Big Bay By Night: The Lake, the Loons, and Skinny Dipping Under the Stars

As much as I love laying on the beach under the blazing hot sun, jumping off the cliffs at Big Bay State Park, and my morning runs along the boardwalk, nighttime at Big Bay is my favorite time at Big Bay. Between the distant, lonely call of the loons, the peaceful solitude of having the beach to myself, the absolutely breathtaking night sky, and its reflection on the lagoon, Big Bay by night is an absolutely magical experience.

The campground gets quiet after dark. Big Bay Town Park used to be the “party” campground, the bulk of visiting families opting for the State Park and its more modern facilities, leaving the unattended Town Park to us party people looking to have a good time. They have since made some “improvements” (probably to cut down on the party people). After adding an on premises Park Office, flush toilets, coin operated showers, additional campsites, and joining the 21st Century by adopting an online reservation system, the vibe, with the clientele, began to shift. These days, with a full time camp host and more families than partiers, things get very still at night.

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Can you see the Big Dipper?

The darkness at Big Bay is profound. On a moonless night it’s nearly impossible to see what’s only 6 inches in front of you. It’s black as pitch, and even after one’s eyes get accustomed to the absence of light, they’ll still only see vague outlines of dark against darker, shapes shifting in an unending shadow. It’s so easy to forget, as a city dweller, what darkness really is. One night on Madeline Island will make you realize you’re rarely truly in the dark.

Northern Lights from Big Bay in July
Northern Lights from Big Bay in July

When one thinks of stargazing, Wisconsin isn’t typically the first place that comes to mind (or the second place, or the third place, or the. . . you get the idea). Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Hawai’i, or about 100 other places, sure. But Wisconsin (you’re thinking of cheese right now, aren’t you)? Not so much. Believe it or not, the Apostle Islands are one of the best places in the country to stare at the cosmos. The Bortle scale, a rating from 1-9 which measures the brightness in the night sky, rates parts of Madeline Island, and a good portion of the Apostles as a whole, as a level one. As good as it gets. Big Bay itself is a level two. The Milky Way shines overhead, and in the winter months one can even watch the aurora borealis dance across the sky (which can often be captured even in the summertime with the right camera).

When my brother and I were telling my best friend (and fellow Ladycationer), Lindsey, about the stars at Big Bay, she didn’t really believe us. In her defense, it’s not the sort of thing one can fully appreciate without witnessing it first hand. That first night she spent on the beach she was blown away. “I didn’t know it could really look like this,” she whispered. And even though I grew up looking at that very sky, to this day it still takes my breath away. Shooting stars aren’t just possible, they’re common. And if there’s a meteor shower. . . holy shit-balls, it’ll blow. your. mind.

One year, during the Perseid meteor shower, we were laying on the beach as massive, red fireballs streaked across the sky. I’m not exaggerating. These were not quick, little, white zips that, in order to be witnessed, one has to be staring at that exact spot, at that exact time. No. This was like the giant star from the “The More You Know” PSA ads from the 80’s and 90’s: large, bright, impossible to miss. They blazed hot and red, these huge fireballs, with miles long trails, beaming all the way across the sky until they appeared to burn out, disappear. It was one of the craziest, most incredible experiences of my entire life.

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Glass-like lagoon reflecting the stars

Though I’m amateur at best, I love photography. A friend once asked me, while on a camping trip, if I thought I was missing out on the fun because I was going around taking pictures instead of interacting. “This is the fun,” I responded. I love being behind the lens; framing a shot, playing around with the settings, shooting from different angles. There’s something therapeutic in it for me. And beyond taking the pictures, I love capturing those moments, looking through the photos years later and seeing little snippets of my life; each picture representing a memory, an experience, a moment that, when it happened, I wanted to remember.

You couldn’t ask for a more beautiful backdrop for night photography than the lagoon at Big Bay. The Milky Way above with countless stars and galaxies blanketing the pitch black sky; the still water of the lagoon, smooth as a mirror, reflecting the heavens as if Mother Nature wanted to make sure the stars could look down and see how beautiful they are; the surrounding trees lit up with countless lightening bugs, like Mother Nature’s glitter.

As I approached the lagoon the air was filled–and I do mean filled— with the sound of croaking frogs. The lagoon and surrounding marshes are teeming with wildlife, its very own ecosystem. Fish, bugs, ducks, snakes, mice, turtles, birds. . . Frogs are in abundance, and those little freaks have a massive orgy every single night. It’s the soundtrack of Big Bay Nights (Not as edgy or sexy as Boogie Nights, and with more frogs, and less Marky Mark, but the view–and the smell, I’m guessing–is arguably better).

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Standing on the bridge, looking out at the lake, Mars shining bright through the trees.

Every now and then the sound of the amphibious sex party is punctuated by the haunting call of a loon, somewhere off in the distance. Loon calls are one of my favorite sounds in the world (along with my children’s laughter, my mom’s laugh, waves crashing on a shore, and Dave Grohl screaming--no, that’s not weird). It sounds mystical, almost longing. They seem like they’re calling out to each other, but can never find one another; stuck in loneliness until morning when the calls stop and, I assume, they’re reunited. I once tried playing a YouTube video of a loon call for a friend who’d never heard one. Don’t ever do that. She was horrified. It sounded creepy AF, nothing at all like how it actually sounds, and I don’t think she’ll ever understand why the hell I love it so much.

I never made it past the lagoon our first night on The Island. I stayed on the bridge taking pictures until almost dawn, the view too irresistible to walk away from. It wasn’t until the second night that I finally got to the beach. Olivia and I built a fire down there after we got back from Tom’s Burned Down Cafe. We spent a solid hour together, tending our little fire, talking, laughing, and desperately (and hilariously) trying to open our beer on a driftwood log, as I’d left the opener in the car. It was wonderful. She let her guard down, opened up. With all distractions removed we truly connected.

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After I walked Olivia back to the campsite I grabbed my camera and headed back down to the beach. It was a warm July night, humid and still. The lake was like glass, the water rippling nearly imperceptibly as it gently kissed the cool sand along the shore.

I set up my camera and started playing: changing the angle and adjusting the settings, focusing and refocusing until I got what looked like a good shot, find a new angle, repeat. Before too long I was staring out at the lake between long shutter clicks, feeling her pull. There was no one on the beach, I had the entirety of Big Bay all to myself. So I did what anyone would do: I stripped off my clothes and slid my naked self into Lake Superior.

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Zach and I experimented with the long exposure one night. Here’s his love note to his son: “I heart Stone,” written with his cigarette.

If you’ve been reading Ladycations for a while, you know I’m a big proponent of getting naked in nature. Nothing is more liberating, and skinny dipping is next level liberation. In the penetrating darkness I couldn’t see what was around me. Feeling the water creep slowly up my body kept me grounded, prevented me from getting disoriented, as the world, seemingly devoid of all light, wrapped itself around me in its shroud of darkness.

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Without the sense of sight, touch and sound become more acute. I was keenly aware of every inch of flesh the lake touched, and could hear, with absolute clarity, each ripple I made in the water. I was completely in tune with my body and my surroundings, all vanity and insecurity gone, totally and utterly at peace; content.

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My favorite thing to do while skinny dipping at Big Bay (don’t let your dirty minds run away with you, it’s not a sexual thing) is the back float. Yes, the back float. I highly recommend everyone try this. I float on my back, relax my body, and let the water submerge everything but my face. With my ears under water all I can hear is the lake and my own breathing, and all I see is a blanket of stars. I once slipped into such a meditative state while floating that I’d drifted halfway down the beach before realizing I’d even moved. I was suspended in time and space, weightless, a tiny speck in a sea of stars. It’s pure magic.

When I got out of the water I stretched my towel out on the sand next to my camera and continued my attempts at astrophotography. The Milky Way was on full display; a bright, colorful cloud, swirling around the suns of galaxies inconceivably far away. Mars was shining big, bright, and orange over the lagoon, and mast lights from moored sailboats reached across the bay. It was magnificent. I wanted to commemorate the moment with a picture, and was feeling all kinds of artsy and free of inhibition, so I set the timer, ran to the shore (yep, still naked), jumped in the lake, and tried to stand still.

skinny dipping at big bay

As you might have guessed, it took several tries to get it right. Adjusting the settings and my positioning in the frame. Had anyone happened upon me that night they would’ve gotten one hell of a show, “Dude, I went down to the beach last night and there was this naked lady running back and forth, in and out of the lake.” You’re welcome.

I knew it was time for bed when the rising sun started interfering with my photography and all my camera batteries died. It was shortly before 4:30am by the time I started back to camp. I spent each night at the beach for the remainder of the week, like my own nightly therapy. And although I most definitely didn’t get my doctor-recommended hours sleep, I wouldn’t trade a single second I spent naked on that beach.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales! See you for the next LadycationSunday! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph

 

Tom’s Burned Down Cafe: “It’s Not A Bar, It’s An Experience”

By day Madeline Island is a quirky beach getaway. At night the magic begins. Usually, when people think of a beach vacation they imagine working on their tan while lying on golden sand. While Madeline Island most definitely has that aspect of island life going for it, the shores of Lake Superior aren’t the only places where The Island comes alive when the sun goes down. Tom’s Burned Down Cafe is where locals and tourists alike come together on Madeline Island to celebrate another day in paradise.

Before I begin, I’d like to apologize for my absence. Writers block combined with (or perhaps in response to) a visceral reaction to the Kavanaugh hearings here in the US left me at a loss for words. Or, more accurately, a loss for cohesive thoughts that I could translate into words, confusion as to what, specifically, I was even feeling, and an inability to refocus my mind on anything else. I’m guessing a lot of women out there who are familiar with the situation can relate to that. Madeline Island is a personal favorite subject of mine, she holds a special place in my heart. I want to do her justice in my depiction of her, and I wasn’t in a mental place to do that, so I took a break. I did some reading, limited my social media exposure, spent a lot of time alone sorting through my emotions, and getting to a healthier, more clear state of mind.

By the time I had done that, it was Thanksgiving, then Christmas (which I hosted), and man. . . time sure got away from me. So, from the bottom of my heart, I am sorry for my neglect. Now, lemme tell y’all a bit about the coolest fucking bar in America: Tom’s Burned Down Cafe.

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Night time is my favorite time on Madeline Island. The sound of the waves and the call of the loons, the absolute darkness, the mind-blowing view of the night sky, the tranquility; it’s magical. But before we head back out to the beach for skinny dipping under the Milky Way, we’re gonna go into town and head to Tommy’s, which, like everything on The Island, you really just need to experience to fully understand (and appreciate). A few years ago I invited a friend from high school and her husband to come camping at Big Bay with us. When we took them to Tom’s she said, “I thought it was weird that you go to a bar when you’re camping, but now I get it.”

Tom’s Burned Down Cafe is exactly what the name implies. Shortly before the official opening of what was then known as Leona’s, a small fire broke out that quickly spread (aided by the fact that the firetrucks had just drained their tanks to prevent them from freezing), and the whole place burned to the ground.

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While surveying the charred remains of where his life’s work and all his money once stood, as if to add insult to injury, the beer delivery for the grand opening showed up. Tom, a lifelong Islander, was broke AF and his dream had just literally gone up in smoke. Instead of breaking down, he did what any Islander would do. He opened that goddamn bar out of the back of his car, changed the name from Leona’s to Tom’s Burned Down Cafe, and bam! History was made.

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Today Tom’s is legendary. It stands on the repaired remains of Leona’s original floor, and consists of multiple trailer’s and hastily constructed buildings adorned with lights, lanterns, various graffiti-like signs and sayings, and is surrounded by eclectic art. There are showers in the bathrooms that are open for public use. Just pay the bartender, or drop some cash in the box on the bathroom door if the bar is closed. Yes, I’m serious. Why? Because Tommy’s.

At night the whole compound lights up and is host to all walks of life, both human, and of the animal kingdom. In fact, I’ve never been there at a time when there was not at least one dog roaming around. One time there was an old dude walking around with a bird on his shoulder. Yes, a real live bird. Why? Because Tommy’s.

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The year round Islanders mingle with the summer people and tourists, and the phrase, “No shirt, no shoes, no service,” is definitively not the policy at Tom’s Burned Down Cafe. Indeed, one could show up stark naked, and I’m not sure it would even be an issue. The smell of cannabis is frequently (and delightfully) in the air, and on summer weekends it’s the one place on Madeline where you can always find live music.

In Wisconsin people who are underage can not only go into a bar, but can even be served alcohol as long as they’re with a parent. Since my daughter is nineteen and was about to enter her sophomore year of college, I decided she was ready for a night out at Tommy’s.

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Olivia wasn’t sure what to expect. She knew that it was a crazy looking bar that the adults loved to go to, and that we always came home fairly intoxicated. She had been there during the day, but that is not even remotely the same experience. A couple of years ago I went to Tom’s Burned Down Cafe with my brother and Zach. I was ordering shots of vodka, but the bartender was pouring quadruples, and after two of those I was shitfaced. Chris and Zach got me back to the campground safely, and the rest of the night is pretty much a blur. I do remember waking up in the middle of the night to pee, but that’s about it. When Olivia woke up in the morning, she came out of the tent and said, “Mom, I had to wear your flip flops, mine smell like pee.” As it turns out, I had not, in fact, left the tent to pee at all, though I most definitely had peed. . . on my daughter’s fucking shoes. Why? You got it, because Tommy’s. Somehow I didn’t win a Mother-of-the-Year award that year. Weird.

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Liv was pretty excited (and probably a little nervous her mom was gonna get wasted and piss on her shoes again–which I am proud to say did not happen) as we drove into town with Zach. Kim and the rest of the gang were meeting us at the bar, and after stopping on the way to take pictures at the Madeline Island School of the Arts, backlit by an absolutely spectacular sunset, and a very aggressive deer (did you know deer hiss? Me either), we parked the car in town and headed into Tom’s Burned Down Cafe.

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Most of The Island closes around 8:00 in the evening. The town of La Pointe was quiet when we pulled in, but Tommy’s, as always, was hoppin. The whole place was lit up, fire already roaring in the fireplace, as we walked into the bar. We claimed the prime spot: the big, round table under the tiki umbrella, got some drinks, and settled in.

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I love being at Tom’s. There’s such an incredible, positive energy there, and sharing it with my daughter was particularly entertaining. I was glad that not only was her first legal drink with me, but it was also on Madeline Island, and at Tommy’s. So much cooler than my first legal drink, which I literally don’t remember as I was pregnant with Olivia when I turned 21.

We went up to the bar and Zach got the first round. When he asked Liv what she wanted, she froze for a second. So unaccustomed with ordering at bars, she literally hadn’t even thought about what she would want to drink. So many options! After a brief pause where I imagine a zillion thoughts went through her mind simultaneously, she settled on a Jack and Coke. I should’ve guessed that my daughter would go straight for the hard shit.

Though Tom Nelson, owner and badass, doesn’t recognize me until I tell him who I am (I was a child when he knew me), as soon as he realizes I’m “Pastor Dale’s daughter,” I’m greeted with a huge smile, a warm hug, and a tale of how much he respected my dad. “He would come in here and we would have these long talks. Yoimg_8841ur dad is a cool guy. Tell him Tommy says hello.” It always makes me feel at home.

tom nelson at tom's burned down cafe
Tommy and me

If you’re looking for high class and a five star drink menu, and are incapable of letting loose for a night, Tom’s Burned Down Cafe isn’t the place for you (and you and I would not be friends). But if you enjoy really getting to know the local culture when you travel, or quirky, fun bars, a trip to Madeline Island isn’t complete without a stop at Tom’s Burned Down Cafe.

After an hour or so of talking and laughing with the whole group, most of our people were ready to call it a night. Zach, Olivia and myself, however, ordered another drink. As usual, the crowd was eclectic and having a great time. Prime people-watching at Tommy’s, there’s a little bit of everything: a group of drunk, middle aged women, a group of drunk, middle aged men, a group of barefoot hippies, the obviously wealthy “boat people,” who’ve docked their vessel at the marina for the night, a mom breastfeeding her baby, one really drunk lady (which has been me on more than one occasion). It’s got something for everyone.

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The three of us sat there for a few more drinks before deciding to head back in for the night. Liv’s first experience at Tom’s Burned Down Cafe was perfect. It’s a memory she’ll always have, and will tell her kids about someday. And isn’t that what life’s all about? Making memories and sharing them with the most important people in our lives?

Though I could stay at Tom’s all night, leaving is always made easier by what awaits us at Big Bay Town Park. The night sky from Madeline Island will blow your mind and leave you in literal awe. But for that we will have to wait for the next installment, which I promise will not take months for me to post.

Thank you for reading! Check out my other blog posts for more stories of my Ladycations, and don’t forget to subscribe to stay up to date on the latest tips, trips and tales. And, as always, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

Lake Camping: Beach Days at Big Bay Town Park

Last week I wrote about the history of Madeline Island, how it became a part of my life, and why I love it so damn much. But it’s not just my own sentimentality that makes The Island such an incredible place. If you like beaches, sailing, really any kind of outdoor activity, if you like exploring quirky small towns or funky bars, you dig history, or stargazing, then you’ll be crazy about Madeline Island.

Big Bay Town Park campsite and beach map
Map of Big Bay Town Park

Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of big campgrounds. When I go camping, I go to get away from humans, and surround myself with the peacefulness of nature. Big Bay Town Park is the exception to the rule. Surrounded by a forest of birch, White Spruce, and Balsam Fir, the campground is situated on a 2.5 mile, sandy beach along the shore of Lake Superior. Separating the beach from the campground is the Big Bay Lagoon that parallels the shoreline with 130 acres of tranquil, island dotted, wilderness paradise. It combines camping with a beach vacay which, like wine and cheese, is the perfect combination.

Big Bay Town Park has 61 campsites, including primitive drive-in, walk-in, and electric sites. It’s one of two campgrounds I’ve ever camped at that had flush toilets, and even coin operated showers (though, with Lake Superior right there, they seem unnecessary). Like most things on The Island, it combines modern comforts with Madeline’s own eccentricities. You know the park is a little different when you pull in and see the sign that says, “8 m.p.h. is plenty.” That is Madeline Island.img_0138

We always choose one of the “old” campsites. One of the primitive, drive-in, original sites, filled with beautiful, tall, old trees, and backing up against a hill that drops down into the marshy wetland surrounding the lagoon. The campsite is deep, quiet, with a picnic table, fire pit, plenty of room for our three tents, and even a bonus second picnic table this year. Even better, it was one that I’d carved my initials into several years earlier.

It didn’t take us long to get our site set up. It struck me how different the whole process was when I first started taking my kids camping. I taught them immediately how to set up the tents, and get a fire going, how to gather the best kindling, and prepare for a storm, but they needed a lot more direction and supervision when they were younger. Now they just unloaded their tents, set them up, and started setting up the picnic table area, hanging the clothesline, and hammock. It was a proud camping-mom moment.

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Once we’d made our campsite our home, our first priority was to head down to the beach. It’s the beach at Big Bay Town Park that makes this campground so amazing. From our campsite, at the far end of the loop, it’s about a quarter mile walk to the beach. My childhood friend, Zach, his fiancé Kim, their son Stone, and a whole group of friends they’d brought with them, were already down there as my kids and I started our walk.

Walking through the wooded campground at Big Bay Town Park isn’t like walking through a KOA. There’s no playground, no concrete, no pool. Instead you’ll find cozy, rugged, peaceful campsites, filled with couples and families on vacation, groups of friends looking to hike, kayak, fish, or just spend a few days soaking up the sun on the beach. It’s generally quiet, despite the number of people that can fill this campground up.

We crossed the large dirt and gravel parking lot that’s lined with more campsites, past the Park Office, and bathrooms, and the wood shack that’s replenished daily with firewood, to the trail that leads to the bridge over the lagoon. Every step we took, my excitement grew. Of all the things I love about Madeline Island, one of my favorites is the view of the Big Bay Lagoon.

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The parking lot leads to a wide trail, cut through the birch trees, above the lagoon. Before reaching a set of wooden stairs that descends to the bridge, the trees open up to reveal the lagoon below, stretching across the 130 acres separating Big Bay Town Park’s campground from the sandspit of 2.5 miles of golden sand beach. It’s my favorite view in the world; tiny, green islands, some with small, sparsely filled trees, fill the landscape as it reaches deeper and wider into the distance, surrounded by lush, wilderness, with the blue sky above, its reflection on the water. I could stare at that view for hours.090-001

We descended the staircase and crossed the wooden bridge to the beach. Few people were still there as the sun had begun to set, and it was dinner time. We walked down the boardwalk that runs the length of the beach and found Zach, Kim, and their group of friends easily. Kim was in the water, beckoning us to join her, while Zach and some of the other adults were relaxing in the soft, cool sand, and the kids horsed around nearby.

I immediately took off my shoes and slipped my toes into the water at the shoreline. The lake was calm, and as I stared out across the bay, and felt my feet sink deeper into the sand as the gentle waves kissed my ankles, I knew I was home. I was connected to The Island, engulfed by it, complete and content. Every breath I took seemed to fill me with her energy and nourish my soul.

Once sufficiently filled with Island Spirit I joined the others on the beach. Zach has been my brother’s best friend since they were infants in daycare together. He’s very much my brother from another mother, I’ve known him most of my life. And like my siblings and I, Zach’s love affair with Madeline Island began when we were kids. He came to spend the weekends there almost as soon as we started going there ourselves. In the winter months, when my mom, sister, and I would opt to spend some weekends back in Duluth, Zach and my brother would spend the entire sisterless weekend outside, building snow forts, sledding, playing on the frozen lake, and watching movies in the parsonage. He fell in love with Madeline right along with us, and feels just as strong a connection to The Island, and to Big Bay Town Park, and he’s passed that love onto Kim and their son, just like I have with my own kids.

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We spent every single day on that beach for the week we were there. It was the first year that the weather had completely cooperated the whole time we were camping. Every day was warm and filled with sunshine, and the lake wasn’t even as paralyzingly cold as usual. Each morning Olivia and I would take our biodegradable soaps and shampoos down to the beach, slide into the lake, and take the most glorious lake-baths you could imagine.

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During the day, particularly on the weekends, there can be a good number of people on the Beach at Big Bay Town Park. However, despite its number of visitors, it’s easy to escape the crowds and have a whole section of beach to yourself. With two and a half miles of beach at your disposal, all you need for some solitude is a willingness to hike a ways past the other beach-goers. With the boardwalk that now connects the Town Park to the State Park, with the exception of one missing section with a sandy trail, it’s easy to find the perfect, quiet spot to spend the day.

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Big Bay Town Park is an exceptional place for kayaking and canoeing. Whether you want to explore the lagoon, the bay itself, or even head out past the point to admire the rocky coastline of The Island, there’s an option for everyone, from beginner to pro. At the end of the bridge along the boardwalk one can rent kayaks or canoes for a reasonable price, so BYO kayak isn’t even necessary. Just head to the beach and look for the short, super tan, thin, barefoot man, with the messy, gray, beach hair, and welcoming smile.142

Though the beach is soft, golden sand, there is a field of polished stones that stretches the length of the beach along the water’s edge. Every time we get in the water we look like we’re having some sort of seizure as we step cautiously across the rocks. But once you get past it, it’s nothing but sand. Soft ridges of wave-rippled sand beneath the clearest, cleanest, most refreshing water imaginable.

It’s Lake Superior, so of course it’s cold. Some people won’t even go in, and I consider them ridiculously wimpy, as it’s not that bad (except when it is). However, it is one of those times when it’s just better to dive right on in and get it over with rather than slowly easing in deeper. Every time I go under, and come up for air, I’m breathless. It’s invigorating, a slight shock to the system that reminds me I’m alive, wakes up the senses. This year, it was warmer than usual, though still cold enough to feel amazing after lying under the blazing sun, and walking to the shoreline across the hot sand.DSC_0927

While I spent most of my time at the beach soaking up the hot sun while lying on the sand, or taking pictures, my boys spent it throwing the football around, or tossing sticks for the dog Zach and Kim’s friends brought. Stone and his friend Lily made up games, built sand castles, and splashed around in the lake for hours. Everyday was a different mix of people, and everyday seemed more perfect than the last.

Back at the campsite, my son Gavin and Zach had frequent Corn Hole tournaments. Bryant, my older son, even joined in on a number of occasions, and often with Stone and his little friend, Lily, cheering on whoever they had decided they wanted to win in that particular moment.

Kim, my daughter Olivia and I could often be found sitting around the fire; cooking lunch, or just chatting and laughing. One of the things that made this trip so special was spending time with those ladies. It’s quality time, without the distraction of cell phones, or TV, or any other connection to the outside world. Kim and I have spent very little time together in the grand scheme of things, just a week of camping during the summer for the past several years, yet she’s one of my most cherished friends. Perhaps a part of it is that we met on Madeline Island, and that it helped us form a bond that is characterized, in great deal, by how connected we feel to, and how much we both love, The Island itself. But whatever the reason, I genuinely treasure the time I get to spend with Kim on those trips, and wish I could have more of her in my life.

Big Bay Town Park by day is a beach vacation dream come true. At night, it becomes a whole new, and even more incredible an experience. Be sure to come back next week for LadycationSunday when we explore Madeline Island after sunset! Don’t forget to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest tips, trips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking my friends.

~Steph

 

Madeline Island: A Brief History of Wisconsin’s Secret Paradise

Not all my ‘cations are Ladycations. Though I love getting away with my ladies, I also love getting away with my kids, and my favorite place to take them is to my childhood home on an island in northern Wisconsin (yes, Wisconsin has islands).img_8822

Madeline Island is a small island in Lake Superior. It is the largest, and only of the Apostle Islands that is inhabited year round. It’s 14 miles long and 3 miles wide respectively, and has a permanent, winter population of 302. That number swells to 1500 when the “Summer People” arrive.

The Island has a rich history going back to its first settlers: the Lake Superior Chippewa, a band of the Ojibwe people. According to legend, the Gitche Manitou, or “Great Spirit,” told them to go west until they found the place where “food grows on the water.” They traveled west along the south shore of Lake Superior until they came to the wild rice growing in the marshes along the lake shore near Chequamegon Bay. They eventually found, and settled on the island, naming it Mooningwanekaaning, meaning, “Place of the Golden-Breasted Flicker Woodpecker.” IMG_5557

In the 1600’s, French fur traders established one of the first colonial settlements in the region, that quickly became one of its most important trading outposts, and later the island’s town of La Pointe. Because most men worked outdoors during that time, beaver skins, which were waterproof, were a hot commodity. Native Americans would trade them for things like knives, blankets, and other goods.

With such lucrative fur trade, of course, came more white settlers, anxious to trade with the Ojibwe. This time they were British. A rivalry between the French and British, both vying for control of the fur trading industry, came to a head in the 1660’s during the Seven Years’ War, ultimately resulting in the French relinquishing all their territories east of the Mississippi to the British, including Madeline Island, and the town of La Pointe.

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The American Fur Company on Madeline Island.

After the War of 1812, control of the fur trade was gained by the American Fur Company, founded by John Jacob Astor, in 1808. If that name sounds familiar, it’s either because you’re a well informed history buff, or you watched the movie Titanic. Indeed, Mr. Astor’s great-grandson and namesake perished aboard the vessel when it struck an iceberg a century later. You may remember hearing he was the richest man aboard Titanic. That fortune began with his great-grandfather’s fur trading company, making him the first multi-millionaire in the United States.

As tends to happen when white people “discover” land and encounter its native population, missionaries weren’t far behind the traders. Jesuit priests were the first to arrive and establish a mission to the Ojibwe. The first Catholic church no longer stands, but on the site where it was erected remains the “Indian Cemetery,” a misleading name for this burial ground given its origin in Catholicism, and the fact that both Native Americans and white settlers alike are buried there.img_0137

Among the cemetery’s Native inhabitants is The Island’s namesake, Madeline Equasayway Cadotte, daughter of Chief White Crane. Madeline married Michel Cadotte, the son of a French-Canadian father, and Ojibwe mother. His marriage to Madeline helped him become the lead trader in the area.  Another notable figure in the cemetery is Chief Buffalo, or Kechewaishke. The Lake Superior Chippewa’s Chief for the first half of the 19th Century, Chief Buffalo was instrumental in securing land for his people by resisting the US government’s attempts to push them westward, signing treaties that granted them permanent land in the area. The reservations at Red Rock and Bad River are still home to many Lake Superior Chippewa today.img_5482.jpg

Though few Ojibwe still live on the island, Native American history is still very much a presence on Madeline. From the Ojibwe translations on the town’s signage, to the ceremonies still held on the sacred lands, Mooningwanekaaning honors its history as the Lake Superior Chippewa’s spiritual center.

The second church built on Madeline was a protestant mission in 1832. “The Old Mission” was built on land that now houses the La Pointe Post Office. In 1925 a new church was built a short distance down Main Street, St. John’s United Church of Christ.833

It’s that church that brought my family to Madeline Island in the late 1980’s. My dad was an out-of-work pastor who ran a non-profit organization in the island’s nearest city: Duluth, Minnesota. “The Anchorage” ministered to the working people of the city’s downtown area, providing counseling services, fellowship, and Bible studies. It was through this ministry that a member of one of his Bible studies suggested he talk to the church council at St. John’s.

Before too long our family was loading up our minivan and driving 90 miles every weekend to my dad’s new parish on Madeline Island. It was supposed to be a summer gig. The church was in the process of looking for a permanent pastor, one that would be a full time resident on the island. We thought it would be a few months in the summer and then we’d be back to business as usual in Duluth.img_8900

What started out as a summer job turned into a fall job, then a winter job, then a spring job, then another summer. While the church council sought a full time, permanent pastor willing to move his family to this tiny and, in the winter, somewhat isolated community, our family was falling in love. Our parents were making cherished, lifetime friendships, while us kids spent our summers swimming in Lake Superior’s crystal clear (albeit freezing cold) waters, eating pizza and ice cream at Grampa Tony’s, and riding our bikes all over the island. In the winter we would go sledding, build snow-forts, and cross country ski across the lake. My siblings and I all agree, our time on Madeline Island afforded us the most idyllic childhood imaginable.

When St. John’s found a full time pastor we were devastated. Though we’d known this was always the plan, Madeline Island had woven its way into our hearts. It had become a part of us. We belonged there. Even as a kid, I could feel it: The Island was special.img_9100

Lucky for us (though not for he or his family), the new pastor turned out to have some mental health issues. Once he was hospitalized, they asked my dad to come back and fill in for a couple weeks. And once it became clear the other pastor would not be returning, we were ecstatic. My dad tried to keep us Christian about it, rein in our celebrations of another man’s nervous breakdown, and teach us some humility. But as a kid, all I cared about was that we got our house back, our beach back, our friends back, our home back. The fact that it came at another man’s expense was inconsequential to me. I just wanted to go home, and by any means necessary. Suffice to say, my dad’s lessons didn’t stick that time around.

Instead of going through the painstaking process of finding another pastor all over again, the church offered my dad the job as permanent part time pastor. We could remain in Duluth during the week, and come to “our” island every weekend, just like we’d done before. We continued doing this until we moved to Cleveland when I was 18 years old, when the weekly travel had become too much for my mom’s failing health.1123

Leaving again, knowing not only would we not be returning each week, but that our new home was almost 1000 miles away, was indescribably difficult. No place else has ever felt like home the way Madeline Island did. Not even our actual home in Duluth held the same level of sentimentality. It was Madeline Island that made me realize “home” isn’t a building, it’s a state of mind. “Home is where the heart is,” as the saying goes, and my heart is on Madeline. Always. It’s like a piece of me is always there, and until I’m there, too, a part of me is missing; as if I’m not complete unless I’m there. I’m my most authentic, contented self when I’m on The Island. I think one of the reasons I love backpacking is that it’s the closest I’ve come to recreating that feeling.050

That’s why almost every year I load an absurd amount of camping gear into (and onto) my car, grab the kids, and head north. I want my children to share my love of The Island, to feel the serenity that I feel when I board the ferry, to appreciate the natural beauty and quirky community that makes Madeline Island my favorite place in the world. I want them to keep visiting long after I’m gone, to share the sacred piece of land with their children. And since I already have my burial plot there (the best Christmas present I ever received. Thanks, Dad!), in the same cemetery where my mom was laid to rest, I think I’ll get my wish. Wanna visit my grave when I’m gone, kids? You know where to find me. No, I’m not above manipulating my children from beyond the grave for a good cause.

This summer, like most, we were Island bound. Since my daughter is now a sophomore in college and considering an internship next summer instead of coming home, I saw this as possibly the last family vacation I’ll get to take with all my children, at least for a while. As always, we spent the week camping at Big Bay Town Park, a paradise in its own rite.img_8664

Big Bay is a literal bay on the island’s eastern shore. Flanked by red rock cliffs on either end, it’s home to a 2.5 mile golden sand beach, a lagoon, and both the State and Town parks. The Town Park, which we prefer due to its lagoon access, a lower price tag, and plain old nostalgia, has drive-in campsites that back up against the lagoon, and are surrounded by White Spruce, Balsam Fir, and even Birch trees. At night the sounds of croaking frogs, and the haunting call of loons fill the air, occasionally mixed with the distant sound of crashing waves when the winds kick up, and Lake Superior shows her might.

While we spend our days on the beach soaking up the sun and splashing around in the Great Lake, night brings a totally different, and even more incredible experience, in the same place. With almost no light pollution, Big Bay is a phenomenal spot for stargazing. On clear lights the Milky Way is on full display, and when conditions are right, you may even see the Aurora Borealis. Meteor showers are particularly amazing, as you seemingly have a front row seat to seeing every single one that streaks across the sky.img_8622

This summer was especially awesome. We arrived at the ferry in Bayfield at the same time my childhood friend (actually my brother’s best friend since birth, so he’s like my other brother) arrived, and our vacation had begun. Zach, his fiancé Kim, and their son Stone, who still live in Duluth, join us every year for a week of camping on The Island. They’re some of my absolute favorite humans in the world, and getting to spend that week with them each year makes the whole experience all the more special.

So, though it’s not technically a Ladycation, I hope you enjoy this next collection of stories as I try to capture my childhood home, and most cherished place: Madeline Island. Thanks for reading! Join me next week on LadycationSunday as my peeps and I begin our week-long camping adventure at Big Bay Town Park! And don’t forget to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

~Steph