Windigo Store (Isle Royal National Park, MI)

Often, a dining experience is contextual. If I think over some of my most enjoyable meals, while the food items themselves were the vast majority of the experience, the other factors of location, history, or shared experience contribute substantially to the experience. That’s what makes comfort food work. It’s what makes historical dining trips to places like Louis Lunch work. And it’s what makes quirky places like Kex (inside a converted biscuit factory), Gite de la Caverne Dufour (dining at 8000′ on the side of the highest mountain in the Indian Ocean), or Quinta do Bomfim (picnicking among the port wine grapes) truly enjoyable. And occasionally, it elevates what otherwise would be unremarkable fare to the next level. In this case, I’m talking about the Windigo Store.

Isle Royale, MI, the centerpiece of Isle Royale National Park (the lower 48’s least-visited National Park) in Northern Lake Superior, isn’t exactly highly populated. Indeed, the ~50 mile long island has exactly two settlements, Rock Harbor in the east (served by ferries from Houghton and Copper Harbor, MI), and Windigo in the West (served by ferries from Grand Portage, MN). Rock Harbor is the main settlement, including a visitor center, small convenience store, and the Rock Harbor Lodge (which has a dining room for guests and a grill for other visitors). Windigo, on the other end of the island, is a very quiet settlement. Unless one of the ferries has just arrived or about to depart, the population is usually in the low dozens, and there’s minimal settlement here: a small campground, a rather nice visitor center, a restroom/shower/laundry facility, and the Windigo Store. Between Rock Harbor and Windigo? There’s basically just 40+ miles of backcountry wilderness.

But after 6 days of hiking the Greenstone Ridge Trail along Isle Royale as part of our Fitpacking trip, while the backpacking cuisine was good (indeed, by backpacking standards, really good, I even learned some neat menu ideas from our guides), arrival at the Washington Harbor dock in Windigo was a welcome return to several nice amenities, including flush toilets and potable tap water! And, up the hill from the dock, above the visitor center, sits the modest Windigo Store.

The Windigo Store serves a couple of niches: about half of the inventory is basic souvenir-shop trinkets and t-shirts. Another quarter of the store is fundamental camping supplies that you might have lost/broken/forgotten, and they have a reasonable supply of convenience-store level snacks and food staples, and even a few prepared foods like sandwiches. It’s not bountiful (everything comes in via boat from Grand Portage or Houghton), and you wouldn’t want to actually buy all of your food on-island when backpacking, but it’s a useful resource. But two things really drew us in beside picking up some souvenirs: beer and pizza.

For beer, the Windigo Store stocks a handful of beers: the selection is limited, but thoughtful: a few lighter commercial beers like Bud Light, and quite a good selection of cans of “local” Michigan beer from Keweenah Brewing Company in Houghton, MI. The big surprise here is that despite the limited supply lines, and the captive audience (it’s 40 miles by boat to the next “store”), they don’t gouge you on the beer prices: a can of Keweenah beer, like their quite tasty Widowmaker Black IPA, sets you back a mere $1.95 (plus the infamous 10 cent MI deposit, for which the store does accept the empties). You can then retire to a nice chair on the deck (the current store is basically the high point in Windigo) and look over Washington Harbor, relaxing after your long hike.

But there’s another attraction here, that’s not immediately obvious: on most afternoons, with somewhat flexible hours of approximately 3 to 5pm, the staff at the Windigo Store sells pizzas for $9 each. There are a limited number of toppings (pepperoni, sausage, and cheese), and these aren’t the fanciest of pizzas: they closely resemble fairly generic frozen Sysco pizzas, probably because they most likely are frozen Sysco pizza. But the staff will happily cook one up in their oven, and bring the pizza in its gooey, cheesy splendor out to your table on the deck to enjoy with your beer. Our group successfully polished off three of the pizzas, with much enjoyment. And hey, these are the best pizzas on the island, and heck, the next nearest pizza place is probably the famous Sven & Oles back on the North Shore, several hours by boat away.

So yes, context matters. Given the circumstances, and the location, one of my most enjoyable meals this year was kicking back, enjoying some downtime not hiking, eating a fresh slice of pizza and washing it down with some nice Michigan craft beer, all while soaking in the scenery. It’s definitely a nice way to end our visit to Isle Royale, with us catching the Voyageur II back to Grand Portage the next day. (Note that this review is in 2021; currently, a new Windigo Store is being built down the hill, so sometime next year they’ll move operations).

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