DescriptionRock Island is a small, relatively shallow lake in the Kawishiwi River drainage, 16 miles east of Ely; 10 miles northwest of Forest Center. Barely half a mile across, its 55 acres have a maximum depth of 21' and most of the lake is less than 15' deep. At the end of its long southwest arm, Rock Island Creek enter the lake, draining Judd Lake, a quarter mile to the southwest. Out of the extreme north end of Rock Island, the creek continues northward for another quarter mile, through a small rapid and into Lake Two. A portage of approximately 70 rods follows the stream from Judd, and a 120 rod carry along the creek leads to Lake Two.
The forest to the south of Rock Island is second growth, having grown up in the aftermath of the early logging of the St. Croix Lumber Company of Winton (1896 - 1920). Prior to logging, the area probably supported numerous stands of big Red and White Pines, dating back to 1796 and earlier. The area to the north, east, and west was not logged, but only because it burned in 1894 before it could be cut by the lumber company. Official estimates show minimal damage ( less than 10% loss of standing trees) from the Independence Day windstorms of 1999 for the Rock Island area. However, we have received reports of long and difficult portages due to the large number of windfalls.
CampsitesThe campsite once located on the southeastern shore of Rock Island has been closed by the Forest Service and is no longer available. (Our thanks to Chris Diller for this update).
Planning ConsiderationsDespite its proximity to the busy Number Lakes, Rock Island appears lightly visited, probably because the portages into the lake, from either end, are really quite nasty and, it seems, much longer than they once were. At one time, the portage into Lake Two was a short carry around a rapid near the end of a paddle down Rock Island Creek. That stream is now impassible and a rough portage trail follows along the east side of the creek the full distance from lake to lake, up and down with frequent muck, rocks, and roots. It appears little used and overgrown.
The portage south to Judd is shorter, but little better. It follows the east bank of the creek so closely that it is often in muck, often forced to take quick, steep climbs up the hillside, only to drop back into the muck again, then soon climb back up and over, and so on...ending on an exposed mudflat on the southwest arm of Rock Island. Bad words were said. Only McKenzie shows a portage between Rock Island and Judd, and that is not marked for distance. Again, the stream was once navigable, apparently for its entire length, but is no longer.
Rock Island is an essential link in the Clearwater routes up from Bald Eagle and the Isabella River country in the south, to the Number Lakes and the Kawishiwi. Unless the water levels are abnormally high, expect to portage more than is indicated on the maps, and expect cruder and more difficult portage trails. (And don't be surprised if you have to clear windfalls).
WildlifeRock Island supports populations of Northern Pike (Esox lucius) and White Sucker (Catostomus commersoni).
Notes and CommentsEven if Rock Island may not have enough appeal in itself to justify a visit, it remains a part of one of the few north/south routes in this region of the BWCAW and for that alone, it will continue to be an important link in many trips.