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.

big dipper
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.

big bay lagoon with stars
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).

lake superior through the trees
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.

beach bonfire

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.

long exposure night photography
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.

naked woman staring out at lake superior

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

 

Point of the Arches: Coastal Hiking At Its Finest

With our Bestieversarycation in full swing, we couldn’t wait for our next adventure: Point of the Arches. Our love affair with the Pacific Northwest was only beginning, and after our first backpacking trip and beach camping experience, we knew this wouldn’t be the only time us two travel companions would choose Washington State for our Ladycation destination. The beauty of the Pacific Coast cannot be understated.

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The view from the tent when I awoke in the morning

I woke up in the morning to the sun coming out from behind the diminishing clouds, the tide receding, and the fog lifting. The sound of the waves crashing ashore and the seagulls’ squawking mixed together like a maritime symphony, while the salty scent of the ocean and the smell of the forest filled my lungs. It was a feast for the senses.IMG_3050

I stepped out of the tent and, as though the ocean was calling to me, headed towards the shoreline. During low tide the beach spotted with rocks that are crawling with sea anemones, starfish, and mussels. The starfish were so freaking cool–I had no idea they could get so huge! Big, fat orange, red, and purple suckers were clinging to the rocks and each other. It’s an amateur nature photographer’s wet dream. I think I’d taken over 100 pictures before Lindsey even emerged from the tent.

Gather Round

Once she was up, we had some breakfast, and set out for Point of the Arches. It was a gorgeous two mile walk along the coast with plenty of creatures, shells, and sea glass to admire along the way. We probably took three times as long as necessary to get to The Point because I kept stopping to take more pictures, while Lindsey accomplished a goal she’d set: eating fresh picked seaweed. It didn’t seem like an overly thrilling experience, but mission accomplished, nonetheless.IMG_3061

 

The arches were everything they were cracked up to be. Tide pools everywhere with more starfish than we could ever have tried to count (We were seriously obsessed with the starfish, guys). We climbed on the rocks for a while, exploring all around the arches. Our climbing was cut short by the tide rolling in, making it difficult to get from rock to rock without going for a swim. It was about time to head back and pack up camp anyway, so it was sort of like Mother Nature was literally “mothering” us. Alright, girls, time to get going. Don’t make me count to three. Well played, Mom.

selfie on shi shi beach olympic national park

The clouds were all but gone, leaving only a few wisps scattered across the sky, and the sun blazing down on us. It was as perfect a beach day as I’d ever seen. We took our shoes off and hiked back to our campsite along the shore, the waves kissing our feet as we went.

Unfortunately for Lindsey, the ocean stroll had an unexpected, and rather grotesque consequence. As prepared as she was for this Ladycation, there was one important detail she’d put off till the last minute: hiking boots. Let the following story serve as a reminder of the importance of breaking in your footwear before you hike.

Point of the Arches

First aid supplies were not something we skimped on, thankfully (one of the benefits of hiking with people who work in the medical field). We had sterile gauze bandages, waterproof bandages, betadine swabs, alcohol wipes, mole skin, we even had a scalpel. Good thing, too, cause we needed all of it. ALERT! What follows may give you a case of the “icks.”

Sea Stacks

Lindsey’s brand new hiking boots had left blisters on the backs of both her ankles. She’d cleaned and bandaged them before bed, and again in the morning, however, despite the cool, ocean waves feeling amazing in the moment, they had also washed sand into the blisters. We’d never seen anything like it. Where once there had been typical, water filled blisters, were now horrifying looking pockets of sand beneath the skin. It was sick, you guys.IMG_3212

We figured she had two options, neither of which sounded appealing. One: she could wrap them up with a thick layer of mole skin and try to suck it up for the hike out, or, two: she could cut open the thin layer of skin holding the sand, clean it out, and bandage it up right there. Both options would hurt like hell (and be super, super gross).IMG_3203

Option two seemed like the safer bet since leaving the sand in there sounded like a great way to get an infection, so our campsite briefly became a surgical suite. I can’t tell you how awful it was to watch this operation take place. Not so much the actual process (I was a nursing assistant for years, I’m used to gross) but her face while she worked. It was agonizing. She had to remove the top layer of skin and wipe the sand away with alcohol pads. Alcohol pads! On open skin! I just can’t. . . It was horrible. Like an episode of Fear Factor that you don’t want to watch, but can’t look away from. I would’ve given anything for Joe Rogan to pop out of the forest at that moment, just to pry my eyes away from the scene before me. . . and maybe share some ganja. Despite looking like she was on the verge of passing out, Lindsey took it like a woman. I don’t know how she did it, and I don’t know that I could have. I guess this is an example of, “If you had to, could you?” For Lindsey, the answer is, “Hell yes. Pass the scalpel.”IMG_3053

The ocean, the tide pools, the arches, and sea stacks. . . This place will blow your mind. We didn’t want to leave (and not just because Lindsey’s feet were jacked)! I will definitely go back someday, and I want to spend a couple days this time. One night just wasn’t enough time in a place as spectacular as Shi Shi. Beach camping is everything I’d dreamed it would be and then some. But, we had an Enchanted Valley to hike to, so we climbed up to the trail and trekked back to the car, driving to our hotel for a night of sleeping in a bed before our next Olympic National Park adventure.