August 29, 2020
He slid his mask down with deliberate care. He raised his nose, that wonderful chiseled nose of his, into the air. Breathing deeply, he looked to me to follow suit.
While I could not imagine anyone would be horribly upset or openly hostile with the removal of a mask, we both revered the firm enforcement of the practice in this tourist town. With recent news of cousins and nephews who have contracted COVID-19, the virus feels particularly close to home. Since arriving, we see no one questioning the necessit.y of mask wearing. If you were not wearing it properly, someone would gently and firmly remind you. And depending upon the shop, they might even politely request a squirt of hand sanitizer. With the influx of visitors, I could not blame them. Some shops were not open altogether.
Others had opened, but would move their merchandise from inside to outside on boulevards or front courtyards. Nothing was quite the status quo.
The tour boat carried half its capacity of passenegers. We had arrived in Bayfield Wednesday mid-afternoon. Our original thinking was that we would reserve an island boat tour for Friday. We quickly changed our mind when the ticket office suggested an evening tour.
The day’s temperatures exceeded seasonably warm. I had expected that as we approached Lake Superior, the weather would get cooler. And just as the rest of the trip would prove to me, my expectations and preconceptions were miles from reality! The temperature had risen five degrees to the mid eighties. It was summer indeed.
I had never been to this area of Wisconsin before. That bothered me. Three and a half hours away and I had never ventured here, to the Apostle Islands and Bayfield. Never studied its history. Nothing. How is that possible? That question formed the foundation of my mindset.
It had been at least a decade since taking my son to see Lake Superior and many decades since I had visited Lake Superior in the summertime. Through wood-lined highways and forest-lined freeways, we drove the three and half hours, talking for a majority of the time. Time. My son had taken the time to go on a family vacation.
On the evening tour boat, passengers could choose between decks. We stayed atop. The early evening air was still hot. We had been warned that once we reached the open water beyond the bay, temperatures would drop fifteen degrees. I found that plausible but slightly impossible given the pervasiveness of the day’s heat. We begrudgingly packed a backpack with sweatshirts. We changed from our traveling clothes into blue jeans.
Overdressed and incredibly sweaty, we stayed on the top deck. Most of the passengers must have had the same idea. There we all were, sticky, uncomfortable and masked.
The Archipelago is a sixty foot catamaran, a two hulled passenger ship. The double decking sits atop the two hulls. Incredibly stable and incredibly speedy, at least to my estimation. Rarely did we feel the top speed of thirty miles per hour. Gently we wove between islands, with the captain’s narration of history of long ago. He himself a native of the area explained how fur traders and settlers arrived. A furniture company had lain claim to one island’s timber. Millionaires had built and rebuilt family compounds, also laying claim to island parcels. Their paradises became abandoned when their young wives did not share such visions of up north island life.
We turned further out.
The stories changed to tales of lighthouses. One had been built then rebuilt after it was discovered that the construction company had built it on the incorrect island. Another was built too short. It’s replacement was a transplanted lighthouse from Pennsylvania.
The stories included tales of one particular island whose brownstone shelves were adapted for the Coast Guard’s resupply boats. Its island was named in reverence to the sound of wind and waves rushing through the hollowed caves on the northmost side of the island.
Still, the air was warm. The sun bounced brightly and gaily off the rippling waters. We passed Bear Island. The captain warned, as we were heading out to the open waters of Lake Superior, we might feel the rocking motion of the catamaran. We would ride the swells.
The Archipelago turned. We were turning back. A smaller touring boat had experienced transmission failure and was in the exact spot which proved to be void of cell phone coverage. Theirs was a boat no larger than a good sized, twenty-foot fishing charter. Six passengers, including children, needed to be transferred to our Archipelago. Their captain would remain aboard the charter.
They carefully stepped and slid from one vessel to the other. Within minutes we were again our way,
The captain again announced that we were resuming our course to the open waters. On queue, the boat softly rocked.
“Hello,” the lake seemed to beckon. The ship’s top tier quieted but I am not sure that it was only my imagination. As we met the lake, the sky softened from clear blue to an enveloping grey in the haloed light of the setting sun. As we headed out, the waves softened in its grey powerful rippling swells.
As the temperature dropped, passengers retreated to the lower deck’s cabin. We stayed. We chuckled. And we put on our sweatshirts.
As the Archipelago rode the swells, the lake winds would peck at our cheeks with its spray.
We dropped our masks in unison, breathing deeply. We breathed in again.
”It’s different, isn’t it?”
We nodded at each other, smiled, then replaced the masks upon our noses. The air had travelled across a great, grey lake. Full of particles, recycled bits of glaciers and history, filtered through sprays and swells, then doused by storms and sunshine. Like the purest guttural smells of morning coffee outside a camping tent or midnight skies electrified with lightning surges or my grandmother’s Sunday kitchen, so too was Lake Superior’s grey filtering of fresh air.
Although I loved the carved stone shelves, the lighthouses and the eagles, the most memorable sight was the grey of Lake Superior. The most memorable moment was the breath of my son, his nose savoring the wind’s gift.
Filtered, just beyond the brownstone cliffs of Devil’s Island.
The Center of the Universe.
Madeline Island is sixteen miles from tip to furthest tip. Along the roads are forests, shops, the island’s school of arts, state parks, marinas and museums.
We rented mopeds for the entire day; a day which stretched into nine hours of mopedding alongside the lake, through parks and amid pretty, extended scrub oak trees.
At Big Bay State Park, the lookout point noses into Lake Superior waters over submerged shelves of rock formations. People come; they go. A middle-aged couple reads at the only picnic table. My son decides to nap on a flattened rock. I rest my head on the curve of a rock memorial bench. No one cares that we are there. The couple’s dog never stirs. And for what seems like an hour, I listen to the large lake gently lapping at the shoreline rock below.
Our family gathered on the beach. People swam. They trekked through the boardwalked bogs. I found a stretch of beach with a perfect half-covered driftwood trunk. It was as if the lake itself called me again to rest awhile.
Dolls, eagle feathers, birch bark and strips of clothing hung on the painted iron fence of the cemetery. The historic cemetery was tucked into a strip of land between waterfront homes, the golf course and a marina. And while the placement of the other properties might seem irreverent, for some reason none of it was. The quiet resting place was dotted with small houses made from wood, now greyed with decades upon decades of snow, sunshine and storms. The First Nation people here, the Anishinaabe, had adopted the settlers’ notions of building homes. They decided to build them over the graves.
We could not explore past the fence, but a person here too needed to pause and breath. Pray. This place was more than just a piece of the island. It was the island. Minature American flags wove over a few of the resting places – at least the ones that might be reached from my side of the fence. A seven foot cross stood in the middle. Scrub oak, pines and small fruit trees shaded the grounds. The lake stood watch over the opposite side. Symbols of so many cultures hung from the spires of the iron fence, gifting the spirits which rested there – the feathers, the beads, the natural toys, rocks, coins, and now, my faux pearl earrings.
I don’t know how many times I have taken a picture of myself with windbown hair draped across my face.
But I could not shake the feeling of the island, of a place which the Ojibwe consider the center of their universe. Centuries ago they had settled in several spots along the rivers and shorelines of the Great Lakes until arriving at Madeline Island or Mooningkanewaaning. From what I have read it was so named for the golden-breasted flicker which resided there. They hunted, trapped, fished, farmed, and gathered the wild berries which the lake and the island gave them. I had been drawn here for many reasons, but one was the idea that a culture – an entire culture – had declared this island to be the center of their spiritual world.
Upon those beaches’ sands and upon those brownstone cliffs, alongside Lake Superior waves, my son and I slept.
Mooningwanekaaning. The island of the golden-breasted flicker.
Much love and a kiss to boot!