(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: JULY/AUGUST 2006)
I've been visiting the Apostle Islands in northwestern Wisconsin for 20 years, and this scene still surprises me, not only with the beauty of the Gothic sandstone tower, but with an instant sense of how lonely a lighthouse keeper's life must have been. Most of the Apostles still offer that kind of isolation.
The 22 Apostles fan out for almost 30 miles from the town of Bayfield, tempting visitors with 720 square miles of forests, caves, rocky outcrops and endless views. The islands, 21 of them protected as a national lakeshore, call to paddlers ready to take on Lake Superior's big water. But even casual travelers will find many of the islands within reach. Whether visitors go by ferry, sailboat or kayak, they'll find the Apostles are a destination for adventurers of all skill levels.
Humans have ventured into the Apostle Islands for centuries in birch-bark canoes, fishing boats, steam-ships and schooners. It took courage. Superior's imposing waters have caused hundreds of shipwrecks and often build into intimidating waves, even in the relatively sheltered channels throughout the Apostles. Waves can well up quickly, sometimes forcing island adventurers to wait it out until the waters calm.
Modern boaters keep constant tabs on weather radios as they plan daily itineraries. But visiting the Apostles now can be as simple as driving onto the deck of the Island Queen ferry and watching Bayfield's whitewashed buildings slide into the distance during the three-mile passage to Madeline Island.
Madeline is the only island not managed by the National Park Service; it already had year-round residents and a long history as a Victorian summer getaway when Congress created the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in 1970. Today's visitors find resorts, golf and a busy marina clustered near the island's only town, La Pointe. It's the Apostle Islands made easy: Madeline lets you experience the archipelago's unique beauty with the creature comforts of paved roads and good espresso.
But don't get the idea that Madeline is crowded. At its summer peak, the island has about 2,500 residents. Driving off the ferry in La Pointe, I quickly yield to a black Lab lapping up a dropped ice cream cone on Main Street. Five cars wait patiently. La Pointe, only about four blocks long, is best for strolling, anyway. Otherwise, you might miss spots like Tom's Burned Down Cafe (after two fires, the beer joint carries on with half walls and tarps) or Lotta's Lakeside Cafe, lauded in culinary circles for being surprisingly upscale for an island this size. The ever-changing menu features dishes such as nut-encrusted lake trout.
I step into the Madeline Island Historical Museum, which has the wonderful feel of an old attic. Intricate Ojibwa beadwork, logging tools and a 500-year-old dugout canoe fill an aged fur-trading warehouse, moved here from a nearby pier. In a newer section of the museum, I meet staffer Lorraine Norrgard, a film-maker who has documented Ojibwa culture for public television. "The Ojibwa are the second-largest tribe in North America," she explains. "Madeline Island is the political, cultural and spiritual center of their society."
Remarkable beauty, too. Retrieve your car or rent a bike for the 6.89-mile ride northeast to Big Bay. A state park and adjacent town park curve for more than two miles along the deep-bellied bay, washing onto a bronze sand beach. I park on the township side and discover what seems like half of Madeline Island's residents splashing in the surf. But solitude comes quickly when I pad south along the soft sands, then onto a boardwalk that sidles up to an inland lagoon. Once part of Lake Superior, the area is alive with mergansers, rustling grasses and threatened plants such as the linear-leaved sundew. I watch a great blue heron stalk the shallows for a fresh fish dinner, then drive back to La Pointe to enjoy my own.