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.img_8936

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 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, passed 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 that make Madeline Island so special, one of them is the view of the Big Bay Lagoon.img_8637

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 to the right 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, grass covered islands, some with small, sparsely filled trees, fill the landscape as it reaches deeper and wider into the distance, surrounded by lush, green, wilderness, with the blue sky reflecting on the water. I could (and have) stare at that view for hours.090-001

We descended the wooden 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 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 The Island’s energy.

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.DSC_0958

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.118

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.094

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