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Musings From Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
I’m sitting on the shore of Lake Superior just looking across the water from the mainland of northern Wisconsin toward Madeline Island, one of 22 islands that comprise the Apostle Islands. A parade of sailboats works upwind across the water and I’m breathing air so fresh it still has labels attached. I’ll be leaving tomorrow morning. With regrets.
A quiet peacefulness seems to pervade the whole place. Even the town of Bayfield, where park headquarters is located, seems to be a peaceful haven. Crowded, yes. Hard to find a parking place, yes. But peaceful, even so.
It stands in contrast to most of the park gateway towns I’ve visited. There are no chain restaurants, garish signs trying to lure visitors into tourist traps, or impatient motorists cutting one another off and trying to run over pedestrians.
I sent a text message to my family the other day: “I think I just fell in love ...........with Apostle Islands.”
Apostle Islands became a national lakeshore in 1970. It’s not very well-known to the rest of the world. My Utah license plate stood out among plates mostly from Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. Most traffic here comes from not far away. City people from local states seeking some quiet, clean air, and watery adventure seem to comprise most of the crowd.
Madeline Island is not part of the lakeshore. It has houses and summer cottages all over it. But the other 21 islands are largely wilderness. Part of the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness. The islands are now recovering from years of logging that removed almost all the trees and quarrying of brownstone that left quarry pits behind. They’ve recovered well enough that there are occasional problems with bears in campsites.
I heard wolves howling two of the nights I was here.
I’m disappointed because in all the time I’ve been here, I haven’t yet heard the lonely and haunting call of a loon. Well, yes, I guess I did. On the visitor center desk is a toy loon with a note that says, “If there is no one at the desk, press me.” Rangers on duty said that being called by a loon is certainly better than one of those annoying dinger bells.
But somehow, that loon was a terribly poor substitute for the real thing. The park’s visitor center and headquarters building is one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen. Built of dark brownstone, a sandstone once quarried locally and on several of the islands, it’s a massive three story edifice set in the middle of a city block. Originally constructed in the 1880s, it first served as the court house for Bayfield County. Then the town of Washburn – larger than Bayfield – stole the county seat away and a new courthouse was constructed there.
The big building in Bayfield served many purposes after that. Among other things, it was a school, a gymnasium and community center, home for German prisoners of war during World War II, and finally renovated to become part of the NPS presence here.
Raspberry Island Lighthouse
Several boat companies offer trips to islands. There’s a ferry for vehicles to Madeline Island. I took advantage of an afternoon trip with Apostle Island Cruises and headed out for a tour of the lighthouse on Raspberry Island. Along the way, our boat docked for a few minutes at Oak Island where we dropped off a retired attorney, his wife and their canoe, and picked up a couple of families returning from their times on the island.
Sequestration has cut most of the rangers who traditionally rode along on many of the cruise boats. I was very lucky to have one named Fred Schlichting on my boat. Fred offered some interpretation along the way. But the real treat was waiting until we reached the island. There, he and ranger Jim Stowell split the group in two because space is limited inside the lightkeeper’s quarters and the light itself.
There is a $3 fee for the tour, courtesy of sequestration, and the money is collected on the lawn after climbing up from the boat dock. Visitors who were not going to tag along for the tour could spend their time on a short hike or could indulge in a game of croquette just as the lightkeepers and their guests may have done.
Raspberry Island is also home to the only old growth forests on these islands. It was not logged because it had been set aside as a reserve for lightkeepers who needed its resources for their firewood and provisions. We visited some outbuildings as Ranger Schlichting pointed out the changes that have taken place since the first light was put into operation in 1863.
Then, as our turn approached to enter the keeper’s house, he excused himself to go inside to see if the keeper himself was at home. A few minutes later a man came out the door wearing a lighthouse keeper’s uniform and greeted us. If you looked closely, you’d notice a strong resemblance between the keeper and ranger. It wasn’t long before we were transported back to 1923.
As we toured the house, we were treated to an entertaining and very informative story provided by the assistant keeper himself. The head keeper was away. He was getting married. (Just as the real keeper had done that summer in 1923.) As we left, I heard virtually everyone in the group commenting on what a great job Fred had done.
I’ve seen a lot of park service interpretation, and I’ll say without reservation that this was some of the best. Maybe the fact that he had just taken us through his own home had something to do with it. Y’see, rangers Stowell and Schlichting take turns living in part of the lightkeepers’ quarters all summer long.
Raspberry has the oldest of seven light stations on the islands – all replaced now by small automated beacons. Several of the light stations were undergoing some heavy duty maintenance this summer. But for Traveler readers who may be interested in a real adventure, you might try contacting Apostle Islands next spring to see if they need any volunteer light keepers.
Kayaks and Waves
This is country where every other car you pass has a canoe or kayak on top. So it simply wouldn’t be right to visit Apostle Islands without taking one of them out on the water. I partook of a full-day kayak expedition with Living Adventures. We dressed in wet suits, learned about spray skirts and PFDs, and headed off.
Although I’d been in a kayak only once – and in a swimming pool at that – it didn’t take long with their instructions to get the hang of it. These were tandem sea kayaks, and I shared mine with a retired teacher who had quite a bit of experience in single kayaks. The plan was to travel out to visit some of the sea caves for which the islands are justifiably famous.
But my usual luck doomed the entire group. A strong northwest wind had the big lake stirred up. (Remember, we are told: The lake is the boss!) I’m sure that even the most adventurous of us had no desire to try the waters of Gichigami that day. So we had to settle for an alternate trip into a place called Bark’s Slough. Kind of a mini wild sanctuary filled with water lilies, birds, and quiet beauty.
We did get a taste of the big waters in a bay that was somewhat sheltered by a peninsula and a visit to some smaller sea caves. Even in this more sheltered area, the big lake let us know who was really in charge. We fought our way through some waves that rose well above our craft, which suddenly seemed to be awfully frail. Impressive – but just about half the height of those out in unprotected waters. I never dared take my camera from its dry bag and so have no pictures to share.
After a pretty decent lunch, we fought our way back to the slough. I slept like a boulder that night.
Camping at Apostle Islands is a bit different. There are plenty of lodging places for visitors who don’t camp, but for those of us who drag trailers or tents along, some special tactics are necessary. When I called the park, I was told the only camping in the park is on outlying islands reachable by boat and then hiking. I called Recreation.gov and they had nothing to offer in the area.
When I consulted my handy, new and improved camping guidebook, I found only one where I could make a reservation. Just let me say that I hope none of you will make the same mistake I did and stay at the Ojibwe tribe’s Legendary Waters casino at Red Cliff. That’s all I’ll say about that. After one night there, I went scouting and discovered that there are plenty of public campgrounds. It seems that every town has one or two.
I wound up in an absolutely delightful place called Dalrymple. It’s owned by the city of Bayfield. Twenty dollars a night includes electricity and free firewood. It’s also definitely not for big rigs. Similar camps (but with facilities for bigger rigs) are maintained at Sand Point by the town of Russell and twelve miles south at Washburn two large and pleasant camps are waiting. Showers are available at the community center in Bayfield. Four dollars. Soap is provided, but take your own towel.
I didn’t have a chance to meet Apostle’s superintendent, Bob Krumenaker, but I came away with a good impression of him just the same. For one, when I mentioned him to a couple of rangers and a maintenance worker, their reactions and comments were very positive.
None of that hesitation you get when someone is wondering how to be diplomatic.
At Apostle Islands, I found the first open discussion of sequestration I’d seen in any park all summer. It was in the park’s newspaper. I’ll quote Supt. Krumenaker’s first paragraph: “It’s popular to talk about the ‘the government’ and blame it for a host of frustrations, inefficiencies, and evils in American society. But we don’t have ‘a’ government, we have many governments: local, tribal, state, and federal. It’s easy to forget that government – as Lincoln eloquently reminded us at Gettysburg, ‘of the people, by the people, [and] for the people’ – provides the roads, disaster relief, schools, and parks that people need and appreciate. Who does this? Civil servants who work for many agencies to fulfill mandates established by elected officials at every level.”
He goes on without histrionics or anger to forthrightly explain how sequestration has affected Apostle Islands . He tells us that park managers had very little flexibility within the law to reduce harmful impacts. He explains that at Apostle Islands, where visitors add more that $20.9 million to the local economy and support about 364 jobs, seasonal rangers have been cut from 14 to 7. That’s 50 percent for those who don’t have a calculator handy. Rangers on tour boats will be chopped by 85 percent and fuel for NPS boats has been reduced by 16 percent and may be cut even further if fuel costs increase. There’s a chance that campsites on islands may have to close early if toilet vaults fill because they’ve had to cut way back on use of the work boat that transports the truck that sucks the stuff up.
The superintendent warns that response by park boats to emergencies will suffer because of lack of fuel and rangers. In fact, while I was there, a man broke a leg on one of the islands and had to be rescued by a local – non-federal – search-and-rescue and ambulance service from one of the towns because an NPS response was not possible at the time.
Superintendent Krumenaker's article ends with: “I am very proud of the staff of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and we will do the very best we can to provide you with the quality park experience you deserve, despite the budget cuts. Please look for opportunities to say thanks to a park ranger or other park worker when you see good work. They will appreciate it in these tough times.”
So thanks, Bob and Fred and Jim and Amy and all the rest of you. Thanks for keeping Apostle Islands the great place it should be.