Walking towards the object of their quest, Ellie Talburtt and Roger Dickey have good reason to be afraid. After all, the area they’re exploring around Lake Superior is far from completely safe terrain. But when the mom and son finally finish their journey and survey their surroundings, they’re shocked by something else entirely. What they came to see isn’t actually there. And then the realization hits: have the adventurers been played for fools all along?
However, Talburtt and Dickey were actually only exploring a small part of the region around the gargantuan Lake Superior. The sizeable body of water is notable for being the biggest freshwater lake on the planet in terms of its surface area; it also possesses the third-greatest volume of water.
Indeed, Lake Superior is so vast that it can be accessed from three different U.S. states: Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. And its shores aren’t just limited to America; they reach Ontario in Canada, too. It’s no wonder, then, that the indigenous Ojibwe call Lake Superior gichi-gami, or “great sea.”
Yet it wasn’t Superior’s prodigious size that drew Talburtt and Dickey to the locale. They had arrived in search of something far more mysterious and elusive: an unusual geographical feature. And this quest had brought the pair all the way to the lake’s islands and their beguiling terrain.
You see, for years now Lake Superior has been said to host a series of recursive lakes and islands. According to reports, it has – rather confusingly – the biggest island in the biggest lake on the biggest island in the biggest lake on the biggest island in the greatest lake on the planet. But was this geographical equivalent of a Russian nesting doll all it’s alleged to be?
Well, in order to investigate the curious phenomenon, the mom and son pair had to travel to Isle Royale. The island, which sits within Lake Superior, stretches to a length of 45 miles and a width of nine miles. Its overall area also puts it among the top five biggest lake islands on the planet. And that’s not all the landmass is known for, either.
In addition, Isle Royale is the second biggest Great Lakes island – not to mention the third biggest island in the mainland United States. Thousands of years ago, the location was also once the site of ancient copper mining, after a prehistoric volcanic eruption apparently left the area abundant in the metal. But although the practice similarly took place on the isle in the 1800s, this revival fizzled out relatively quickly.
You’d think, then, that the number of interesting features on the island would make it an attraction to geography enthusiasts. Surprisingly, though, the opposite holds true, as relatively few people venture to its shores. The Isle Royale National Park is a little-visited attraction, too.
And, interestingly, the national park doesn’t only encompass Isle Royale itself; it also takes in the 450 neighboring, tinier islands. A relative lack of accessibility between the different points of the park may therefore explain why it fails to bring in foot traffic.
So, while Isle Royale National Park provides a lot of opportunities for fishing and water sports, only the intrepid are likely to travel there. It doesn’t help, either, that some of the campgrounds on the island can only be reached by boat.
Yet those who finally make it to the area can enjoy Isle Royale’s incredible array of wooded areas, wetlands and icy lakes. The largest of these bodies of water is Siskiwit Lake, at 4,150 acres – and as you’ve probably guessed, it has its own smaller islands, too.
Teakettle Island, Lost and Found Island and Eagle Nest Island can all be found within Siskiwit Lake. The largest of them all, however, is Ryan Island, and lying on that expanse is a seasonal pond called Moose Flats – named, it’s likely, after the animals found in the area.
Now, the geographical mystery we’ve hinted at even has a similar name. It’s called Moose Boulder, and it’s apparently a tiny island somewhere in Moose Flats. Altogether, then, Moose Boulder is the largest island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island in a lake ever found. At least, that’s according to past citations on Wikipedia.
But this is apparently not the only series of islands within lakes. A 2012 report by the website Live Science claims that there’s yet another example in Luzon, which is an island in the Philippines. Luzon hosts Lake Taal on which Volcano Island floats, while Volcano Island is said to house a crater lake that itself features another small island within.
Google Earth users have also discovered a further series of recursive islands in Canada. The exact location is Victoria Island, and within one of its finger lakes, there’s yet another smaller island. Then, sitting on the land is one more lake which itself hosts an unnamed, approximately four-acre island.
In any case, Moose Boulder would ultimately come to the attention of Talburtt, who read about the location and immediately thought of her son. And after learning about the strange landmark, Dickey simply couldn’t resist paying it a visit.
You see, Dickey doesn’t just love taking trips to new places; he also has a particular penchant for unusual geography. And the adventurer admitted as much during an interview with Atlas Obscura in March 2020. He explained, “I just like finding extreme features on maps” – even if that simply boils down to a “funny-shaped peninsula.”
Dickey’s not your average amateur explorer, either, as he’s traveled to some pretty remote places to satisfy his curiosity. He’s been to the Arctic Circle, for instance, as well as the most westerly part of Europe. The reason for the latter trip to Portgual? Dickey wanted to see the sun go down there.
And, naturally, before the upcoming trip to Isle Royale, Dickey attempted to research Moose Boulder’s exact location. In the process, though, he found more than a few obstacles along the way. As the island was apparently on a seasonal pond, that meant it would only be visible at certain times of the year – making determining its specific coordinates a real challenge.
Then when searches on Google Maps and other apps ultimately turned up nothing useful, Dickey looked to the online travel community for assistance. But, unfortunately, nobody on any of the forums that had previously talked about Moose Boulder could help, as not a single person there who had looked for the mysterious island had actually located it.
Going further down the rabbit hole, Dickey discovered that Atlas Obscura hosted profiles of people who claimed they’d seen Moose Boulder in person. And while the explorer eventually contacted two of these individuals on social media, neither got in touch. Still, rather than see the negative side, Dickey began to relish the challenge.
“It became kind of a pet project for me,” Dickey later explained to Atlas Obscura. Yet the more he chased Moose Boulder’s whereabouts, the further away from the truth he seemed to be. Eventually, then, Dickey tracked down the person who had added Moose Boulder to Siskiwit Lake’s Wikipedia page in 2012. And yet again, the traveler may have been left with more questions than answers.
You see, the anonymous Wikipedia contact recommended Napier Shelton’s book Superior Wilderness: Isle Royale National Park. Yet this, too, proved to be a dead end, as the work made no mention of Moose Boulder – nor could Dickey find any way of getting in touch with Shelton. So, the investigator turned back to Atlas Obscura in the hope of finding visual proof of the elusive island.
Luckily, the site’s entry on Moose Boulder did turn up a single, low-quality image of the subject. After that find, Dickey did some digging and managed to trace the photo back to a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution research team. But when the traveler-turned-detective contacted an individual from the group, he found out that they’d never been to Ryan Island. In fact, the researcher was completely oblivious to Moose Boulder’s existence.
As it turns out, the “photographic evidence” of the island was just a rock from near Isle Royale. So, in a last-ditch effort to find the truth about Moose Boulder, Dickey went back to Wikipedia. And, mysteriously, the citations on the site seemingly led to a paradox, with one article about Moose Boulder citing information that wasn’t even available at the time it was published.
By this point, then, Dickey wasn’t convinced that Moose Boulder actually existed. Even so, he went ahead with the trip, only telling his mother about his conclusions at the airport in Michigan. According to Atlas Obscura, Dickey had greeted Talburtt by saying, “Hey mom. I’m excited about this trip. By the way, Moose Boulder isn’t real.”
Talburtt was aware of Dickey’s research – the first legs, at least – and wasn’t too disappointed. She was as much a fan of exploration as her son. And with the two content in the knowledge that they’d still be visiting an often-overlooked national park, the journey continued.
To begin with, the pair had to make it to Isle Royale, which entailed a trip by seaplane. Then they bedded down for the night at Rock Harbor before journeying by water taxi to Siskiwit Lake. That was as far as Dickey and Talburtt went with hired travel, though, as they consequently made their own way to Ryan Island.
More specifically, the mom and son took a canoe across most of the two and a half miles of Siskiwit Lake. But when the intrepid pair finally got to the alleged site of the infamous Moose Boulder, they found absolutely nothing. It appeared, then, that Dickey and Talburtt had been on a wild goose chase.
Still, as the two had traveled so far, it occurred to them that they could make an artificial Moose Boulder. All they needed to do was to surround a rock with water. But, ultimately, Dickey and Talburtt waved away the idea. And that’s when their adventure truly began.
The family members had returned by canoe to Isle Royale’s mainland, and it was after that they came into some trouble. Speaking to NPR in March 2020, Talburtt described her and her son’s situation at the time, saying, “The trees and the foliage were so thick that you could barely push past it without it tearing your clothes.” To make matters worse, the path they had taken seemingly vanished at one point.
Then, night fell, leaving Dickey and Talburtt lost in the dark woods with no guide back to their lodge at Rock Harbor. The duo at least had a plan: if they followed the coast, it would lead them right back. But following this scheme turned out to be easier said than done.
Thankfully, the mother and son eventually located a park ranger, whom they had to wake up in the middle of the night. And it was only thanks to the employee’s offer to drive the pair back to the lodge that they were able to take their scheduled plane back home. So, with a little assistance, Dickey and Talburtt returned to mainland America – confident in their shared belief that Moose Boulder is a hoax.
Atlas Obscura has since removed its Moose Boulder entry after talking to the pair, in fact. Yet despite all of the time and travel he had invested in looking for the strange attraction, Dickey remains charitable in his interpretation of the apparently misleading Wikipedia information. Speaking to Atlas Obscura, he voiced his belief that at least one editor of the online encyclopedia had been “genuinely duped.”
So, does this definitely mean that Moose Bolder is a hoax? That’s the question people are still asking, but neither Dickey nor Talburtt can give a conclusive answer. Indeed, Dickey told Atlas Obscura that he “can’t be 100 percent sure that it doesn’t exist without exploring every square foot of the island, which is very densely forested.” And there are even still people out there who seemingly attest to Moose Boulder’s existence.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s Great Lakes division has previously mentioned Moose Boulder on Facebook, affectionately poking fun at its complex recursive nature. And when challenged by East Africa’s Lake Kivu’s parody Twitter account, the Lake Superior Coast Guard responded, “I have Moose Boulder. … #GLOAT.” That acronym stands for “Greatest Lake Of All Time.”
Then, when NPR featured Dickey and Talburtt’s story, the station received an interesting message. It seems that an individual who read the tale on the NPR website is adamant that Moose Boulder exists – and they can prove it, too. All they need to do is to wait for Isle Royale National Park to reopen in the summer and photograph the bizarre island.
In the meantime, Dickey is hard at work making plans for his future excursions. If all goes accordingly, his next destination is Newfoundland. The Flat Earth Society claims that this part of Canada is actually one of the corners of the planet, making the location a prime target for Dickey to tick off his travel list.
And if someone can prove without a doubt that Moose Boulder exists, maybe Dickey and Talburtt will make another trip. After all, as Dickey told Atlas Obscura, “I don’t think anyone in the world has researched [Moose Boulder] as much as me.” Given all that effort, it’s likely he’ll want to see the place with his own eyes.
Furthermore, solving a mystery in a world that’s otherwise so connected and explored appeals to Dickey. But does Moose Boulder still sit in its seasonal pond, waiting to rise when no one’s watching? Probably not, but we’d love to be proved wrong.