Here’s a fair sampling of my Isle Royale collection. Some of these haven’t been seen since they were first printed more than 50 years ago. What surprises me is that, with few exceptions, I remember the locations of the photos with almost GPS accuracy.
Over the past 50 or so years, I’ve traveled up and down Isle Royale’s shore and interior from Gull Rocks to Rock of Ages and everywhere in between. I watched Armstrong land on the moon from Passage Island Light Station as it was too foggy to safely paddle the four miles across freighter lanes to Blake Point, the northeastern most point of the main island.
I first arrived at Isle Royale in 1967 to extreme foggy conditions as Isle Royale National Park’s first intern from the Student Conservation Association. The fog didn’t lift for days. At 19 years old, it was one of my first extended jobs away from home. It became evident early on that it was a new position that park management hadn’t thought much about in planning.
After a few days of orientation, the job pretty much settled into routine: “Here’s the camera, here’s the film, put in a 40-hour week. Oh, and by the way, use this large-format, 4-inch by 5-inch view camera and go after moose and wolves. We can make better photos for publication with bigger sheets of film.” True, if the actual image on film is large. But large-format cameras generally have disproportionately wide-angle views, which contribute to subject matter looking quite small on film.
It didn’t take long to realize that it’s virtually impossible and dangerous to try to photograph moose with a large-format camera. You don’t sneak up on a 1,000-pound moose carrying a 12-pound camera and an 8-pound tripod. However, they are excellent tools for rendering landscapes, still lives and portraits.
Prior to working at Isle Royale, I had only shot with 35mm film, some for high school yearbook production, and some wildlife. Once I discovered the clarity and detail larger-format film can produce, I was hooked and acquired for myself a used 4-inch by 5-inch camera in the fall of 1967. After my first summer at the island, I managed to acquire a 1920s 5-inch by 7-inch brass and mahogany Agfa-Ansco view camera that had been converted to a 4×5 format for only $40, without a lens.
At the same time that I acquired the large format 4-inch by 5-inch view camera, I purchased a two-seat, folding Klepper kayak, which was about the only commercially available kayak in the 1960s. Luckily for me, the Klepper’s design and construction far surpassed my paddling skills; it’s not been my skill set that has survived 10- to 12-foot seas and accompanying surf. German-made for more than 100 years, my model was about 17 feet long, less than three feet wide, and weighed 72 pounds dry, which it faithfully kept me more times than not.
The Klepper has been a great companion – loyal and steadfast, day and night. It’s given me safety on a shoestring, as it runs for hours on modest handfuls of peanuts, raisins, cashews and a few chocolate bits.
The lake & island
There’s a sensation of wearing a kayak that transforms the experience from riding an inanimate device to an extension of yourself. The kayak becomes part of you, especially with a spray skirt. This intimate wearing sensation is even more noticeable when making a night passage. At night you will often feel like you’re moving faster than during daylight. Your visual perception can be diminished; you become more aware of sound. At times in the dark, your visual sensitivity drops while you have a greater sense of surf or the angle of bow. If you’re fortunate you may achieve a transformational state, surfing in a following sea.
Approaching a distant object like Gull Rocks, literally off the maps three miles northeast of Passage Island, objects seem to hover on the edge of the horizon until they suddenly materialize and loom up in front of you.
I’ve also noticed, not surprisingly, that the method of transport tends to dictate movement and certain sensibilities. The power boater sees and senses the wind and waves very differently from the sailor or the paddler. Not surprisingly, lower-powered craft tend to be more aware of their limitations, especially on the open lake. Hubris is a dangerous companion in the wilderness.
Living on the very shoreline edge, it’s both easy and very natural to anthropomorphize the lake to be a living, breathing entity. At a certain point, it’s not a stretch to think of wind, waves and water as living entities – some days friendly, others not.
A body of water the size of Lake Superior has as dominant a presence as Mt. Everest has in the Himalayas. Its presence is always felt. While I doubt that my insights from photography are particularly unique to the solo explorer, they may be helpful to articulate some of my personal discoveries from many solo days paddling with kayak and camera on a vast body of water.