldwide, we launched a new series — The World Through a Lens — in which photojournalists help transport you, virtually, to some of our planet’s most beautiful and intriguing places. This week, Tony Cenicola, a New York Times staff photographer, shares a collection of images from a remote island in Michigan.


Tucked away in the northern reaches of Lake Superior, far closer to both Ontario and Minnesota than to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, lies one of the country’s least visited national parks: Isle Royale.

The park — which consists of the 206-square-mile Isle Royale, along with hundreds of smaller adjacent islands — sees very few visitors. In 2018, the year I went, just 18,479 people visited the island portion of the park, the lowest number of any park in the contiguous 48 states. (Compare that, for example, with Grand Canyon National Park, which in 2018 drew nearly 6.4 million visitors.)

By the time I planned my trip, the only inn on the island was fully booked, so camping was my sole option. And I decided to drive from New York, because it would have been something of a nightmare to get on a plane with all my photography equipment and camping gear.

Isle Royale is a six-hour ferry ride from the port in Houghton, a small city on the Upper Peninsula. Established as a national park in 1940, it is known for its moose population; in 2018 there were around 1,500 on the island. (It’s also known for its much smaller wolf population, which has fluctuated dramatically in recent years, raising complicated questions about conservation.) On the ferry, my fellow passengers and I were instructed to keep a safe distance from the moose — about the length of a railway car. “When in doubt, move farther away,” the National Park Service advises.

It was late afternoon when I arrived at my campsite for the night, at the Rock Harbor campground. I wasn’t even done setting up my tent when a bull moose appeared with a full rack of antlers. He was just wandering through, foraging for food in the underbrush.

I could feel the adrenaline race through my head as I started shooting pictures of him from no more than 50 feet away. He was in a thick stand of trees, so I didn’t think there was any danger of him charging me. He stuck around for nearly an hour, and I kept shooting him from behind the trees.

My wife and I have something of a running obsession with moose. We have moose paraphernalia in our house. There’s a local road near our home that we call the “mooseway” for no particular reason. (There’s no moose in the area.) Whenever we travel to an area where there’s even the remotest possibility of sighting a moose, we’re on high alert.

And because of my minor obsession, seeing one on this trip was my top priority — and I felt both excited and relieved that it happened so quickly.

Over the course of the hour, more and more people gathered to watch the moose. He was standing near a vacant campsite, and a handful of people settled onto a nearby picnic table to watch him. Eventually the moose picked up his head and looked our way. That was enough to send several onlookers running away through the woods.

You’re only allowed to stay at the Rock Harbor campground for one night, so the next day I had to break camp and lug all my equipment and camping gear to a new site three miles away — no easy feat, since my pack weighed around 65 pounds.

I ended up hiking around 13 miles that day, through difficult terrain: wetlands, inland lakes and streams. I spotted turtles basking on logs and saw evidence of beaver activity.

At one point, realizing I didn’t have enough water in my quart-size water bottle, I began picking wild blueberries and placing them in the bottle. I’d gulp a few down with each sip. It helped extend my water supply and keep my energy level up.

At 7 p.m., once I was settled into my new campsite, I collapsed, ate the balance of my blueberries, sipped the remaining water and had a granola bar. After a few hours of rest, I woke up around 1 a.m. and went out to photograph the incredible night sky. Mars was shining so brightly it reflected in Lake Superior.

The next morning, I trekked to the harbor for breakfast at the inn. There, I rented a motorized rowboat to tour a few other parts of the island, including the Edisen Fishery, a historical fishing camp that shows what life was like here for commercial fishermen and their families in the 1800s and 1900s, before the island became a national park.

The motorized rowboat made everything so much easier, and it meant that I didn’t have to hike back to the harbor with all my equipment when leaving the island. In the end I took a seaplane to get back to the mainland — a leisurely conclusion to an otherwise tiring, and satisfying, trip.

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