We reprise our earlier visit to Bayfield and the Apostle Islands, home of some of the best boating on the planet, and we find a delightful new boating region in north-central Wisconsin. A long narrative of our adventures follows, wherein I talk about the boating, the towns, the travel, and the accommodations.
We are off on another trailer boating adventure, our second of four trips planned for this summer. Since giving up on live-aboard sailboat cruising, we've been taking advantage of the mobility of our small trailerable boat to visit a variety of boating destinations.
This trip is planned around one central event: being in Bayfield, Wisconsin, on July 12th for the opening night performance of The Keeper of the Light, a musical drama presented at Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua. This agenda also will take us to the Apostle Islands, home of the best combination of big-water and small-water boating possible on the planet.
As we are heading north early Friday, the weather is beautiful. The sky is a cerulean blue as we drive in light traffic. "It's ironic," I say to my wife Chris, "that the weather is so nice while we are driving. I hope it holds while we are boating."
As we approach the Mackinac Bridge, I announce to Chris my secret plan: I want to stop and launch the boat if the Strait is calm enough for us to make a quick run out and under the five-mile long Mighty Mac suspension bridge that connects the two peninsulas of our state. I've kept this quiet because I expect resistance from her, but, to my surprise, she seems quite agreeable to this diversion in our planned travel.
As we stop in Mackinaw City for gas, I am a little leary of the wind, which seems quite brisk from the northeast. I decide to defer our decision until we cross the bridge.
Driving across in single file because of road construction, even our 150 foot elevation above the waves cannot diminish their size. It looks like there is a good swell running under the bridge with whitecaps on most waves. Too much sea for us, I decide; we'll have to hold that trip under the bridge in abeyance. Once in the upper peninsula, we keep the boat on the trailer and the trailer on the highway. We head west on U.S. Route 2, the northern most of our federal highways, along the shore of Lake Michigan where, in the lee of that NE breeze, many people have stopped for a swim on the miles of sandy beach.
As we continue westward, the sky fills with clouds, the clouds blacken, and the temperature cools. Our boating weather is evaporating! By the time we reach Escanaba, about 4:30 p.m., thick clouds are rolling low overhead. We check into our motel, located between the highway and the lake.
Our first two nights will be spent along the western shore of Little Bay de Noc in a second-floor room at the Terrace Bay Inn. The door is marked "Non-smoking" but there are plenty of cigarette burns in the carpet. The walls are painted an institutional green, and the bathroom is illuminated with yellow tinted bulbs, producing strange colors in your reflection when you gaze into the mirror above the sink. The beds could be firmer, the television picture could be a little sharper, the La-Z-Boy chair could be actually comfortable to sit in, but for Escanaba--with or without "da moonlight"--the room will do. ["You're making it sound horrible," says Chris. "It's not that bad!"] The shower is great and we never run out of hot water. If we catch some fish, we've got our own "Fish Cleaning Room" down by the parking lot to fillete them. For the locals, the place functions as the Rainbow Room of the town. People have weddings there (as was happening that Saturday), and people come over for a nice meal overlooking the bay in the dining room or for a couple of drinks at the big, very dark bar, where maybe they're meeting someone they'd rather not be seen with downtown. The parking lot is huge and it fills up by 8 p.m. that night, so they are doing business. It is just that the whole big complex seems stuck in an early 1960's motif of dining, decoration, and accommodations. I guess it's the UP-factor. However, I don't want to give you the wrong impression. Based on the other spots in town we've seen, we are glad we are staying here, and the place does have one great redeeming feature: our room has a private balcony that overlooks the shoreline.
Little Bay de Noc
With two or three feet of Lake Michigan water missing this year, Little Bay de Noc is literally "little"-er than usual. The dredged but now too shallow channel of the Terrace Bay Inn's boat launching ramp penetrates the otherwise uncovered shoreline and marsh while a hazy overcast keeps the morning sun obscured.
Looking out across the Little Bay de Noc, with the gray clouds hanging overhead and the stretches of uncovered shoreline, I feel more like I'm in Nova Scotia at low tide than on an inlet of Lake Michigan. With the lake levels down near record low water, there is a lot more shoreline than usual to overlook. That line of reeds that grows along the shore has expanded into a real marsh, to the benefit of dozens of birds and ducks that have taken up home in it, all just a few feet from our balcony.
We leave the trailer in the parking lot, put the mooring cover on the boat to keep the rain out, and head off to explore Escanaba. The town has been the beneficiary of some notariety lately due to the success of the play Escanaba in da Moonlight and the filming of a movie version of the same name. By upper peninsula standards, Escanaba is the Detroit of the UP--maybe I'd better say the Chicago of the UP, as this far west the influence of the Motor City is quite modest in comparison to Chi-town.
Escanaba is a real little city. Unlike other, more eastern Upper Peninsula cities like Munising, it has stop lights--lots of them--and traffic. It even has a downtown, although by 6:00 p.m. on a Friday night it is pratically deserted. But we do observe a crowd of cars parked around our restaurant destination, Hereford & Hops Brewpub, located on the first floor of what appears to be an old hotel on the main street, just a block or two up from the lake. We stop in for dinner, sampling some of their brewed-on-the-premises Whitetail Ale and Cleary Red Lager, to go with a nice Fillet Mignon and salad. The decor is good, old photographs are on the walls, and the beer and beef are excellent. Prices are modest, too.
After dinner we drive down to the municipal marina and stroll the docks, looking at boats. Just about to depart is the 43-foot Nelson-Marek custom racing sailboat Midnight Express, its crew of younger guys loading mainly sailbags and not much else aboard for a long overnight trip eastward toward Mackinaw, and then on to Port Huron for the start of the Mackinaw Race. Not exactly comfortable cruising, but the boat is a pure racing machine with about a 10-foot draft and needs a crew of eight or nine minimum to go sailing--more for racing. There was a time when I would have liked to have gone with them, but now I'll settle for a cozy motel room and a warm shower in the morning.
We get back to the motel at dusk, in time to watch the last of the bird activity over the marsh from the balcony. There are dozens of birds out there, all hunting and flying and pecking around, making quite a ruckus with their calls, and it is fun to sit back and watch. We'll save boating for tomorrow.
On the TV set we get The Weather Channel, which warns of heavy rains just to the south and west of us. Flooding advisories are posted right in the area that we'll be heading on Sunday. Around here, all we expect is some rain overnight.
Little Bay de Noc
The lighted center channel fairway buoy flashing Morse-A on a foggy morning. At night we were drawn to it like Fitzgerald's Gatsby was to the occulting light on the end of Miss Daisy's dock.
The weekend dawns with rain and overcast sky, but The Weather Channel promises clearing in the afternoon. We wait it out until about 11:30 a.m., when we see on the local radar that the last line of showers has passed east of us. Although it is still gray overhead, it is not raining and probably won't for at least several hours. We hitch up the boat and head back along the highway a few miles to Gladstone, where we scouted out a nice launching ramp last night.
Our reconnaisance has prepared us to have handy eight quarters to insert into the automatic launch ticket dispenser. We back the Whaler into Lake Michigan in the shelter of the Gladstone harbor, and we're off on our first cruise. We stop immediately across the harbor at the office to take a peak at the chart for the area. There aren't any detached shoals out there, but the shoreline does come up fast in some parts, carrying only two foot depths out into the bay for as much as a half mile in spots, so we'll have to pay attention to where we are headed. The wind has switched 180-degrees to southwesterly, and there are some waves rolling up Little Bay de Noc from the lake. We cruise the far side of the bay (the eastern or lee side) first, going downwind, and then loop across and come back upwind in what we think will be the lee of the shore. It doesn't quite work out like that, as the wind has increased while we've been out, and even close to shore there is plenty of breeze. After about an hour cruise north of Gladstone, we return for a little break at the marina, another peak at the chart, then we're out again, this time heading south to Escanaba proper.
We make the four miles upwind to Escanaba without much of a problem, and in fact we get some brief rays of sunshine as we go. To the southwest it looks like blue sky is coming, but this is a deception. The entire day has been so "gray" that the solid wall of darker gray cloud that is approaching has fooled me into thinking it was fair weather on the horizon. It really is not, and, in fact, it looks worse than what we've been out in this afternoon. Several bolts of lightning streak the sky to the west. Well, we decide, it is time to leave. There is some interesting industrial waterfront full of old freighter and tugs that we'd like to explore but the threat of a big thunderstorm overcomes that curiosity. We run back to Gladstone at high speed, negotiating the following sea with no problem, and haul the boat. The only other boater using the ramp today returns, too. He saw the same lightning.
"Yeah," the local fisherman says, "when I see that lightning I figure it is time to get off the lake. I see you're smart boaters, too." Well, we're not that smart because by the time we get the boat hauled and tied down on the trailer, put the mooring cover on, stop for gas for the boat, drive back to the motel, disconnect the trailer, and block the wheels, the sun is back out and it looks better than it has all day! That's the way it goes sometimes. The rest of the afternoon is spent birdwatching from the balcony. The marsh is a great diversion for us.
All the way up here on the drive we've been listening to Garison Keillor tapes of Prairie Home Companion radio shows, and all this talk of Norwegians and Swedes and Scandinavians has turned our attention to a little restaurant in town, The Swedish Pantry. We head there for dinner, but amazingly it is closed on Saturday nights! Another chain restaurant fills in for dinner, then we take advantage of Escanaba's big-city status to see THE PERFECT STORM at the local cinema. It's my second time seeing the picture, and I enjoy it again. We've got some big water boating ahead, but we don't anticipate anything like those conditions.
The Weather Channel has become our most watched television program while traveling, and this morning it tells us the big rains have moved out from our area and fair weather is returning. We have been lucky because we're perched just north of all the really bad weather, which is now heading east and south towards lower Michigan. There is a strange kink in the jet stream which seems to be acting as our protector, deflecting all the low pressure systems coming from the west down to the south and below us. For today we are back to fair weather and rising temperatures. We're driving almost due west to a little chain of lakes in northern Wisconsin that Chris has picked out of the travel brochures and internet guides.
We head west, soon exiting Michigan as we cross the Menominee River and enter Wisconsin, traveling on two-lane roads with hardly any other traffic at all. Much of the route transits a National Forest. On the road shoulder we pass several recently killed deer, and one runs across the highway a hundred yards in front of us. We've made enough westing we have to set our watches back an hour to Central Daylight Savings Time.
We take a stretch from the highway at Eagle River, where we pull over and walk back to a boat dealer/marina where there's a Boston Whaler Montauk for sale. Sitting on a trailer facing the highway, it has caught our attention. Too bad it doesn't have the seller's attention--they have left the plug in the boat and its cockpit is filled with about 6 inches of water from the heavy rains of the past few days. Only marginally larger than out boat, we decide it's not the best bet for an upgrade for us.
Before noon we are pulling into Minocqua, a very nice little resort town built on an island in Lake Minocqua but connected by causeways and bridges to the shore so you really don't realize that you are on an island. Our next lodging looks inviting, the Island Cove Resort and Motel. We have another second floor room with a balcony overlooking the lake, and this time we can keep the boat at a little dock right at the resort. Lake Minocqua is not huge, 1,360-acres, but it connects to two other larger lakes, giving us plenty of water to explore.
Island Cove Resort
Make your reservations early and you can get a nice second floor motel room with balcony overlooking Lake Minocqua. You also get parking for your boat trailer and a nice dock on the lake. "People have been coming back for years," says the proprietress.
The weather is perfect for boating today, and this area has been under a deluge for the past two days. The locals have a lot of pent up boating to get in on the remaining day of their weekend, and the lake is filled with boats and boaters.
We locate the town ramp, which is free, and get the boat off the trailer. The ramp is nice, but they need to extend the No-Wake zone fifty feet farther so that it includes the launch area. The site is right at the end of a little narrows where passing boats are under No-Wake rules, but they all want to jump up on plane abreast of the launch area, sending their biggest wakes into the ramps.
"If you ever wondered where all those people with jet skis and bowriders go boating," I say to Chris, "this is where they go." But in spite of the heavy traffic, we're glade to get on the water ourselves. It's the third day of our vacation, and the ratio of miles-by-boat versus mile-by-car is looking quite low. We join the melee on the lake, taking one of our typical cruises, just idling along the shoreline looking at the homes and cottages, having a beer, enjoying being on the water.
By late afternoon we are back at Island Cove. These folks plan on most of their guests bringing a boat. They have about half a dozen piers, and they even have a separate boat trailer parking lot. They have accommodations in three sizes: separate cottages, room suites, and small single rooms like ours. The owners are very pleasant--they let us get in the room a couple hours before the posted check-in time--and they tell us, "People come back here year after year; you have to make reservations for the bigger rooms and cabins a long time in advance."
Town of Lake Minocqua
Lake Minocqua refers to itself as the island city. This aerial view shows how appropriate that is.
The town of Minocqua has that up-north resort feel to it, but still retains its authenticity. It doesn't look like it has been made over by yuppies trying to maximize the esthetics of the place, which we find is happening a bit too much in some of Michigan's northern resorts. They don't have to restore the original facade of the stores along the main street because no one ever covered them up. Minocqua is a result of natural evolution, and it has plenty of shops for the tourist to buy up-north mechandise, and some non-chain restaurants for them to have dinner. We like it.
Otto's Beer & Brat Garden, a local watering hole with a featured famous Bratwurst is our first choice, but they're out of their specialty sausage. I guess the weekend crowd has eaten them all. We decline their other offerings and head across the street to lakeside Minocqua Brewing Company, a brew pub with an award-winning special lager. They're out of that, too! Man, this town of Minocqua has some eaters and drinkers in it. We stay there for dinner, but we do pass on the fried cheese curds appetizer.
After dinner we take another slow cruise to the western connected waterway, Lake Kawaguesagua, where we see a young deer come down to the shoreline for a drink.
I am up early on Monday, enjoying my coffee on the balcony and looking at wispy little high cirrus clouds in an otherwise gourgeously blue sky. The weather will remain fair, and with the weekend over, we have the lakes to ourselves. I drag the six-gallon tank over to the gas station just behind us and top it off while Chris gets some fresh ice for the cooler. We get a mid-morning start on another cruise, this time heading for the larger Tomahawk Lake to the southeast. A two and a half mile narrows connects the two lakes, branching also into a third little lake, Mud Lake, which we leave unexplored.
This pretty little inland lake in northern Wisconsin was just made for small boats like our 15-foot Boston Whaler.
Tomahawk Lake is good-sized, 3,392-acres, and it a takes us three hours to cruise down to the extreme eastern end of the lake which adjoins a town by the inverted name of Lake Tomahawk. Leaving the boat at their municipal dock, we hike up into town, this one another prototypical off-the-main-highway little place with a couple of taverns, a grocery, a post office, and a boat-tackle-gift shop.
Then we are back in the boat and heading toward home, following the shoreline and admiring all the homes and cottages and keeping an eye out for other Boston Whaler boats. Our own boat is running perfectly, the old four-cylinder engine hasn't missed a beat the whole day. When we get back to Minocqua we stop at their municipal docks and walk up into town again, stopping in at a few shops that were closed yesterday (Sunday). When we finally get back to the resort, the TRIP LOG on the speedo says we've put 32 miles of clear fresh water under the keel today, almost all of it at slow cruise speed under beautiful blue skies. A peak into the gas tank we've been running on all day shows we've only used three gallons of gas--very economical!
For dinner we cannot resist a visit to Paul Bunyan's Northwoods Cook Shanty, a family-style, one-price, all-you-can-eat, come-as-you-are type of place. There is plenty to eat, but the best part is the wonderful collection of antiques hanging on the log cabin dinning room walls and suspended from the ceiling. They are worth the $11.95 price of admission themselves. The food is good, too. We share our table with three fellows from Germany; they're taking in a little of the "up-north" in Wisconsin, too, and enjoying it. There's not much conversation, as only one of them speaks English, but it is a friendly meal, none the less.
We hauled the boat yesterday and hitched the trailer up, too, so we are all primed to start the last leg of our journey to the real destination, Bayfield. All these other places have just been stops along the way. Bayfield, and the Apostle Islands, are our real objective.
The weather continues fair, with a big high pressure system right overhead. The temperatures are warm, but not hot; the summer so far has been a cool one. Highs today are forecast only for the seventies.
We roll right past Bayfield and our hotel, the Winfield Inn, where we know from past experience we won't be able to get into our room this early. Instead, we go directly to Little Sand Bay, where Russel Township has kindly constructed the northern-most boat launching ramp in Wisconsin. Located on the western side of a little point that must be about the northernmost point of the Wisconsin mainland, there is quite a bit of breeze rolling in from off the lake from the northeast. Another boater, a fellow in a small aluminum fishing boat, tells us the wave are quite small out there today, however, and we can go "anywhere you want in these conditions."
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
After three days getting here, it was good to see this sign, and to have it bathed in sunshine.
After 800 miles of driving, we are, of course, going out there. We'll see for ourselves how the winds and waves are really doing in this biggest and coldest of all the Great Lakes, Lake Superior.
Cruising out from the breakwater, we find very nice conditions in Little Sand Bay, but as we get out of the lee of York Island, the waves start to roll in, and there are white caps on the horizon. We stay fairly close to shore and head for Raspberry Island.
Fish Net Marker Buoy
The passages between many of the Apostle Islands are being fished daily by the Red Cliff Band Tribe. You have to keep an eye out for the buoys marking their nets, like this one southwest from Raspberry Island.
We visited Raspberry Island two years ago, but somehow our timing was bad and we missed the opportunity to take the tour of the lighthouse. This year we are in for better luck. We arrive just in time for the scheduled 1:00 p.m. tour, and we are the only visitors. "Not too many people have been coming out this year so far," the U.S. Park Service Ranger tells us. She is new to the job and the island park, but she is enjoying her duties as Raspberry Island Light keeper and tour guide. We get to climb all the way to the old light tower, but unfortunately the original Fresnel lens has been removed.
Low Water-High Dock
Water levels well below their mid-summer norm keep the larger boats away from the small docks. For the small boats, like ours, that can still come in, the low water makes the height of the dock's deck a bit of an obstacle.
After about 40 minutes in the light and the keeper's home, we head back down the steep red cliffs and get back in our boat. We're going to take advantage of the fair weather and moderate winds and seas to try to get out to Devils Island.
From Raspberry, we head east, around the sand spit shoal on the island's southeast end, and turn northward, into the wind. The ride is a little rough for our fifteen foot boat, but we make way into the wind and waves, heading for Bear Island, about two miles to the north.
Crossing over to Bear Island just at a slow planing speed, we are pounding a little but able to tolerate the jolts, as we are somewhat sheltered from the full breeze by the considerable size of Bear Island itself. Rounding its southern end to the eastern side, we again hit the full fetch of the wind, blowing now about 15 knots and coming unobstructed for hundreds of miles. It is getting too rough to remain on plane, so we have to slow to about five miles per hour, and we work our way slowly to the north.
Devils Island is in view, but it is about four miles further north. The ride is just not comfortable, and we are forced to turn back. We ride downwind on the waves, and duck behind the southern end of Bear Island and into its shelter. The seas are calm again, and we circle northward again, this time on along the western shore of Bear Island and in calmer water. We gain about two miles northward, until we reach the tip of Bear again, where we face for a second time the rougher waves.
This time the open water to Devils Island does not look as great, and we press on. "Let's give it a try," I urge to Chris, who is sitting more forward than me and subject to greater pounding in the waves. Instead of heading right for the island and directly into the waves, we fall off the breeze a bit and take them on our starboard bow, finding an angle that gives a more comfortable ride and allows us to increase our speed somewhat. Soon, we are halfway across, and it looks like we might be able to make it. We keep working our way to the west, staying in the lee of Devils Island itself now, until we end up approaching it from almost due west.
There are two visible structures on the island: at the extreme north end there is the light, and at the extreme south end we can see a small white building. The south end is closer, so we head for that. The building turns out to be an old boat house, built inside the calm of a small harbor formed by two big breakwaters. We duck inside the little harbor, and find two other boats already moored there.
Devils Island Harbor
On the extreme southern end of the island a small boat harbor has been built behind a breakwall of huge bolders. The white boat house kept the keeper's boat out of the weather.
One of the boats is, amazingly, a big pontoon boat, perhaps 25 feet in length, while the other boat is a similarly-sized small cruiser, with someone left aboard to keep watch. The woman watchstander tells us her companions "have all hiked off to the light and back," which is about a two and a half mile journey (round trip) from here. She expects them back in a few minutes, and if we want to wait, we can tie up at the dock where they are, as it is much easier to get ashore there due to the lower height of the deck. (The low water has made the other dock an obstacle about six feet in the air.)
Just then the other occupants of the mini-cruiser return, and they cast off moments later, leaving us with a great spot on the eastern dock to tie up. "Thanks very much," yells Chris to them, "we are very glad to be here and out of the waves. We had a rough trip coming over."
"We did, too," they reply! I guess it is all relative.
We've been on the boat for about an hour and the prospect of a walk sounds good, so we strike out overland for the lighthouse on the opposite end of the mile-and-a-quarter long island. The path leads immediately into the woods and uphill, turning into a dark canopied track through the forest, which is growing on a few inches of topsoil on this otherwise rock island. After a long gentle climb, we break out of the forest for a few hundred yards and cross a wet bog, our path sometimes submerging below the water table and turning into dark, gooey mud.
Devils Island Trail
This mile and a quarter trail connects the harbor on the southern end with the light on the northern end. The canopied walk through the damp woods was amazingly free of flies. The keeper told us that some summers the flies on the island are so bad he is forced to wear bee-keepers clothing to survive, and people who take this trail emerge badly bitten. We were lucky, as even the mosquitoes left us undigested.
Once across the bog, we are back in the woods and uphill again. The sun is well into the west by this time of the afternoon, and the trail is bathed in sunlight ahead. In silhouette I see a glimpse of a good-sized animal running across the trail about 150 feet ahead. "DId you see that," I ask Chris. No, she didn't, unfortunately. "An animal ran across the trail ahead there," I tell her.
"How big was it," she asks.
"About the size of [our dog] Chloe, maybe fifty pounds," I tell her.
"Bear cub," says Chris. We stop in our tracks. What to do? Well, I guess in my heart of hearts I didn't think it was a bear cub, because for some reason we continue on. We get to the spot about where the animal ran across, and it is obvious there is a little clearing there and another path crosses the one we are on at right angles. No sign of Moma Bear, so we continue north to the lighthouse.
The long trek through the woods finally ends, and we break out into sunshine at the northern end of Devils Island. We explore the grounds of the lighthouse, but we don't see anyone. Have we walked all this way only to miss the tour again? We holler a few "H-e-l-l-o's" to try to find someone.
The newest of the Apostle Island lights, Devils Island Light is also the strongest, reaching 18 miles into Lake Superior from its lofty tower on the north cliffs of the island. This is as far north in Wisconsin as you can go.
We let ourselves in to the main keeper's house, sign the guest register, and browse the exhibit there. Just then, the light keeper comes in to greet us. "I though I heard someone," he says. Great! We are glad to meet him, and he offers us a tour. We are only the third group to come out today, he explains.
Devils Island Northern Cliffs
Devils Island resists the pounding waves of Lake Superior with these red sandstone cliffs, carved by eons of wave action into a labyrinth of caves. The lightkeeper said he had often seen waves of sufficient height to break over the tops of the cliffs, i.e., waves of twenty feet or greater.
Of course, like moths we are drawn to the light, so we strike off for the big iron tower. Our guide unlocks the door at the base, and we climb eighty feet up the circular stairs to just below the light. A NOAA weather station sits on the landing, collecting wind data and transmitting it via satellite to meteorologists who eventually post it on the internet. The big aluminum box of electronics sits where the clockworks used to be. The clockworks' gears turned the light and its shutter, producing the carefully timed flashing seen from the lake. Power to turn the gears came from gravity and descending weights, like the pendulum weights on a grandfather clock. The keeper had to ascend here every two hours to haul the weights back to the top of the tower, storing his energy in them for the next cycle of rotation.
From here, we climb a steep ladder to the light itself. Again, we are amazed that the government continues to permit access to these hard to reach places. I guess they must figure that if a visitor has enough motivation to come ten miles or more across Lake Superior to Devils Island, they shouldn't be denied the last few feet of access to the light itself. Up we go.
The three of us crowd into the light enclosure. The nineteenth-century Fresnel lens sits like a jewel atop the tall tower, overlooking Lake Superior which spreads panoramically across almost the entire horizon, nothing but open water for hundreds of miles in all compass directions from West to North to East.
"This lens," says our guide, "like all Fresnel lenses, was cast from the sand of a particular beach in France which produced excellent lens glass that has this distinctive green tint." It is a beautiful and huge structure, the ingenious work of a French inventor who died before his unorthodox array of light-bending lenses became a sentinel on every headland on every ocean. The lens consists of hundreds of smaller segments, mounted precisely in a brass frame, forming a tall polygonic cylinder. In spite of its weight, which must be a ton or more, it turns easily. It almost fills the entire diameter of the cupola, leaving just enough room for us to marvel at it from close up.
"The lamp was lighted from oil, and the keeper had to carefully tune the flame and draft controls to maximize light and minimize soot," our docent explains. "The windows of the light had to be cleaned, both inside and outside," he continues, "because the swirling winds around the tower often acted to bring the exhaust soot right back on the outside windows."
Even in daylight and relatively light winds, I am a little timid about venturing outside to the railed walkway that surrounds the light. Chris will have no part of it! She stays in. Built two centuries previous, the iron of the structure has withstood the winds of the big lake for over 120 years.
Although the lake, the island, the tower, and the grounds are all beautiful, it is the lens that dominates your interest. You can not help but bend to look through its thick glass, to touch its still bright brass, to spin it slowly around, to try to comprehend its refractory physics.
"This lens must be worth a fortune," I offer to our guide, "perhaps a million dollars or more." But my estimate is low.
"A Fresnel lens in private hands--one much smaller than this--was recently auctioned," he tells us, "and it brought three million dollars to the seller."
We stand in awe before our priceless treasure, again astounded by its beauty and by the fact that we can come so close to it.
The lens is in almost perfect condition, but it has suffered some unnecessary damage. We learn of the bizarre events of the 1990's, when the U.S. Coast Guard decided that the lens must be removed from the tower for safekeeping. They dismantled and lowered it, piece by piece, but in the process cracked some of the old green glass. A political battle for control ensued, but in the end the State of Wisconsin prevailed, and the lens was returned to Devils Island and reinstalled in the tower where we stand today.
Devils Island Light
Cast from the sand of a French beach two centuries ago, the greenish glass was carefully cleaned by the lightkeeper every two hours to remove soot from the flame of the oil-burning lamp that illuminated it.
The Lightkeeper Wonders The light I've tended for 40 years is now to be run by a set of gears, The Keeper said. And it isn't nice To be put ashore by a mere device. Now fair or foul the winds that blow Or smooth or rough the seas below, It is all the same. The ships at night will run to an automatic light. That clock and gears which truly turn Are timed and set so the light shall burn. But did ever an automatic thing set plants about in early Spring? Or did ever a bit of wire or gear A cry for help in the darkness hear? Or welcome callers and show them through The lighthouse rooms as I used to do? 'Tis not in malice these things I say All men must bow to the newer way. But it's strange for a lighthouse man like me After forty years on shore to be. And I wonder now ---will the grass stay green? Will the brass stay bright and the windows clean? And will ever that automatic thing Plant marigolds in early Spring? Edgar Guest
After many minutes at the peak, we descend the tower to the base, and complete the tour of the lighthouse facilities. It is getting late in the afternoon, and we begin to think of the long ride back to mainland Wisconsin which lies ahead. As we thank our host for the tour he's given us, we discover that he is a volunteer! He lives at the island all summer, an unpaid member of the National Park Service, and provides outstanding tours like the one we've just taken. We express our special appreciation for his efforts.
Park Service Volunteer
Despite living alone on the island all summer, National Park Service volunteer Michael Armstrong still maintains a sharp crease in his shirt. His solitary lightkeeping keeps these lonely grounds open to the handful of visitors that make the trek out on days when the weather permits.
Before we head back down the trail, there is the question of the bear cub. "Do you have any bears on this island," I ask. No, he replies, and as I explain what we saw he concludes we probably glimpsed a very large hare, which inhabit the island in large number. Relived of the threat of brown bears, we take the mainly downhill mile and a quarter jaunt back to the boat.
Warmed from the land and the walk, we are glad for the cool breeze of the lake. We cast off and cruise around the island, now basking in the reddening light of the westward setting sun which illuminates the red sandstone cliffs and caves. The wind has obligingly decreased, and the seas are down a bit from this afternoon's height, but they are still too tall for us to venture inshore really close to the caves. We enjoy the view from fifty yards off, content to remain in deep water. We have about 15 miles to run back to our launching point, and we would not like to ding our propellor at this point in the journey.
Our circuit of Devils Island complete, we get the Boston Whaler up on plane and head directly for Little Sand Bay, running downwind with a nice following sea. In about 45 minutes we are back to the ramp, and shortly afterward back on the highway.
Our room at the Winfield Inn is our next destination. This year we again have a second-storey room with a balconey, but now we have one of the new "remodeled" rooms. It is just a perfect accommodation, the bed, the bath, the balcony all exactly as we would like them. We will have a grand three night's stay in Bayfield.
After unpacking, a shower, and a change of clothes, we are ready for dinner. On advice we got from the lightkeeper, we are bound for Maggie's, a nice bar and restaurant in Bayfield not far from the docks. It is a popular place, and we have to wait about 35 minutes to get seated. While waiting on the awning-covered porch, we discover a new favorite beer, Lienenkugel's Original, a flavor not exported much beyond Wisconsin by the brewery, but very good. My Fajitas dinner is equally excellent.
We have had a big day--driving, launching, boating, new room, etc.--so we have no problem getting to sleep tonight. The cool northern evening air makes for perfect sleeping weather.
Our fair weather pattern runs out today, and we awake to cloudy skies and some light rain in the region. This forces us to stay ashore for the morning, but around noon the last of the precipitation has moved to our east on the local radar, and we haul the boat down to the ramp in Bayfield for more boating.
The wind has moved to the SE, but it is light. The old swell from the NE still is rolling in off the lake. We head over to Madeline Island, where we first explore the yacht harbor and are treated to a half-hour of sunshine. Soon the clouds take over again, and we head eastward, around the big shoal at the SE end of the island. It is a good thing we only need about two feet of water to navigate, because that is all there is there behind the big buoy, over a half mile offshore. We get across the shoal even though we have cut the corner and turned inside the marker. It is a long haul to the northeast up the coast of Madeline Island. The skies are getting darker, and we are getting a little weary of the winds and waves, being now into our sixth consecutive day of boating. By the time we are ready to abort the circumnaviation of Madeline Is., we are just about halfway around, so we decide, like Lady MacBeth, "that to return would be as tedious as to crossover", and we continue north and round the tip.
The sky is really starting to get ugly--which matches our mood at the moment. There is an upper limit to how long you can sit in a thwart seat of a small boat and not get crabby; we are approaching it. A couple of lightning flashes on the western horizon give us the incentive to make a run for Bayfield. Of course, by the time we get back and haul the boat, the clouds have passed and we are standing, sweating, in warm sunshine in the parking lot tightening up the trailer tie-downs.
After another dinner at Maggie's, we are off for our big event, the opening night of "The Keeper of the Light" at Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua.
The show is wonderful, and we are especially drawn into it after our visit to Devils Island and Raspberry Island lights yesterday. The cast is good, and Jan Lee steals the show with her performance as The Woman in Scene III. And we have been very lucky, again. The old blue tent of the Big Top was destroyed in a fire just a few weeks ago, and everyone has been working overtime to get the new tent up and reset the stage and lighting equipment for tonight's opening. We are very glad they made it. If you are in Bayfield in the summer, be sure to visit the Big Top Chautauqua.
Thursday dawns with fair weather again, but a good breeze from the west. Boating in the Apostles is very versatile: you can pick a destination that matches the winds and waves. Today we'll stay in the lee of the Wisconsin shore and head south from Bayfield along the coast toward Wasburn. Those twenty-knot westerlies will be blowing right over our heads.
Just a mile or so south of the harbor, the shoreline scenery is beautiful, consisting of the same red sandstone bluffs we saw offshore, and only an occassional dock intruding on nature. Many people have homes on the bluffs above the lake, but in some spots these homeowners have no access to the water because of the steepness of the bluff. With the wind from the west, the water is flat calm and we can approach closer than ever before to the shore.
After about two hours of slow cruising, we stop in Washburn's municipal marina for a break. Chris spots a nice Boston Whaler Revenge-22 for sale, and we get permission to go aboard and check it out. We like the layout, but this boat has been used in charter fishing, so Chris scratches it off the eligibility list.
Next, we're back on the water and going north on plane, beyond Bayfield, to explore Schooner Bay. We've seen it on the chart, but never driven down there. When we do arrive, the low water levels have made entering the breakwall a bit tricky. The launching ramp shown on the chart does not seem to there, so we wouldn't recommend it for trailer boaters.
On the way back to Bayfield we cruise through the Red Cliff Indian-run marina at Buffalo Bay. They have a nice ramp there, and slips for transient boaters. There is also a campground on shore.
Finally, we are back at the Bayfield lauching ramp, loading the boat on the trailer in the renewed warmth of summer. While we sweat, a woman with a clipboard approaches us. "Did you do any fishing," she asks. We tell her no, we're just boaters, not fishermen. She has more questions for us: where are we from; how long were we here. A little annoyed with the impromptu interview, I ask her who she is. "Oh," she says, "I am the fish clerk." It's her job to collect such minutiae at the ramp.
For dinner we try MaMa Gets, a bar and grill just up the main street from the harbor. They don't have air-conditioning--and you can't fault them as it's only needed maybe two weeks out of the year--so it is a little warm in there. We just have a beer and an appetizer; it is too hot for a meal, although their menu had some ambitious offerings.
After dinner, while Chris visits some gift shops, I stick my head into Morty's, another establishment, and find an old fashioned, dark, smokey bar, with a gang of workmen having their fourth round of Budwisers after a hard day building someone's luxury summer home on a bluff. A fun place, but maybe not your first choice for dinner. Back on the sidewalk, we wind down to the docks and piers, looking at other people's boats, and slowing bringing our visit to Bayfield to an end.
Sunny weather is back for our drive to the south, headed for Lake Wisconsin, a small lake along the Wisconsin River. This turns out to be the worst little piece of brown back-water we've ever seen. We don't even think about taking the boat off the trailer, as a stiff westerly has whipped the muddy water into beige-caps and the channel to the launching ramp is bordered with old tree stumps. I guess people love water so much that, deprived of a better alternative, they'll put their boats into this stuff. Hell, we even see some people putting themselves into it. After three glorious days on cold and clear Lake Superior, this is not our cup of tea.
Our motel is downwind of the trash bin for a lakeside honky-tonk, and the garbage collectors must be on strike. The smell is unreal. Eating there is out of the question. If you ever go here, remember I tried to warn you.
All that's left is to get up early and drive home, going around the bottom of Lake Michigan, skirting Chicago, and into Indiana, then north and east to Michigan. A few road repairs slow us down, but we rumble through the heartland of America's interstates without too much delay.
Frustrated a bit from being deprived of our last day of boating, we begin the long drive home. To help entertain us as we go, we listen to a wonderful retrospective of the 1996-1997 Vendi-Globe Around the World Race. We always try to have a nautical book-on-tape, and this one is an excellent story.
Even driving relatively slowly (65 MPH) with the load of our trailer behind
us, we can't quite finish the book while in route, so we hear the end of
Derek Lundy's story as we relax at home that evening.
The 2000 Boating Trip Boat........"ContinuousWave", 1976 15-ft Boston Whaler Sport Motor.......Merc500, 1976 50 HP 4-cyclinder 2-stroke outboard Trailer.....Shorelandr SS-16, 1988, single axle, no brakes Tow Car.....Ford CROWN VICTORIA, 1993, 4.6L OHC V-8 Crew..........Jim, Chris Duration......9 days Dates.........July 7 - July 15, 2000 Destinations..Escanaba, Lake Minocqua, Bayfield, Okee CAR GAS LOG (Towing Trailer) Running DATE LOCATION GALS PRICE COST TRIP MILES MPG MPG COMMENTS _______________________________________________________________________________________ 7/7/00 Mackinaw 15.292 1.929 29.50 280.6 280.6 18.35 18.35 Hwy 7/8/00 Gladstone 9.942 1.699 16.89 451.8 171.2 17.22 17.90 Hwy 7/11/00 Hurley 16.01 1.699 27.20 699.0 247.1 15.43 15.43 Short hauls 7/14/00 Bayfield 10.744 1.599 17.18 820.0 121.0 11.26 15.77 Short hauls 7/14/00 Portage 5.009 1.539 7.70 1112.3 292.3 *** *** Not full 7/15/00 Lodi 15.331 1.399 21.45 1140.3 28.0 *** 15.76 Full now 7/15/00 Sawyer 13.186 1.659 21.88 1392.9 252.6 17.77 16.11 Hwy 7/16/00 Southfield 11.173 1.799 20.10 1616.1 204.1 18.27 16.35 Hwy _______________________________________________________________________________________ TOTALS 98.797 $166.01 1616.0 AVERAGES $1.68 16.36
Copyright © July, 2000 by James W. Hebert.
This article first appeared September, 2000.
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