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Going Solo
An adventurous dad totes his 4-year old daughter to the wilds of Lake Superior


By Alex Kotlowitz

(07/16/01)



My four-and-a-half-year-old daughter Madeleine pressed her face against the seaplane's window, peering at the temperamental waters of Lake Superior below. Though the morning sky was a satiny, pale blue, the sea boiled, whitecaps exploding like firecrackers. As we approached our destination, Isle Royale, a reef of clouds hugged the island tightly, hiding it from view.

Mattie was mesmerized. The rest of us were unnerved. I sat with my back to the pilot, facing the rear of the plane,

and across from me, our knees touching, sat a middle-aged woman from North Carolina who leaned over and, in a tone meant to reassure, shouted above the din of the single prop, "My brother's an amateur pilot." Her brother, a bearded social worker from Detroit, sat up front next to the pilot.

For half-an-hour, we criss-crossed the island, searching for an opening. At one point we descended through a small slit, emerging just yards above a ridge topped with red oaks and white pines. No water was in sight. With an abruptness that left my stomach churning, we ascended back through the milky whiteness. Mattie must have sensed my tension as she jumped into my lap, clinging to my arms. Finally, we found a tear in the clouds, just wide and long enough to land in Tobin Harbor, a narrow, five-mile-long inlet. As we exited the plane, I asked the social worker-cum-pilot if the landing was as ticklish as it seemed. "It was dicey," he replied. As I stood on the undulating dock helping to unload our bags, Mattie clung to me, her thin, taut arms now circled about my right leg.

I'd been warned about this trip. Not about the flight. Or about the remoteness of the island. But rather about traveling with a four-and-a-half-year-old. When I told my wife of my plans, she smiled broadly. "Sounds wonderful," she said, though I think what sounded wonderful was the idea of time home alone with only one child, our son, Lucas. "How long are you going to be on the island?" she asked. "Four days," I told her. She smiled again, this time - and I'm sure of this though she denies it - with a glint of mischief in her misty green eyes. She later wrapped eight presents for Mattie, two for each day, for those moments when inevitably Mattie would lose interest in all things outdoors. I'm proud to say that in our time on Isle Royale, I gave Mattie only one of those gifts, and then only because she spotted it bundled in one of my shirts.

Isle Royale is suigeneris among National Parks. At only 44 miles long and eight miles at its widest, it would be just another ridge in Yellowstone which is fifteen times its size. Given its location in the northwest corner of Lake Superior, it is the most remote park in the lower 48 states. It has as many visitors over the course of a season as the Grand Canyon has in two days, and is the only park to close for the winter. It has no public telephones. As Mattie would keep reminding me, usually over breakfast when I anxiously contemplated the blank-slate of a day ahead, "we're far away." At those moments I detected that same flash of impishness in her eyes that I'd seen in her mother's.

The island, which belongs to Michigan, has at various points in time been mined for copper, cut for lumber and used as a base for commercial fishing, but its distance from the mainland --56 miles from Michigan, 14 miles from Canada -- has, in the words of one long-time island admirer, turned back each of these ventures one-by-one. Now, it is a place of unusual solitude that reveals itself to outsiders slowly and cautiously. Its size can be deceiving. Visitors often think that a week here will give them opportunity to visit all its corners. Not a chance. There are no vehicles here; the only travel is by foot or by boat. Though principally one island, which is fondly called "the Rock" by park service employees, it really is an archipelago; a collection of 450-or-so smaller keys dot the larger island's perimeter. They vary in size and use. One, Gull Island, is a bald boulder no bigger than a basketball court, and, acts as an open-air pub for hundreds of lollygaging gulls and cormorants. Another, Mott Island, stretches for a mile, and houses 70 park service employees during the five-and-a-half months - mid-April through October - the park is open.

Mattie and I arrived at Isle Royale towards season's end, in early September, and stayed at the Park Service-owned Rock Harbor Lodge which is located at the isle's northern tip. It's the only public accomodations on the island. I dropped two packs onto one of the beds, and while I transferred our clothes to dressers, Mattie tossed her small backpack onto to the other mattress, and also began to unpack. I stopped to watch. Two packs of Juicy Fruit gum, a miniature pinball game, an assortment of old airplane ticket stubs, my pass to our town's swimming pool, a pad of yellow stick'ems, a wallet with an old license of my wife's, a pair of wings given to her by a flight attendant. I could go on. What kind of disaster was she preparing for?

That first day Mattie was exhausted so I carried her in a pack on my back, but she was much too big for it, and so her legs slid out, swinging rhythmically like pendulums into the small of my back. We walked the trail along Tobin Harbor, and Mattie, comforted by the steady movement, soon fell asleep. About a mile into the trek, I found a trail which crossed the width of the island, and as I trudged up a rocky hill, I heard a crashing to my left, just behind a fallen pine. A cow moose, its ears pinned back, examined us.

Mattie was now awake, her legs wrapped tightly around my belly. The moose bounded, faster than I thought an animal of such bulk could move, and thirty feet further into the woods stopped, weighing her options. I looked around for a calf, as I knew enough not to get between a mother moose and her child, but saw nothing. So I hiked on, Mattie, like a baby koala, now embracing my clammy forehead. She'd been startled, and whenever I mentioned to people back at the lodge that we'd seen a moose, Mattie would bring her fists up to her chest and pretend to shiver, telling them it was "scary."

Many things define my daughter, but it's her thespian assortment of hand motions, body twists and facial expressions which I most admire. They compensate for her limited language, a result of a hearing loss which has been classified as moderate to severe though the truth of it is that until she gets older and is better able to communicate we won't know for certain what she can and can't detect. We accompany our conversations with hand signals - a system called cueing - which cue Mattie to the vowels and consonants of our speech. When she wears her hearing aids, she can hear much - I can, for instance, call for her from behind and she'll respond -- but again it's hard to know what the world sounds like to her. Can she distinguish, for instance, between the plaintive cry of a loon and the whiny cackle of a gull? Can she hear the difference between falling rain and Lake Superior's surf?

On our first night at the lodge's restaurant, she'd gotten up from the table to flirt with a waiter. She stood by the kitchen door, and though the manager urged her to move, she didn't hear him. She had earlier removed her aids because of the restaurant's clatter. Before I could get her attention, another waiter carrying a trayload of dinners pushed open the door. Mattie acted as a human doorjamb, and the food and dishes went crashing to the floor. She stood in place momentarily inert, nervously running her hands through her short black hair, waiting for the oncoming scolding. The manager approached, and leaned down. Mattie bowed her head, looking at me out of the corner of her eyes. He leaned down and handed her a set of postcards, all of wolves, which Mattie clutched to her chest and then ran over to show me. She later added them to the collection in her backpack.

Falling dishes aside, Isle Royale is a place of subtle sounds and of ethereal sights. Mattie, in her own way, consumed it all. Lake Superior, the world's largest freshwater body of water, is, like my daughter, moody, its disposition unpredictable, so much so that canoeists and kayakers at Isle Royale are urged to allow for extra days. During storms, the lake can surge and crash with such ferocity that big freighters will shake and bend from its fury. Waves can reach thirty feet. But even in its milder moments, the lake can be formidable. I'd planned totake Mattie camping on Caribou Island, a blissfully small, out-of-the way spot where I'd spent a couple of nights ten years ago while canoeing the island, but gentle winds blowing in from the south produced a pinball-like assortment of swells and chop. Even Mattie, who loves the sea, acquiesced.

The lake in all its guises has become Isle Royale's protector, so insulating the island from outside forces that it's viewed by biologists as a perfect laboratory to study the relationship between prey and predator. The moose arrived here in the early 1900s, apparently having swam the fourteen miles from Canada. Their predator, the wolves, came later, walking across the ice during an unusually cold winter. Both animal populations have fluctuated dramatically. The number of wolves peaked in 1980 at fifty and has since been reduced by half, and are rarely seen by anyone except for the researchers here in the desolate winters. Until recently, scientists blamed genetic inbreeding for the decline, but Rolf Peterson, a biologist who has spent the past thirty years studying this ecosystem, now believes a mutant dog virus is responsible. The moose numbers have dropped off in recent years - mostly because of starvation - and now stands at 750. Still, chances are pretty good you'll stumble across one; they're not particularly skittish toward human intruders. All this said, I think Mattie heard it all - in her own way. Did she hear that moose pound through the brush? Something awoke her - and once awakened her other senses took over. Could she hear Lake Superior's constant assault on the island? She certainly sensed the lake's power.

On our second day, we began a four-mile roundtrip hike to the island's northernmost tip, but half a mile into our walk, Mattie refused to go any further. "I can't walk," she pleaded, throwing her hands in the air and sighing in exhaustion. When I balked at carrying her (I had left the backpack at the lodge), she fell to the ground, cross-legged, looking every bit the ecoterrorist. "I can't either," I told her, throwing my arms up, too, and sighing. But she wouldn't budge so I gave in, scooping her up in my arms to return to the lodge. Along the way, I stopped for an early lunch, thinking a little food might energize her. As we sat side-by-side on a sloping boulder, admiring Gull Island in the distance, I opened the backpack to get our sandwiches, and a small alarm clock tumbled out, somersaulting into Lake Superior. I considered going in after it, and in that brief moment, my attention focused on the floating plastic, I saw something go 'plop' just inches from the timepiece. I turned around and realized that Mattie, upset at our loss, had taken one of her $800 hearing aids and tossed it into the water. It didn't float. I figure that even with all the shipwrecks along this island - and there have been quite a few - this was probably the most valuable object per square inch Lake Superior had ever devoured. Mattie, chagrined, suggested she go into the lake after it. When I churlishly said, "okay, go", she looked at me, then at the lake which curled seductively at her feet. I pulled her into my arms, kissed her cheek and with great fanfare anointed this place "Mattie's Cove" though with only one aid I'm not sure how much she understood. Privately I wondered how I'd explain this to my wife.

The next day, I hoisted Mattie in the backpack (I learn relatively quickly), and in a light rain trekked to Scoville Point, an outcropping of rock, from which we sat and watched Lake Superior hoist itself against the boulders below, as if it were trying to punish the island for some past misdeed. Mattie scurried along the sloping granite, careful not to get too near the surf, and befriended a young couple from Rochester, Minnesota who sat holding hands, munching on crackers which they graciously shared with her. On our hike back, we passed "Mattie's Cove" and Mattie, who never forgets a place, pointed to the bare boulder, stroked my hair, and in a voice so soft the words hovered like a mist, said "Sorry, daddy. Sorry."

Since I wasn't able to take Mattie out in a boat, we spent our evenings fishing off the seaplane dock in Tobin Harbor for Coasters, a rare species of Brook Trout found nowhere else in the U.S. I might not have been so persistent except that on our first day I'd spotted one swimming just a few feet below the surface. The two of us would remove our boots, and dangle our bare feet in the surprisingly temperate waters, as I cast spoons and spinners, whatever colorful lure Mattie chose. That was her job. I had no luck whatsoever, and Mattie didn't hesitate to remind me of that. Each time I suggested we go fishing, she would grin, raise her open palms to the sky, shrug her narrow shoulders, and remind me, "No fish." Nonetheless, she enthusiastically followed. We usually had the dock to ourselves, and one time, as she sat on my lap, soaking her feet, a fox pranced nearby, playfully tossing its head as if inviting us to join him.

Since it was the end of the season, there weren't many visitors on the island, though each day a band of kayakers or hikers would arrive at the lodge's coffee shop unshaven and odorous. They usually ate in silence. Even entreaties from Mattie were unsuccessful. As anyone who spends time in the backcountry knows, your natural inclination upon returning is not to engage in conversation with strangers, but rather to keep to yourself, feeling every bit self-satisfied, if not somewhat smug. The exception to this were the boaters who motored from Minnesota or Michigan, usually beer-bellied, flannel-shirted men who'd often been drinking. They craved company. One evening, Mattie and I watched as a small cruiser named the Sea Saw pulled away from the lodge, one of its passengers, young and long-haired, drunk and loud, posing as a hood ornament. He laughed and carried on for the small handful of us on shore. The next day in five-foot swells, the Sea Saw ran aground on one of the outer islands, damaging its propellers. Park service rangers towed it in. The human ornament, now sober, was somewhat frantic at the realization it would be a few days, maybe a week, before they could get the boat repaired and back home.

On our last day, Mattie and I took two trips. The first was to Raspberry Island which because it's without moose has fauna quite different from the main island. Mattie was uninterested in the island's bog and carnivorous plants, and, moreover, she seemed to resent sharing this journey with a family of four. In the afternoon, we headed -- by ourselves -- to Lookout Louise, which I'd been told boasted one of the island's best views. We hired, Jim Luke, a young, babyfaced merchant marine who'd taken the summer off to work on Isle Royale, piloting one of the lodge's two small cruisers. The lake that afternoon had whipped itself into six-foot swells, and Jim initially balked at taking us. So we dawdled a couple of hours until the winds subsided some. Mattie sat next to Jim, the water cowboy he was, would rev the engine, sending the boat flying off the waves, the hull quaking with each landing. It brought squeals of delight from my daughter, and prayers from her father that he wouldn't spill his lunch. Thankfully, it was a short jaunt to the trailhead where Jim dropped us. I loaded Mattie into the backpack and began the mile ascent through a canopy of pines and oaks. Halfway up, we came across a collection of moose bones, the meat picked clean. I later learned from Peterson, who claims to know of every moose death on the island, that these were the remains of a ten-month-old calf who most likely starved to death because of a tic infestation. The lookout did indeed offer a spectacular panorama of the island's western perimeter, a series of fjords and inlets protected from the lake by daunting cliffs. We watched from above as seagulls and hawks circled the water. We admired the few boats on the horizon. We sat in each other's arms, savoring the stillness. And we took lots of pictures, most of which, somewhat inexplicably, are of either Mattie or me munching on ham sandwiches.

At breakfast the next morning, our last, it became apparent that Mattie was ready to head home. An older woman who had befriended Mattie gave her a small stuffed moose. Mattie thanked her and then pointed to the two empty chairs at our table. "Mommy. Lucas," she said by way of explaining that she missed them. We waited by the pier for the seaplane, our fishing spot, now shared with four retired auto workers from Flint who would be flying to the mainland with us. The men, who sat in silence, had just hiked the length of the island, and were not quite ready for company, but Mattie persisted. She skipped about, and finally won them over when she went to each to rub her small hands along their ten-day-old stubbles. They laughed and, in kind, ran their rough, factory-worn hands along Mattie's tender cheeks. One asked about her stay. She pointed to the end of the dock. With her shoulders pulled in to her cheeks, her open palms lifted toward the heavens, and -- and I'm sure of this - a waggish grin aimed directly at me, she said, "No fish."



Alex Kotlowitz, a journalist and author of There are No Children Here, lives in Chicago with his wife and two children.





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