Superior Refuge

Islands, June 1995
© 1995 by Greg Breining

THERE'S NO BETTER WAY of forcing water into every minute cavity of your sinuses than by hanging upside down beneath an overturned kayak. Still, I had to admire Lake Superior's blue clarity and the sparkle of bubbles overhead. They radiated like sunrise from the black shadow of the boat. Still, it wouldn't do to dawdle. I was running out of air. I swept my paddle outward to begin an Eskimo roll and right the boat. No chance. No way. The boat barely moved. That's when I realized how little a two-person sea kayak resembles the much smaller river kayak I'm used to. I tugged my spray skirt, kicked free of the cockpit, and popped to the surface, convinced more than ever that I'd better pay attention to our guide, who had been talking about rescues in heavy seas. I was beginning a week-long foray among the Apostles, a compact knot of 22 rocky islands along Wisconsin's northern coast. Traditionally the domain of motor launches and sailboats, the Apostles have become a haven for kayakers, who find shelter in the channels between islands. 

This was not my first trip to Lake Superior. When I was a kid, my family would vacation on Superior's craggy north shore. I spent hours on the beach, throwing surf-rounded stones into the fringes of the lake, their puny flight mocked by water that stretched to the horizon. Living in Minnesota, I knew lakes. But this was no lake. It seemed as large as earth and sky. We joked about swimming in Superior, but deep down, Superior frightened me. Standing on shore, I could feel its cold tentacles. 

The Apostles were different. I first saw them with a friend from college, whose parents owned a place on Madeline, the largest of the islands. There was a sort of casual insouciance about the Apostles that appealed to me. Sometimes when we sailed the channels between islands, the sails would tighten and the boat heel until water lapped the rail. Yet I felt secure, as though I knew the islands would protect us. They blocked the icy stare of Superior's infinite horizon. 

OUR SAFETY LESSON COMPLETE, the eight members of our group trailered our kayaks and gear down a series of winding tar and dirt roads to Little Sand Bay, where we loaded our boats and pushed off. Around us, in the distance, the low wooded Apostles sat like thin wafers on the calm gray lake. As we bobbed like baby ducks, our guide, Jill Kettleson, guided her brood toward Sand Island, three miles away. 

Late in the day, after we'd set up camp in a forest clearing, we set out in our tiny fleet to explore the Sand Island caves. Gouged into the soft island by nor'easters that can barrel down 250 miles of open lake, the caves are small, humid and, in the low light, green. We listened to the lake speak its deep voice as waves slapped the back of the caves.

Evening settled in, the sun hovering blood red in a foggy pal, the fallout of widespread forest fires in Canada. We continued paddling down the shore to Sand Island Lighthouse, built in 1881. The lighthouse burns these days with a solar-powered beacon. Looking northwest toward the setting sun, I imagined the sight in 1905 when the freighter Sevona, running before a gale in the open lake, sought refuge in the Apostles. Blinded by the storm, the captain crashed into Sand Island Shoal before the lighthouse came into view. From his lookout in the turret, lighthouse keeper Emmanuel Luick watched helplessly as the Sevona broke apart barely more than a mile away and seven sailors drown in the surf pounding the rock at Luick's feet.

If not every ship managed to reach the safety of the islands, the notion of refuge helps explain the rather puzzling name of the 22 islands. The original Apostles, after all, numbered 10 fewer. Dave Strzok, a local writer and cruise service owner, suggests the name was meant to fix directions in the mind of early immigrants. "You have a boatload of people with a religious background passing through a vague area," he explained. "You can almost hear them saying, 'Cling to the south. Don't veer north. Cling to the Apostles.'" 

We awoke the next morning to foghorns, the deep dialog between ships. As other campers washed up and fixed breakfast, I hiked down the beach. There I found Howard Palm, a retired railroad worker who has summered on Sand Island since he was 3. As a child he would accompany his uncle, a commercial fisherman. He remembers watching the nets surface through fathoms of clear water, and the white flash of whitefish and trout caught in the mesh. Palm's grandfather was a fisherman, too. His boat vanished in an April storm, when ice still floated on the water.

Refuge takes many forms. While sailors and fishermen looked to the Apostles for shelter from inclement weather, Palm's family took refuge from the Depression, living on the island for nearly a year. "My father was a salesman," Palm said, "and who could afford to buy insurance during the Depression?" Palm, his parents and three siblings wintered in a log cabin, drawing water through a hole chopped in the ice. "We all missed a year of school, which was all right with me. It was one of the most memorable and enjoyable years that our family spent together." Yet the site wasn't wilderness. "There were up to 100 people who lived on the island at that time," Palm recalled. Commercial fishermen lived on Sand, as they did on many of the large islands. Some ran dairy farms. A telephone cable ran out from the mainland, though a storm eventually put an end to phone service. A road ran along one shore of Sand. Not far from Palm's house, two old cars rust in the forest.

"All the people are gone now," Palm said. "I guess you could compare it to going to a movie with a packed house. Everybody left and you're the only one left. That's how it feels. It feels lonely." 

When the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore was formed in 1970, the government negotiated with islanders to sell their property. About two dozen cling to their properties through long-term leases, mainly on Sand and Rocky islands. Palm's own lease expires at the turn of the century. "I've always been in favor of national parks," he says. "Anytime they take a beautiful area like this and preserve it for future generations, I'm in favor of it." Still, he regrets he can't pass the place on to his son. "Our roots run pretty deep. It's going to be tough to leave." 

ON RASPBERRY ISLAND, "Toots" Winfield - actually summer employee Matt Welter dressed up as an assistant lighthouse keeper - welcomed visitors to the year 1923. 

Clad in freshly painted clapboard, Raspberry Lighthouse stands as white and crisp as a starched shirt. Welter strides through the simple quarters where the lighthouse keeper, his assistants, and the workers' families lived throughout the open-water shipping season. By nature of their setting in treacherous and fog-bound waters, lighthouses are said by some to be haunted, Welter observes. He pooh-poohs this talk. "Nope, we don't got no ghosts," he says, rapping the door frame and laughing nervously. "There are no ghosts in the lighthouse, as sure as Warren G. Harding is president."

ON THE FINAL MORNING of our kayak trip, we schlepped gear down to the beach on Oak Island, dreading the prospect of clammy, sandy wet suits. I pulled mine on as though it were someone else's cold dead skin. Once on the water we glided silently by wet red rock and dark woods, sticking close to land, for nothing is more invisible and vulnerable in the fog than a kayak. Suddenly the quiet was shattered by the thunder of jet boats, roaring out of the Bayfield marina. They disappeared around a point of the mainland, but for 15 minutes or more I felt their power as an inaudible throb deep in my belly. Watchful for other boats, we crossed the mile of open water from Oak Island to the mainland. Paddling along shore, we suddenly confronted the ribs of an ancient ship in the shallow water near shore. The ribs curved upward, like two rows of gnarled, black fingers reaching to the sky. We paddled between them as waves slapped the wood and tree swallows played tag above us. A few yards from shore, we gathered over the sunken remains of the Ottawa. When she was launched in 1881, the Ottawa, at 151 feet, was the biggest tug on the lake. In 1909 she hauled the James H. Hoyt off a shoal near Outer Island and towed the big freighter to the shelter of Red Cliff Bay. As the two boats rested at anchor that night, the Ottawa suddenly burst into flames. The crew fled to the disabled Hoyt as the Ottawa burned and sank. Looking into my own shadow, I saw its ribs and timbers beneath me. Jabbing deep with my paddle, I felt the dead thump of waterlogged wood.

Down the shore we came upon another surprise — several gulls sitting on the ribs of the Fedora, which rose from the water like a section of picket fence. Rusted bolts stuck barely above the surface, poised to puncture the hull of the arrogant sea kayak.

On a stormy September night in 1901, the Fedora had steamed southward through the Apostles toward Ashland when a kerosene lantern exploded in the engine room. In minutes, flames filled the ship, which continued to run full speed. The captain turned the ship toward shore and ran her aground. The crew escaped in lifeboats, but the Fedora burned to the waterline. From its exposed stern to submerged bow, the boat reached nearly 100 yards. Partly partly submerged, partly exposed, it forms a bridge between two worlds. I paddled along the hull, trying not to lose sight of the boat in the reflections on the waves. These wrecks reminded me that refuge is neither safe nor secure. The best of plans and most perfect lives can be upended in a moment by bad luck, carelessness, arrogance or simple change.

ON BRISK BLUE DAYS, the broad channels between the Apostles fill with taut, dancing sails. 

"What is nice about the islands is that even with good winds you rarely get more than three- to four-foot seas," remarked Tharlie Olson, as we sailed aboard his 40-foot Harpswell to the outermost islands. Indeed, that is what I remember most vividly from my first trip to the Apostles nearly 20 years ago —healing over in a hard breeze, tacking from channel to channel. Yet today it was not to be. Three-foot waves were out of the question. They managed six inches, tops, and we moved at seven knots under diesel power.

Olson is a retired paper company executive. His wife, Charlotte, is a teacher, and they often charter their boat. At Stockton Island we spent the morning walking the long tombolo, the sandy isthmus that has joined Stockton to a smaller island during the last several thousand years. Widely spaced red pines grow gnarled and stunted from the wind's constant abuse. On a sandstone outcrop, someone had etched the word sisu — Finnish for fortitude. Along the shoreline grew blueberries, exuberant and dewy, the most prodigious I'd ever seen. For an hour, I walked and ate, walked and ate, grazing on berries as if I were a black bear. With an open view among scattered trees and grassy dunes, Stockton presented the picture of verdant savanna, an endless sand beach and unlimited blueberries.

That afternoon we motored to Devils Island, which sits in the Apostles' outer ring, about ten miles from the mainland. From an inflatable dingy, we toured the island's sea caves, which bellowed even in this mild chop. Onshore, I clambered over slabs of sandstone that had been undercut by waves. The lake, in its wilder tantrums, had tossed slabs of rock high onto the shore. Examining a ledge, I found a colony of delicate violet brook lobelias, only three inches tall, holding out against the elements in a rocky crevice. 

ON SOUTH TWIN ISLAND, in an old resort converted to a Park Service cabin, lives Jim dale Vickery, writer and summertime park ranger. On the wall of his cabin notations on a nautical chart recalled his seven summers in the islands: Rescue 2 lost boys. Boat wreck. Boater rescue. Gulls nesting. Butterworts. Challenge rescue. "There's a force the lake has," Vickery said. "Sometimes it's concealed. But sometimes it's released. Sometimes it's destructive. Sometimes it's beautiful. You're at the mercy of the lake." 

Like the delicate lobelia, Vickery and others on the islands have found in the Apostles a crevice of shelter where they can live, work and play amid Superior's cold, tempestuous environment. This refuge defines their relationship. Each night during the summer, sailboats gather in his picture window, which looks to the cove. 

"Different villages of people congeal around you every night," Vickery remarked. "You're sort of floating through it like a salmon. In the morning, everyone goes his separate ways. There's an ebb and a flow." 

OVER TIME, THE THIS EBB AND FLOW has been greatest on Madeline. The Ojibwa Indians were the first residents of the 12-mile-long island - that is, the first anyone knows about. As the Renaissance unfolded in the Old World, the Ojibwa lived in the St. Lawrence River region. By all accounts, they were having a tough time of it. They battled frequently with the Iroquois and other powerful eastern tribes, and seemed to suffer a sort of spiritual malaise. 

They looked for deliverance in a vision — a great seashell that alternately rose and set like the sun, leading the the Ojibwa westward. Each time the shell sank from sight behind the curtain of yet another of the Great Lakes, "death daily visited the wigwams of our forefathers," wrote historian William W. Warren in describing the cosmology of his ancestors. Finally, about the time Columbus landed in the New World, the shell rose above Moningwunakauning — literally, home of the golden-breasted woodpecker— "where it has ever since reflected back the rays of the sun, and blessed our ancestors with life, light, and wisdom," wrote Warren. Moningwunakauning — Madeline Island — the land where the Ojibwa finally found refuge from their enemies and woes. The Ojibwa settled the first community on the island, a community Frenchmen later called La Pointe. The name stands today. In summer, on the half-hour, the ferry line from Bayfield dumps workers and tourists on La Pointe's docks. 

These days Madeline Island is rich, with tattered sleeves, a mix of well-to-do visitor and island hardscrabble. At the docks stands the white-shingled post office in a building built in the 1830s as the Protestant mission house. Casual restaurants and bars spread along the waterfront. 

Just up the road from the docks sits the original one-room schoolhouse. Built more than a century ago, it has been moved and converted to a public library. Inside, hidden by stacks of books and camouflaged by mottled shadow and sunlight, sat Constance Ross, the librarian. She grew up in St. Paul, Minn., she told me, and summered on Madeline before moving permanently to the island. 

"I'm getting to like the winters more and more," she said, "because in summer the tourists are starting to take over."

Nearby is the Madeline Island Historical Museum, which offers a brisk musical slide show on the island's past. The back room is classic old-fashioned museum stuff — lots of things, from musket balls to Bibles, with only a thin veneer of context. Stone tools, beaded buckskins and a birch-bark canoe recall the days when the Ojibwa played lacrosse and stick games on Moningwunakauning and paddled to the mainland to hunt and gather wild rice. Beaver pelts, brass kettles, ceramic beads and clay pipes tell of the fur trade, when first French, then English and finally Americans established posts on Madeline to buy furs from the Indians. Fishing nets, a logging sled, oxen yoke and old school bell portray the settlements of the late 19th century, when the fur trade vanished, shipping switched to mainline ports and Madeline's population dwindled.

Tourism revived the island's fortunes, though the island's permanent population remains below 200. In 1898 Col. Frederick and Eliza Woods led a migration of wealthy summer residents. They bought property along the shore and invited their Nebraska relatives to join them. They did, building houses up and down the road, still known as Nebraska Row. At the end of the road sits Woods Manor B&B in raw wood shingles and blue and yellow trim. Built by the Colonel's son, it is owned today by Frank Woods Petersen, who spent the summers of his childhood in the 1950s and '60s absorbing the laid-back island life. "When I grew up here I knew about 90 percent of the people on the island," he told me. No longer. "I probably know 10 percent of the people out here now."

Still, it's not a huge throng. Spend any time on Madeline and you're bound the see the same people over and over. Chances are good you'll spot them some hot summer night down near the dock at Tom's Burned Down Cafe, seeking refuge from the quiet sameness of island life. Part big top, part bar, Tom's was born in 1992, when Leona's, a popular night spot, burned to the ground. "Thirty-six hours after the fire we were tapping beer on the front lawn," said owner Tom Nelson as he filled a plastic cup. Recognizing a good thing, Nelson propped up the surviving floor and deck with two old Cadillacs, stretched a tarp overhead, and backed a semi-trailer up to the makeshift bar to hold the beer and snacks. Nelson described the process as "build it first, design second." A sign greeting patrons tells of the looseness of the place: "No shirt, no shoes, no problem."

"How's business in the semi-outdoors?" I asked. 

"Great," said Nelson. "Higher ceilings, lower overhead."

Inveterate collector, Nelson had gathered tons of metal scrap and other odds and ends on the site. "One broken shovel, is junk," he said. "When you've got 85, then you have something." Nelson wrangled a Wisconsin Arts Board grant to sponsor a "live art workshop." 

Regionally recognized sculptors came to Tom's to shape and weld shovels and toilet seats into art. Nelson's junk pile, which had rankled local residents, had been reincarnated as the Phoenix Art Gallery, which is indistinguishable from the bar. "The city council took LSD two weeks ago and put me on the zoning board," Nelson quipped. 

Among Nelson's collections are clay pipes, delicate artifacts from the fur-trade days with the subtle patina of alabaster. As he showed them off, he mentioned they were combed from the beach just south of town. So, not long after, I drove down there. 

Known as Grants Point, the area was the site of a 17th-century French fort and British and American trading posts more than a century later. Old Fort Road leads past tennis courts to a sandy beach. I searched the strand, determined to find a clay pipe. I pocketed wave-polished quartz, beach glass and a chalky white stone the shape of Lake Superior. I picked up a piece of birch bark, the stuff of voyageur canoes long ago. I found what appeared to be a fragment of curved pottery. But no matter how hard I willed it, not a single clay pipe, not a single fragment of pipe, materialized. 

ON THE ISTHMUS between the marina and the lake, just down the hill from the Robert Trent Jones-designed golf course, a burial ground lies behind a rusting iron fence. Called the La Pointe Indian Cemetery, it was established in 1836 by Frederic Baraga. At the height of his mission, the dynamic Austrian priest conducted five services each Sunday, two in French, two in Ojibwa, one in English. 

Many of the graves are covered by low wooden houses, built long ago by Christianized Ojibwa to protect both the dead and the food left to sustain the spirit in its four-day journey to the hereafter. Some of the houses have collapsed; raspberries grow through the planks.

A marble stone marks the grave of Michel Cadotte, manager of a fur-trade post for the North West Company and later the American Fur Company. He died in 1837. Nearby in an unmarked grave lies his wife Madeline, daughter of chief White Crane. It is for her the island is named. Another stone marks the grave of Chief Buffalo. A year before he died in 1855, he signed the treaty in which the Ojibwa gave up claim to Madeline and agreed to move to mainland Wisconsin. Today, in tribal fashion, goods are spread out in front of the headstone: a deer antler lashed to a wooden staff, a feather trimmed with turquoise and red wool, pennies, blackberries and raspberries, a pouch of Half & Half tobacco, fresh flowers, and an Atlanta Braves baseball card.

I sat on a wooden bench under a spreading oak and remembered my first visit to the island. Not far from this spot, I had sipped wine at a tony reception with some of the island's richest families. What a difference between the country club and this poor cemetery, where sumac and blue aster press in around the graves, as if waiting for any opportunity to rush in and claim the site. Odd that the very people who colonized the islands and first found refuge here had, in effect, been exiled. It seemed their absence had opened a gulf as deep and wide as Superior itself. Across the road, a halyard blew against a steel mast. I listened to the steady clang. It seemed to be tolling for the dead, calling them home, home to the Apostles.