Sunday, August 19, 2018

Madeline Island

Rocky coastline of Madeline Island

The purported reason for my visit was to write and meditate. But the real reason was a childhood memory of visiting the island and finding pink stones on a rocky Lake Superior beach. I've kept one of these for nearly 60 years: a smooth hard stone the approximate size and shape of a cat’s femur bone.

I expected to swim in the clear, cold waters of the largest Great Lake, but had no idea the Madeline Island School of the Arts (MISA), which sponsored the writing/meditation retreat (led by Writing Down the Bones author Natalie Goldberg) would provide bicycles! I’d left my bike shorts behind in Minneapolis, but I didn’t let that stop me.

Ferry to the island

It is delightful to be in a place where they laugh when you ask about locks for the bikes. “You don’t need a lock here,” they tell us. “Just take any bike you find on the campus.” So I started with a bit of a Goldilocks adventure to find the bike that would work for me.

The first morning I took a bike whose seat I could lower to accommodate my short legs. Well, I’ve never been on a bike geared so low I could barely move – even on its highest gear. I felt like it took forever to ride the 1.5 miles into “town.” So, the next day I searched for a better ride. Many of the available bikes did not have seats that could be adjusted without tools and they were too high or too big for me to ride. Darn – the plight of the short person. I had to survey the campus beyond the bike racks, as people are free to just leave the bikes anywhere. I was rewarded with a blue Iron Horse bike on which I could adjust the seat and gears to my satisfaction. The front brakes were a bit past their prime, but it’s almost entirely flat on the island, with very little traffic so I didn’t worry about that. The Iron Horse was my daily companion the rest of the week.

Rocky point at Big Bay State Park

It’s about a 10-mile round-trip ride to Big Bay State Park from the school. The park offers both a rocky coast and long sandy beach, as well as wooded hiking trails and a boardwalk between the lake and a large lagoon. My first visit to the park I opted for the rocky cliffs, which distinguish the Apostle Islands. MadelineIsland is the largest, and only inhabited, of the 21 islands. I learned that the action of the Spring ice break-up in the bay accounts for their distinctive formations. For those who kayak, it is possible to explore a series of sea caves.  Some have large overhangs that require the paddler to lie down flat on the kayak to enter. I don’t trust myself on the waves of Lake Superior, so I chose to forego that adventure. But I did climb down the rocks and swim in the very clear, very clean, and – this year – not terribly cold water. Water temperatures are generally 50-60 degrees in summer, but this year, I'm told, closer to 70. Those more adventurous than I took a flying jump off the rocks into the water.

Beautiful clear water
I was delighted to see an old-fashioned pump in the park, reminding me of childhood visits to Northern Wisconsin. The water tasted just as fresh and clean as I remember from 60 years ago.

In Wisconsin they call the thing you drink from a bubbler
The island has both a Town Park (no entry fee) and a State Park with beautiful long, sandy beaches. On visits to both parks the water was shallow a good distance out, the waves were mild, and the swimming was glorious. On my last visit the water was choppier, but still much gentler than the ocean. For me, swimming in Lake Superior is the best of all worlds. I enjoy the waves, but appreciate that they are not as demanding as the ocean. The large body of fresh water doesn’t leave one sticky, like salt water, or icky, like smaller lakes. And, did I say how clean it was? Yes I did, but I can’t repeat enough how delightfully clean the water is. I never had the slightest trouble getting in and staying in as long as I wanted.

Inlet at the Town Park
The town park has an inlet in which the water is a deep reddish color. Asking whether it resulted from iron in the water I was told, no, it was tannin from the cedar bark. As I looked more closely I decided the color indeed looked much like my home brewed black tea kombucha!

State Park
On morning rides between breakfast and my morning workshop session I explored virtually every paved road on the island. The entire island is only 14 by 5 miles, but the northeast section is accessible only by gravel road, which I avoided on the bike. Riding toward the ferry and turning left my first morning, I passed Joni’s beach, a small sandy beach where I took my first swim. On another day I continued past a golf course on the left and a harbor filled with sailboats on the right. Past the golf course I ascended the largest hill on the island, after which I turned around and headed back to the campus.

On my last morning I rode toward the ferry and turned right, going to the Bay Road which traverses the northern part of the island, passing a recycling center and the very small island airport. Where the north road turns to gravel I turned right, making a loop back to the Middle Road, returning to the MISA campus.

The entire island is sacred ground to the Ojibwe or Anishinaabe Indians, nearly all of whom were driven from the island by waves of French and English fur trappers and then missionaries. A museum on the island is packed with items from the island’s history, but there is still much work to be done to restore better access and control to descendants of the island’s original inhabitants.

I learned many interesting facts about winter life on the island. While most of the population is made of summer-only residents, a hundred or so people brave the island year-round. The 2-mile distance from the mainland freezes over from about November to May. So what do the winter residents do? They drive across the ice – brave souls. The local tradition is that all families take their Christmas trees and lay them out on the ice to form the borders of a road. This road becomes the official highway, traveled by the school bus, public transit, and hardy Wisconsin residents. It gets plowed and sanded like any other road. When the thaw begins and the bay can’t be traversed by car or ferry there are some special slush-friendly vehicles. Transporting the school children is their first priority.

But I didn't have to worry about the ice, and didn't learn whether anyone is crazy enough to bike across in winter. We had glorious weather the entire week, generally mid to high 70s during the day and as low as mid 50s at night. In the early mornings a low mist hung over the grassy fields outside my cabin. One night I awoke at 3:30 and walked out to see the stars, which filled the sky and seemed to fall nearly down to the earth. I was rewarded with the sound of wolves howling – an eerie, haunting sound in the distant woods.

Morning mist and my trusty bike
Here are some other things I saw on Madeline Island: cattails, chicory, daylilies, Queen Anne’s lace, milkweed, and goldenrod; pine, birch, cedar, oak, and maple trees; Monarch butterflies; rocks, sand, waves, and clouds; boats, bicycles, and not too many cars; raspberries and apples growing wild; one deer, one snake, two cranes, many squirrels, ducks, and small birds.

Lots of cattails
Traveling to the northern United States, the summer is short but the days are long – the sky beginning to lighten at 5 am and not fully dark until after 9 – even in August, which is approaching the equinox. The only downside is that it’s a bit of a haul to get there. The nearest airport is Duluth – not a major airport – and close to 2 hours from Bayfield – the Wisconsin town from which the ferry departs to La Pointe on the island. But for clean water and air, easy biking and hiking, and glorious swimming in a refreshing lake – it can’t be beat.

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