Photographs by David Bowman
Cliff jumping into Superior in Madeline’s Big Bay State Park.
Cliff jumping into Superior in Madeline’s Big Bay State Park.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in a suburb of St. Paul, in the middle of this lake-pocked North American landmass, but crossing water on a ferry has always been a tangible thrill for me. The big ferries, that is. The ones you can take a car on. The ones found out East or the massive ones that carry Englishmen to France or Danes to Germany. There’s something ancient about a ferry; it’s like it connects you to the seafaring pilgrims of time immemorial. When I take the Madeline Island ferry from Bayfield to La Pointe, Wisconsin, it feels epic—Homeric, Lighfoot-ian, even—though the ride only lasts long enough to drink the ceremonial beer that my friends insist I drink. But here is a bona fide ferry ride, only four hours north of Minneapolis, across water as big and cold and formidable as any oceanic destination.
Madeline Island is connected to a Great Lake-ified history that stretches beyond our Mississippi-centric lore in terms of both time and space and you can feel it as soon as you leave the dock at Bayfield. Today it mainly draws Midwesterners, but for centuries Madeline existed firmly in the more latitudinal fur trading orbit of Hudson Bay and Montreal. The Ojibwe who dominated the ancient routes collaborated with the French voyageurs when they first appeared in the mid-1600s, and history book celebrities such as Father Marquette and John Jacob Astor will forever be linked to the island.
Even though you're in Bayfield, the Madeline Island ferry launch will make you swear you're in Nantucket.
A century ago, one of the first tourists to Madeline said, “It looks like a fairy scene, and everything about it is enchantment.” And once you get out there, a strange scene it is. The growing season lasts nearly a month longer than it does on the mainland, so the makeup of the trees is different, less coniferous, a more diverse array of hardwoods. The largest of the 22 Apostle Islands (almost exactly the same square footage of Manhattan) is considered to be sacred by the Ojibwe. They believe Madeline to be their Eden—their creation mythology is centered on the place they call Mooningwanekaaning, Anishinaabe for “The Home of the Golden Breasted Woodpecker.”
There’s something alien about this place, reminiscent of islands much farther afield. During peak summer, the water around some of the red rocks on the east glow the same phosphorescent blue-green as the Caribbean. (Of course, the water off La Pointe is just a tad colder.)
The social rhythms here are also like nothing else in the Northwoods. Madeline’s hardy year-round resident pool of 300 or so swells to almost 4,000 every summer. Sure, you’re only isolated by that beer-long ferry ride, but when you realize that you’re going to be literally on an island with your vacation party—whether three or 30—you begin to think more philosophically, even strategically, about your traveling companions. Madeline can suck you into its mindset months out—as soon as you check the ferry schedule online. The prospect of hanging out with your girlfriend’s friend’s boyfriend feels somehow more real when you remove the safety valve of the great American freeway system. You ask yourself: in or out? Are you willing to pass the conch or not?
The flip side to this is the slumber party corollary. You’re going to be on an island, surrounded by the people you love, or at least people you can honestly stand, and mid-trip, when you get those sentimental never-want-this-to-end feelings, a ferry ride has the power to suspend your disbelief just a bit longer.
Madeline’s not resort-tamed, but you can easily find a cabin through VRBO or madelineislandvacations.com. We stay at the impressive Sunset Bay Lodge, a Kennedy-esque compound with a well-appointed open kitchen and heated wood floors. It’s tucked back in Sunset Bay, only a mile from downtown La Pointe. It’s secluded enough that you won’t see another soul if you don’t want to. There’s also the Inn on Madeline Island, where you can rent clean, well-lighted rooms.
But the best way to experience Madeline may be to camp, and there are two options, both on the most picturesque preserve the island has to offer: Big Bay State Park, which is geared toward quiet families, and Big Bay Town Park, where the young and/or dumb can sit around all-night campfires on a pristine beach that looks out across Lake Superior toward the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan. Town Park is where we camp, and with showers and Wi-Fi it isn’t too rustic. We hold elaborate spaghetti dinners and take advantage of the honor system canoes for sunset paddles through the big Town Park lagoon.
The temperature of Lake Superior can be intimidating, but our group has a tradition of TBI (total body immersion), and it’s a great motivator. On a hot day the cold, pure water sluices away from your skin like some strange polarized magnet. You yelp as your brain confirms that your nervous system is still fully operational.
Back on dry land, we laze on beach towels, comb the sand for agates, and venture over the Town Park’s boardwalked nature loop looking for caribou moss. One of the world’s strangest symbiotic life forms, caribou moss, or cladonia rangiferina, is ubiquitous on the forest floor and looks like the model flora a nerdy toy train operator would use to meticulously blanket the authentic-looking diorama he built in his garage.
That’s another thing about Madeline Island. Even though you’re technically on the edge of Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, there is a turn on, tune in, and drop out expat community—a thriving ecosystem that depends upon itself and can only be found in this particular degree of isolation. There are trustafarians who devote their lives to the highest-quality mood alteration taking refuge on historic family complexes. There are nouveau pioneers with well-cultivated facial hair who have founded locavore restaurants and candlemaking boutiques. There are proud Native Americans who refuse to be pushed onto the mainland Chequamegon reservations. And there are straight-up Jimmy Buffett parrothead hippies who want nothing to do with the very citiots they once were. You will meet each and every one of these stereotypes at Tom’s Burned Down Café in downtown LaPointe.
Lauren Schuppe and Gip Matthews, owners of the island's new craft eatery Farmhouse and its waffles with egg.
Tom’s is owned by Tom Nelson, the black sheep of a family that has an almost Faulknerian hold on the island—they are the Compsons to Chequamegon’s Yoknapatawpha County. They own the ferry company and rule over the local business and government with a firm if benevolent hand. Until recently, Tom’s estranged cousin Greg Nelson served as the chairman of the town board. There has been deep intra-family drama—in August 2014, Tom was tased by the local sheriff, and he eventually brought a federal police brutality lawsuit against his cousin that is pending. (You can see the incident on YouTube!)
Tasered Tom remains the driving magisterial force of the island’s nightlife. His Burned Down Café is part concert venue, part outsider art gallery, and part shadow-government hall. Formerly a bordello run by a woman named Leona, Tom had it trucked into downtown LaPointe. When it went up in smoke in 1992, he decided not to rebuild, at least not completely, improvising what now looks like a parrothead refugee camp. There are other bars down the road (the whitefish sandwich at the Beach Club is a winner), a charming new scratch restaurant called Farmhouse, and an ice cream parlour and a grocery store. There is a Catholic church and a Protestant church, a Madeline Island Museum and an Indian cemetery. But during the summer, for better and for worse, Tom’s Burned Down Cafe is Madeline Island’s soul.
Figuring out how this delicate interconnected island ecosystem works will probably remain a mystery. It’s impossible to determine the butterfly effect of the caribou moss on the Nelson family and the Nelson family’s effect on the golden breasted woodpecker and the golden breasted woodpecker’s effect on your backswing at the golf course—and anyway, you’re supposed to be on vacation. You’re an interloper here, a weekend Robinson Crusoe. But there is something about this place that will play on your imagination, maybe even get you to wonder if you could last a winter up here, if you could make a life in these woods—after all, there are people who do. It might even feel a little strange heading back on the ferry. Or maybe you should take an earlier ferry, first one in the morning or at least leaving before lunch, just to ensure you don’t stay here forever.
How To Get There
- I-35 north to MN-13 east.
- Ferry from Bayfield ($13.50 round trip; $24.50 vehicle round trip). Bayfield, Wis., 715-747-2051, madferry.com
Where To Stay
- Big Bay Town Park: A spectacular campground, with 61 sites and a boardwalk that leads down to a never-ending sandy beach. 2305 Town Park Circle, La Pointe, Wis., 715-747-3031, bigbaytownpark.com
- The Inn on Madeline Island: The biggest resort includes hotel rooms, condos, townhouses, and cabins. La Pointe, Wis., 715-747-6315, madisland.com
- Sunset Bay Lodge: Only a mile out of La Pointe, the newish cabin sleeps 23. 218-391-4329, vrbo.com/663461#
Where To Eat
- Farmhouse Madeline Island: Gip Matthews and Lauren Schuppe’s new farm-to-table restaurant. 858 Main St., La Pointe, Wis., 715-747-3276
- Tom’s Burned Down Café: “Sorry, we’re open!” The décor is erudite bumper sticker. 274 Chebomnicon Rd., La Pointe, Wis., 715-747-6100, tomsburneddowncafe.com
- Wild Rice Restaurant: Perennial James Beard semifinalist Jim Webster put the area on the dining map. 84860 Old San Rd., Bayfield, Wis., 715-779-9881, wildricerestaurant.com
What To Do
- Big Bay State Park: Nothing is more thrilling than a cannonball off the point at Big Bay State Park into Gitchigumee. 2402 Hagen Rd., La Pointe, Wis., 715-747-6425, dnr.wi.gov
- Madeline Island Museum: Four historic log structures house local history dating back to the 17th century. 226 Colonel Woods Ave., La Pointe, Wis., 715-747-2415, madelineislandmuseum.wisconsinhistory.org
- The Inn on Madeline Island’s Jacuzzi: Weekend passes to its pool and Jacuzzi are available. La Pointe, Wis., 715-747-6315, madisland.com