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

 

 

 

Adventure’s End: Final Days and Final Thoughts

My 40th birthday adventure was coming to an end and soon I’d have to return to reality. However, there was still some fun to be had in Phoenix before hopping on a plane and heading home.

Despite sleeping like the dead the previous night, I was still tired when I woke up to another gorgeous Arizona morning. It felt like I had lost the ability to store energy, and my whole body was stiff and sore. I was grateful for a relatively lazy day.

My aunt and uncle, being the incredible human beings that they are, still had a couple tricks up their sleeves. So while I chatted with my Aunt Lynne, who had come over to visit, Cindy was in the kitchen making lunch (spaghetti, my favorite). What I didn’t know was that she’d also made dessert.img_5745

My favorite dessert is from a now defunct restaurant in Duluth, Minnesota. Orchards (formerly known as Plush Pippen) had a sour cream lemon pie that was absolutely to die for, and when they went out of business I feared I’d never taste it again. Fast forward 15 years to Thanksgiving at my sister’s house and voila! She’d found the recipe online. Little did I know that she’d also passed it along to Aunt Cindy. It’s amazing how something as simple as a pie can bring a person to tears. It tasted like my childhood, something I felt was only appropriate as I celebrated the aging process.img_5749

After a day of relaxing, spending time with family and napping, we headed to Macayo’s with some more family for dinner (and margaritas). Although I generally don’t like Mexican food (yes, I know, I’m nuts), I felt like a trip to Arizona wouldn’t be complete without a meal at a Mexican joint.

The food was delicious, the margaritas were large and plentiful, and the company was superb. We finished up our meal, grabbed some tacos to-go for Mary, and went to the airport to pick her up. She’d spent the entire day traveling by helicopter, car and bus to get back to Phoenix after we’d left her in Supai.

Mary and I’s original plan had been to go out on the town for the final night of our ladycation. However, between Mary’s day of traveling all over Arizona, and my body still aching from the previous day’s ten mile hike, we were too exhausted to go anywhere. So, instead of partying the night away at some bar in Phoenix, we opted instead for margaritas at Mark and Cindy’s.img_5766

The four of us were in the backyard, enjoying the prickly pear margs that Mark made for us, when there was a knock at the door. Given the lengths my aunt and uncle had gone to to make my trip so amazing, I wondered if they could possibly still have another surprise in store. Even Mary was looking towards the front door expecting some long lost family member to come walking in.

Instead, it was the neighbor from across the street. He too had been enjoying a healthy number of adult beverages that evening, and was hoping to have a heart to heart with Mark. However, upon seeing that Mark had company he left, and I assumed we’d seen the last of him. I was quite mistaken.

A short while later the neighbor, who we’ll call “Joe,” returned, and he wasn’t alone. Now a party of six, Uncle Mark was back in the kitchen mixing up another round of margaritas, while we were introduced to Joe and his friend, “Bill.” Bill, Joe explained, had just discovered his wife was cheating on him, so he was staying at Joe’s place while he “figured things out,” a term we eventually learned was code for, “traded ugly insults via text with his wife.” It gave me a renewed appreciation for the amicability of my divorce.img_5769

Before too long Mark and Cindy called it a night, leaving Mary and I with Joe, Bill, and our margaritas. It became clear pretty quickly that volume control was going to be an issue, so we moved the party to Joe’s man-cave-garage, where we switched from margs to Jack and Cokes.

Admittedly, we were all pretty drunk. However, I was not so drunk that I had any designs on either of these men. The four of us shot the proverbial shit for a while, before deciding to go looking for scorpions. Yes, that’s right, scorpions; as in the creepy looking critters that nightmares are made of. You see, Mary and I, being Midwesterners, had never actually seen one. It wasn’t until this trip that we learned they glow under black lights, a fact we found both terrifying and fascinating. So, being the gentlemen, albeit very drunk gentlemen, that Joe and Bill were, they grabbed a light and took us on a scorpion hunt.img_5786

Now, when I say “scorpion hunt,” I’m using the term “hunt” very loosely. It was more like a 20 foot stroll around the side of the property until we (very quickly) spotted one crawling up the stucco privacy wall surrounding the yard. It was a lot smaller than I expected. I always imagined them to be bigger, more nefarious looking. But the first thing I noticed, obviously, was that it was glowing. How amazing is Mother Nature?!

I realized how strange it is that so many of our fears are rooted in ignorance. The thought of seeing a scorpion had scared the shit out of me. I imagined a terrifying, fist-sized monster; bloodthirsty, and hellbent on repeatedly stinging me till I was nearing death’s doorstep. What I found was just a big spider. Granted, it was a big, glowing spider, but it certainly wasn’t interested in attacking me. Simply seeing a scorpion erased my fear of them. Imagine all the fears we could eliminate if we all stepped out of our bubbles to seek out new experiences once in a while. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the world’s problems that could solve.img_5778

Once staring at the scorpion got boring we headed back to the man-cave. I went in Joe’s house to use the bathroom and was immediately in love with the décor. It was beautiful: high, vaulted ceilings, open and airy, full of old family photos and bold, rich colors. I’ll be honest, I totally snooped around. Every room I went into was more fun than the last. It was like being inside a magazine.

As I was heading back to the garage (while planning a new Joe’s-house-inspired photo wall) Joe came staggering in. My Lady-Sense (it’s like Spidey-Sense, but instead of sensing danger or crime, we sense impending sexual advances) began going off immediately. Predictably, as I was complimenting him on his beautiful home, he leaned in, and with hot, whiskey breath, slurred, “You’re so hot.” Ugh, here we go. He continued heaping drunken praise on me, as I awkwardly avoided eye contact and inched closer to the door, trying like hell to deflect his advances.

Don’t get me wrong, I know it was a compliment. But it was the compliment of a drunk man who has lost his grasp on self-control and had clear ulterior motives. I didn’t go all the way out to Arizona to have a quickie one night stand with my uncle’s drunk, married neighbor. Hard no on that. I also wasn’t about to leave Mary alone with his on-the-rebound buddy in the garage any longer either. It was time to call it a night. Mary and I made our exit soon after and headed back to Mark and Cindy’s.img_5774

Mary went to bed almost immediately after we got back. Being our last night in Arizona, I didn’t want it to end, so I sat in the backyard for a while. I drank some water, smoked some bud, and tried to soak in my surroundings as much as I could; to breath in the Southwest. I wanted to bookmark the memory, remember how the warm, dry air felt, the smell of the citrus trees, and the serenity in my spirit. If feelings could be bottled. . .

Just like the first night we’d been there, I looked back on my life and was grateful. When I’d first decided to embark on this adventure for my 40th birthday, I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect trip. From the moment we landed my family had gone far above and beyond to make the experience special. I didn’t know how to thank them, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to fully repay their generosity and thoughtfulness. They’re the kind of people who exude kindness and love, the kind of people it’s impossible not to like. They go out of their way to make others feel welcome and accepted. The entire week with them, the others we’d hiked to Supai with, and those we’d met during Heather’s rescue had restored a bit of my faith in humanity.

We flew home the next afternoon and boarded the plane with exhausted, but strong bodies and centered, serene minds. Obviously, I would’ve preferred to stay and explore more of the Southwest, but reality was calling. As we flew home I started remembering all the responsibilities awaiting me in Cleveland, and my quiet mind got a little more noisy. Bills, housework, kids, my job; a whole world of obligations patiently waited for me to come back.img_5804

My friend Bridget picked us up from the airport and drove us home. When we pulled in the driveway I saw the “Happy Birthday” sign in the yard. Bridget had been busy. My entire house was filled with balloons, streamers and handmade signs. On the dining room table was a cake with candles, a bottle of wine, and some weed. Chocolate, wine and weed. My B-Ridge knows me well!

Bridget had gotten my son to let her in. She cleaned my house (let’s just say I’m no June Cleaver) and decorated the whole thing. She reminded me why I come home from vacations. Some of the noise that makes up our lives is actually beautiful music. Like a Foo Fighters song. . . Alright, fine, like Mozart, but you get where I’m going.

Getting away, taking a break, a change of scenery; it all serves to help us appreciate what we have back home. Without the responsibilities and obligations, would the desire to explore be as great? Or would we just remain stagnant, living and dying in our small corner of the world? I don’t think any of my ladycations would be as amazing if I didn’t have reality to compare them to. They say comparison is at the heart of all unhappiness, but in this respect, it provides the contrast needed to truly relax and gain perspective. Just goes to show, everything in moderation. . .

Thank you for stopping by! I hope you’ll all come back to read about future adventures. 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