By Bill Bisanz | Apostle Islands
She’s beautiful, mysterious, and elusive. And she would drive most mad if you had to live with her year-round.
Madeline Island, the largest and only permanently inhabited of the Apostle islands is a 13-mile island set off the Bayfield peninsula on Lake Superior. My first visit was nearly 10-years ago when I chartered a sailboat just two weeks after receiving my basic certification. It took me two days of what felt-like death defying maneuvers before I was brave enough to take on all three miles of the protected waters of the channel between Bayfield and Madeline. Our sojourn was just one night. We docked at a transient slip in the Madeline Island Yacht Club, walked into town, had dinner at what seemed like only restaurant serving dinner (which is no longer there) and retired to the boat for a night of floating slumber. Even after such a small taste, I had a sense that Madeline could be, if given an appropriate amount of time and attention, a truelove. Little did I know how right I was.
This summer I spent two weeks on the island. Oddly, most of that time was without cell-phone coverage. In today’s uber-connected world it is truly a luxury to unplug from technology and plug into nature. Whether it was sailing in the Around The Islands race, collecting driftwood on the uninhabited Long Island, or swimming in the exhilarating brisk and clear water of later Superior, the natural beauty of Madeline Island and her surroundings rival some of the world’s greatest natural treasures. At times as I looked out from our porch and took in the island dotted vistas I recalled visits to the Adriatic or North seas where tree-adorned archipelagos collide with big, blue water.
La Pointe, Wisconsin is the town on the island. It was founded in 1834 and it boasts a year-round population of 220 souls, although this swells to over 2,000 in the summer. Madeline Island traces its European roots to the mid-1600’s when French explorers and missionaries established a presence and the island become an important outpoint for French and British fur traders. Ojibwae Indians inhabited the island before and during the European newcomers.
The most interesting part of the Madeline experience is the water. Whether you are taking a ‘lake bath’, jumping from cliffs at ‘Eagles Nest’ (Big Bay State Park), kayaking in sea-caves, on the Madeline Island Ferry in your car, or just swimming in the lake, i.e. Lake Superior, one cannot help but feel a sense of excitement and humility. Exciting because the water is cold. Darn cold mostly. In July and August the temperatures reach the high 60s so it’s brisk in a nice way. The water feels incredibly clear and clean and it has excellent visibility with very little visible vegetation or marine life. One is presented with a sense of humility because of the inspiring scale of the lake. Lake Superior is the largest body of fresh water on the planet, 2nd largest after lake Baikal in Russia in terms of volume of water. So when you float over, swim in, regard on a map or simply gaze upon it, Lake Superior makes you feel small and simple – in a nice way.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the 4th of July parade in the town of La Pointe. Other than the Susan B. Komen for the cure float and accompanying bright pink bracelets, it feels like this parade is completely stuck in time. It is a very charming slice of old-school Americana.
Lastly, I have to mention Tom’s burned down bar. The story as to its provenance includes several different names, locations and owners but in the end there was a fire, a large tent was erected over a bar and a creative guy named Tom put his imprimatur on it. Madeline Island has a small, year-round group of residences that are young, granola, hippy-types (with respect). At Toms, which is right in town, this group intersects with the weekly vacation visitors, sailors and those that live on the island full and part time. There is great music, out door fireplaces and a collection of hundreds of pithy sayings that are mostly too crude or politically incorrect to repeat here that are painted on to small pieces of wood or right on to the walls of the bar its self. It’s a great place to catch a drink and one of the more unique watering holes I’ve been to.
If you like nature, remote peace and scenic beauty you will likely very much like Madeline island. If staying for more than a day or two bring a good book, food to cook and let your friends know that your cell phone probably wont work most of the time (even if that’s not always true!).