Filmmaker George Desort fell in love with Isle Royale the way another man might fall in love with a woman. Granted, it’s a pretty special place. Located in the northwest end of Lake Superior, Isle Royale is forty-five by seven miles of wilderness known for its wolf and moose habitat, and makes up most of Isle Royale National Park-the least visited national park.
Desort spent 80 days alone on the island in 2011, filming the ecosystems in and around each of the island’s 42 named lakes, plus eight more unnamed bodies of water. Fascinated by the flora and wildlife, including the island’s endangered wolf population, he gathered valuable ecological footage. But perhaps more importantly, through his long days of outdoor meditation, Desort realized-and communicates through film-the real meaning of wilderness, and the power and nourishment held in the lakes he explored.
1. You seem to have developed a special, intimate relationship with this area. Why Isle Royale?
I do share a special connection with ISRO (Isle Royale) and am grateful I found a wild place on this planet where I feel the most safe, secure, and calm. Not sure if it is tangible, as there are more scenic, more majestic places I have camped, but ISRO is isolated, an island in the northwest waters of Lake Superior. It’s geographical size agrees with me, not too small, not too overwhelming, although Lake Superior can be hard to grasp at times. The island is 200 square miles, roughly 45 miles long, seven miles wide. The first time I set foot on the island, it was love at first sight. It is hard to describe, but when I am on ISRO I am in complete balance. Discovering ISRO and allowing its intoxicating effects to take hold of me may be the greatest thing to happen to me. Some fall in love with a person-it looks like I fell in love with an island.
2. 80 days is quite a chunk to be alone in the wilderness. Did you see any other people? Why did you choose to go alone?
I paddle an old Valley Skerray kayak and am capable of self-supporting myself for 20-25 days at a time, including camera gear, camping equipment, and food. I charged my gear using a foldable, five- by three-foot solar panel, as I had a laptop, hard drives, and camera batteries. ISRO is always quiet, but in the spring and fall, one can find some solitude. My longest run without seeing people was 10 days, and at that point I will go out of my way in not seeing people. Day three and four without seeing others is lonely, but once day seven, solo, comes along, I have no desire to see or talk to folks. I think there is a threshold there and once beyond it, it is time to hunker down and embrace the alone time. It is not easy to find true alone time in the lower 48, but it is there for the taking on ISRO in the early spring and late fall. I feel lucky to see so many days in the absence of others.
3. How did the experience change you?
I am lucky to have spent a lot of time in the woods and on the water. When I was younger, I would be disappointed that my wilderness experiences did not have an immediate effect on me upon my return to Chicago. However, with time, I have learned my experiences in the woods are not about the immediate, but more about the long run. I know I am a better person for spending time in the woods, alone. It has taught me to appreciate living. Living in the truest sense. Being cold, being hungry, being happy, being depressed, being lonely, being ecstatic, being frustrated, being awed, being frightened. Being. In the woods alone I have not only learned to overcome physical obstacles, but I hope I have learned what it is to be human. It is not always easy, but it is always exciting and having an adventure while doing it, all the better!
4. In the years you’ve spent paddling and documenting Isle Royale, how has it changed?
The rugged, ancient Lake Superior shoreline has not changed, but right now we are witnessing the most drastic change in the ISRO ecosystem since the winter of 1950 when wolves first arrived, crossing a 15- to 20-mile ice bridge from the Minnesota-Canada border. The isolated ecosystem on ISRO has wolves, moose, beaver, snowshoe hare, red fox, and red squirrel. Moose probably swam over in the early 1900s. Wolves in 1950. It has been a delicate balance, but it works. Every ecosystem needs a predator and they play a greater role than we knew. Right now there are only nine wolves, the lowest number since they took hold, and it’s doubtful the present wolf population is capable of reproducing. There is a very good chance we will never see ISRO as it was the last 60 years ever again. Without wolves, the island’s ecosystem will collapse.
5. You’ve spent a long time documenting the predator-prey relationship of the moose and wolves on Isle Royale. What draws you to that?
I am not a scientist, but am lucky to work closely with two of the best wolf/moose biologists in the world, Dr. Rolf Peterson and Dr. John Vucetich. Both have dedicated much of their lives to the island and their passion is contagious. I love a moose and have countless hours of moose video. They don’t do much, but I appreciate their lifestyle. As an 800-pound herbivore, on an island, with wolves, harsh winters, and other moose looking for that same salad bar, life is not easy. Antlers! They are as fascinating as the natural world gets. The males spend all of their energy on antlers. Grow those on your head for six months in hopes of attracting a mate only to shed them in the winter and start the process all over again. Moose are the most agile, elegant creatures of the North Country. Wolves.
One does not see an ISRO wolf often. I have seen wolves on the island maybe 10 times. Considering there are only a few wolves, over 200 square miles, I feel fortunate. The last time I saw wolves was at Newt Lake. A pack were loping their way around Newt Lake. Once we both realized each other’s company, six of the seven loped into the dense vegetation, but the alpha stopped, turned to face me and forced me, with the power of his stare, to lower my camera from my eye, break eye contact, and surrender to his wild presence. Every hair on my body stood on end. It was at that moment I realized I was witnessing the world and the island as it should be. Having wolves on the landscape is special. Going to bed, in a tent, hearing wolves howl in the distance is the most haunting yet exciting sound one can hear in a wilderness. ISRO, right now, offers that experience. As in grizzly country, knowing a great predator, the wolf, is sharing the same trails as the hiker is exhilarating and adventurous.
6. There’s discussion about whether to intervene to help the dwindling wolf population on the island. What are your thoughts on that?
I wish and hope we save the existing wolf gene pool with a simple, affordable, genetic rescue. Without an ice bridge, the wolves will disappear, as will the balsam fir, as will the energy the island now holds. It is palatable. I am not sure the island will hold the mystery, the magic, the power it has today without wolves on the landscape.
It is an exciting time for the National Park Service. They have an opportunity to perform a genetic rescue, to introduce a few females from the mainland, allow the existing pack to absorb the females, inject some genetic diversity, and allow this unique, isolated, ecosystem to operate as it has before the onslaught of climate change, which has all but eliminated an ice bridge between the island and the mainland. Isle Royale without wolves is not a good thing.
7. What was the most difficult thing about the 80 days solo in the wilderness?
The first day. After the first meal is cooked, the first photo taken, the first night in the tent, the first stroke of the paddle glides through the water, the rest is easy.
8. Isle Royale is one of the least-visited national parks-why do you think that is? Has your film sparked interest in it?
ISRO is the least visited because it is the most difficult to reach. For most people in the country, it is a multi-day drive followed by a long boat ride, four hours across the waters of Lake Superior. To some, that all sounds daunting. To the adventurous, it sounds inviting. The film Fifty Lakes One Island has created a bit of a buzz for the island, but more importantly, it has motivated people to get outside. I’ve received countless emails from parents, after viewing the film, that they need to get their children outdoors, away from the internet and into the woods and on the water where one can truly live. Hearing that makes me happy.
9. What’s next for you?
More time on ISRO while the wolves roam the landscape. These are special and precious days on ISRO! We will realize how special once the wolves disappear.
BONUS: How do you define adventure?
Adventure is about emotion. I think emotion trumps the physical when it comes to a memorable adventure. We are not all capable of climbing Everest or swimming the English Channel, but we are all capable of experiencing the emotions that make us human. Every great adventure explores the range of emotions. An honest adventure will bring out fear, calm, anger, frustration, loneliness, happiness, silence, despair and accomplishment. Rarely is the accomplishment the task at hand, but an underlying discovery about ourselves and the world around us.
Photos courtesy George Desort. You can check out an interactive map of Desort’s adventure, with footage from individual lakes, at www.fiftylakesoneisland.com.