Editor’s note: I asked my sister Lynette (this month’s Member Highlight) to share some stories and photos from her experiences at winter study on Isle Royale – she’s not doing any running up there currently, but definitely getting the cross training in. I plan to join her there this summer when the trails are more user-friendly.
Winter Study at Isle Royale National Park is part of the longest running continuous predator-prey research project in the world, and is focused on the wolves and moose of the island. While the park is officially closed from October to April, researchers head to the park for 7 weeks in the winter to observe wolf behavior and count moose from 2 passenger planes on skis. After 4 weeks we swap park personnel and I joined the crew on the south west side of the island for the remaining 3 weeks.
I arrived on Isle Royale via helicopter on the 12th of February. I was stoked when the owner of Wiskair Helicopter told me my pilot would be someone named Hillary. A female helicopter pilot? Awesome! But no, just a friendly Canadian fellow named Hilary. We chatted about Wiskair’s ongoing work relocating caribou across Lake Superior as we approached Isle Royale. The next day a caribou in a straight-jacket of sorts would be his passenger. As we left the mainland I was surprised to see open water. An ice bridge from Canada to Isle Royale had been reported just a couple of days ago, but the wind must have broken it up after only a few days of being intact.
Week 1 was cold. The trails packed by the previous crew were extensive, but they were basically icy ruts. The conditions outside of the packed trails were strange. No base has set here (which typically forms with warm conditions followed by freezing), so as soon as you set foot off of the trail, you sink in to snow with the consistency of sand.
I still covered a lot of ground, scouting for marten tracks and setting up amphibian monitors, which are set to turn on in the spring. For those of you Windigo-savvy, I skied the Hugginin loop, bushwhacked out to Card point, and then to the mouth of Grace Creek, set tracks ~4.5 miles up the Greenstone, and traversed across the ice to Beaver Island (on my day off). Add in a few saunas and Rolf’s midwest cooking – pancakes, cake and ice cream, brownies, cheese and carb rich dinners, and dirt pie, which is a crushed oreo base, topped with whipping cream and a strange powdered cool whip-like substance, topped again with oreos – a bonafide sugar bomb – and you’ve got Winter Study.
There are 4 of us staying in the cozy Ghyllbank cabin – Rolf, the team leader, head baker, and sauna stoker, Sarah, a researcher with Rolf, who’s vegetarian dishes are winning, Don the pilot who’s grandfather supported Winter Study operations at the very beginning (and still flies the same plane!), and me, the National Park Service representative and human trail groomer.
Week 2 brought a lot of snow. About 2.5 feet. Close to record breaking snow on the ground according to Rolf’s records. All my hard work tracking trails was covered up day by day. I was in a battle against snow and snow was winning. I still managed to track out the areas I explored in week 1, but it was slow going.
Between the quad burning trail breaking and Rolf’s desserts, I don’t think my thighs are going to fit in my jeans when I get home. I feel like the alpine skiers in the Olympics, just in terms of leg muscles… my ski abilities have a LONG way to go.
A few moose sightings, but with the heavy snow I’m guessing they are mostly bedded down. A cow and a set of twins spent an afternoon outside the cabin. It was great to watch them out the window munching away on pretty much anything that comes in to their sight. They are ravenous ungulates and I often come across huge swaths of balsam fir that are only a few feet above the snow but are likely to be 30-40 years old. It does make for easy movement through the forest.
Over on Beaver Island, the conditions are a bit different and I was basically crawling through dense balsam trying to move about. I’ve enjoyed the big storms and have been able to keep up on maintaining my shovel muscles. And it makes the glorious blue skies and sun all the better when the tree branches are drooping with fresh snow.
Camp highlights – more saunas, dwindling beer supply (which is all my fault, not because I drank it but because I failed to bring enough re-supply), ample boxed wine, a broken oven, which has led us to get creative with the pizza oven, and a challenge to finish the remaining 3 quarts of ice cream. Last night I made beet burgers with homemade pitas and a giant chocolate chip cookie cooked in the crock pot, which we topped with ice cream and fudge sauce.
Week 3 is just beginning. It’s going to be above freezing and sunny during the day, and freezing in the evening. I’m hoping a crust develops as conditions off trail are still extremely challenging, and I now sink in to my thighs. We are set to leave 1 week from today – hoping the weather cooperates with that plan. It looks a big system is on the horizon. My week will be spent hauling marten traps out to remote sites (a crew is coming out after us with the hope of trapping and collaring marten), breaking trail, and enjoying time away from a computer. Speaking of, it’s time I sign off and get outside.