America’s wilderness laws have some odd effects. The lines separating a designated wilderness from the rest of the country are arbitrary, and invisible. Yet the apparatus of civilization lies behind those invisible lines. We make rules, and the rules change when you cross the line.
Isle Royale National Park consists of one large island in Lake Superior, surrounded by many smaller islands. Almost all visitors arrive by boat, so there are two marinas and some campgrounds with developed docks or small ranger stations. Outside these few developed locations, the entire national park is designated wilderness.
There’s only one lodge in the park, at Rock Harbor. Rock Harbor has some walking trails around the lodge, and these provide a little island of civilization in the middle of the wilderness.
For the National Park Service, Isle Royale’s wilderness provides a major “interpretive theme” for the park The NPS wants “wilderness” to be one the main idea that each visitor learns about the park, and a major theme that she brings home with her. The visitor centers emphasize wilderness, as does the website.
So does one of the trails behind the lodge. The Stoll nature trail is shaped like a long, skinny figure eight along most of the length of Scoville Point. After leaving the lodge and its outbuildings, the trail goes through a mix of terrain. When the trail goes through wetlands it becomes a boardwalk. As you walk along there are signs that explain the natural environment that the visitor sees.
Near the middle of the figure eight you reach the last sign on the walk. This sign introduces the concept of “wilderness,” and gives the visitor a choice. You could turn and complete the lower loop. Or, you could go forward and hike the second loop. If you continue, though, you must be warned: beyond this sign is a federally-designated wilderness and there are no more signs. The Park Service is very clear:
“Beyond here you enter designated wilderness. You will find no more signs that explain what you see. The purpose of designated wilderness is to retain a primeval character, with the imprint of humans substantially diminished. Beyond this point you must make your own discoveries.”
You stand on an important invisible line. Congress has proclaimed that wilderness lies before you, with civilization behind. That line at your feet is a choice—do you dare make your own discoveries?
Can you survive without signs?
Click on any image to see it on Flickr. My set of Isle Royale images is here.