Not all my ‘cations are Ladycations. Though I love getting away with my ladies, I also love getting away with my kids, and my favorite place to take them is to my childhood home on an island in northern Wisconsin (yes, Wisconsin has islands).
Madeline Island is a small island in Lake Superior. It is the largest, and only of the Apostle Islands that is inhabited year round. It’s 14 miles long and 3 miles wide respectively, and has a permanent, winter population of 302. That number swells to 1500 when the “Summer People” arrive.
The Island has a rich history going back to its first settlers: the Lake Superior Chippewa, a band of the Ojibwe people. According to legend, the Gitche Manitou, or “Great Spirit,” told them to go west until they found the place where “food grows on the water.” They traveled west along the south shore of what we now know as Lake Superior until they came to the wild rice growing in the marshes along the lake shore near Chequamegon Bay. They eventually found, and settled on the island, naming it Mooningwanekaaning, meaning, “Place of the Golden-Breasted Flicker Woodpecker.”
In the 1600’s French fur traders established one of the first colonial settlements in the region, that quickly became one of its most important trading outposts, and later the island’s town of La Pointe. Because most men worked outdoors during that time, beaver skins, which are waterproof, were a hot commodity. Native Americans would trade them for things like knives, blankets, and other goods with European fur traders.
With such lucrative fur trade, of course, came more white people, anxious to trade with the Ojibwe. This time they were British. A rivalry between the French and British, both vying for control of the fur trading industry, came to a head in the 1660’s during the Seven Years’ War, ultimately resulting in the French relinquishing all their territories east of the Mississippi to the British, including Madeline Island, and the town of La Pointe. No one seems to have asked the Indigenous Islanders’ opinions on the matter.
After the War of 1812, control of the fur trade was gained by the American Fur Company, founded by John Jacob Astor, in 1808. If that name sounds familiar, it’s either because you’re a reasonably well informed history buff, or you watched the movie Titanic. Indeed, Mr. Astor’s great-grandson and namesake perished aboard the vessel when it struck an iceberg a century later. You may remember hearing he was the richest man aboard Titanic. That fortune began with his great-grandfather’s fur trading company, making him the first multi-millionaire in the United States.
As tends to happen when white people “discover” land and encounter its native population, missionaries weren’t far behind the traders. Jesuit priests were the first to arrive and establish a mission to the Ojibwe. That first Catholic church no longer stands, but on the site where it once stood remains the “Indian Cemetery,” a misleading name for this burial ground given its origin in Catholicism, and the fact that both Native Americans and white settlers alike are buried there.
Among the cemetery’s Indigenous inhabitants is The Island’s namesake, Madeline Equasayway Cadotte, daughter of Chief White Crane. Madeline married Michel Cadotte, the son of a French-Canadian father, and Ojibwe mother. His marriage to Madeline helped him become the lead trader in the area. Another notable figure in the cemetery is Chief Buffalo, or Kechewaishke. The Lake Superior Chippewa’s Chief for the first half of the 19th Century, Chief Buffalo was instrumental in securing land for his people by resisting the US government’s attempts to push them westward, signing treaties that granted them permanent land in the area. The reservations at Red Rock and Bad River are still home to many Lake Superior Chippewa today.
Though few Ojibwe still live on the island year-round, it is sacred ground, and Native American culture is still very much a presence on Madeline. From the Ojibwe translations on the town’s signage, to the ceremonies still held on the sacred lands, Mooningwanekaaning honors its history as the Lake Superior Chippewa’s spiritual center.
The second church built on Madeline was a protestant mission in 1832. “The Old Mission” was built on land that now houses the La Pointe Post Office. In 1925 a new church was built a short distance down Main Street, St. John’s United Church of Christ.
It’s that church that brought my family to Madeline Island in the late 1980’s. My dad was an out-of-work pastor who ran a non-profit organization in nearby Duluth, Minnesota. “The Anchorage” ministered to the working people of the city’s downtown area, providing counseling services, fellowship, and Bible studies. It was through this ministry that a member of one of his Bible studies suggested he talk to the church council at St. John’s.
Before too long our family was loading up our minivan and driving 90 miles every weekend to my dad’s new parish on Madeline Island. It was supposed to be a summer gig. The church was in the process of looking for a permanent pastor, one that would be a full time resident on the island. We thought it would be a few months in the summer and then we’d be back to business as usual in Duluth.
What started out as a summer job turned into a fall job, then a winter job, then a spring job, then another summer. While the church council sought a full time, permanent pastor willing to move his family to this tiny and, in the winter, somewhat isolated community, our family was falling in love. Our parents were making cherished, lifetime friendships, while us kids spent our summers swimming in Lake Superior’s crystal clear (albeit freezing cold) waters, eating pizza and ice cream at Grampa Tony’s, and riding our bikes all over the island. In the winter we would go sledding, build snow-forts, and cross country ski across the lake. My siblings and I all agree, our time on Madeline Island afforded us the most idyllic childhood imaginable.
When St. John’s found a full time pastor we were devastated. Though we’d known this was always the plan, Madeline Island had woven its way into our hearts. It had become a part of us. We belonged there. Even as a kid, I could feel it: The Island was special.
Lucky for us (though not for he or his family), the new pastor turned out to have some mental health issues. Once he was hospitalized, they asked my dad to come back and fill in for a couple weeks. And once it became clear the other pastor would not be returning, we were ecstatic. My dad tried to keep us Christian about it, rein in our celebrations of another man’s nervous breakdown, and teach us some humility. But as a kid, all I cared about was that we got our house back, our beach back, our friends back, our home back. The fact that it came at another man’s expense was inconsequential to me. I just wanted to go home, and by any means necessary. Suffice to say, my dad’s lessons didn’t stick that time around.
Instead of going through the painstaking process of finding another pastor all over again, the church offered my dad the job as permanent part time pastor. We could remain in Duluth during the week, and come to “our” island every weekend, just like we’d done before. We continued doing this until we moved to Cleveland when I was 18 years old, when the weekly travel had become too much for my mom’s failing health.
Leaving again, knowing not only would we not be returning each week, but that our new home was almost 1000 miles away, was indescribably difficult. No place else has ever felt like home the way Madeline Island did. Not even our actual home in Duluth held the same level of sentimentality (though it’s a very close 2nd). It was Madeline Island that made me realize “home” isn’t a building, it’s a state of mind. “Home is where the heart is,” as the saying goes, and my heart is on Madeline. Always. It’s like a piece of me is always there, and until I’m there, too, a part of me is missing; as if I’m not complete unless I’m there. I’m my most authentic, contented self when I’m on The Island. I think one of the reasons I love backpacking is that it’s the closest I’ve come to recreating that feeling.
That’s why almost every year I load an absurd amount of camping gear into (and onto) my car, grab the kids, and head north. I want my children to share my love of The Island, to feel the serenity that I feel when I board the ferry, to appreciate the natural beauty and quirky community that makes Madeline Island my favorite place in the world. I want them to keep visiting long after I’m gone, to share the sacred piece of land with their children. And since I already have my burial plot there (the best Christmas present I ever received. Thanks, Dad!), in the same cemetery where my mom was laid to rest, I think I’ll get my wish. Wanna visit my grave when I’m gone, kids? You know where to find me. No, I’m not above manipulating my children from beyond the grave for a good cause.
This summer, like most, we were Island bound. Since my daughter is now a sophomore in college and considering an internship next summer instead of coming home, I saw this as possibly the last family vacation I’ll get to take with all my children, at least for a while. As always, we spent the week camping at Big Bay Town Park, a paradise in its own rite.
Big Bay is a literal bay on the island’s eastern shore. Flanked by red rock cliffs on either end, it’s home to a 2.5 mile golden sand beach, a lagoon, and both the State and Town parks. The Town Park, which we prefer due to its lagoon access, a lower price tag, and plain old nostalgia, has drive-in campsites that back up against the lagoon, and are surrounded by White Spruce, Balsam Fir, and Birch trees. At night the sounds of croaking frogs, and the haunting call of loons fill the air, occasionally mixed with the distant sound of crashing waves when the winds kick up, and Lake Superior shows her might.
While we spend our days on the beach soaking up the sun and splashing around in the Great Lake, night brings a totally different, and even more incredible experience, in the same place. With almost no light pollution, Big Bay is a phenomenal spot for stargazing. On clear lights the Milky Way is on full display, and when conditions are right, you may even see the Aurora Borealis. Meteor showers are particularly amazing, as you seemingly have a front row seat to seeing every single one that streaks across the sky.
This summer was especially awesome. We arrived at the ferry in Bayfield at the same time my childhood friend (actually my brother’s best friend since birth, so he’s like my other brother) arrived, and our vacation had begun. Zach, his fiancé Kim, and their son Stone, who still live in Duluth, join us every year for a week of camping on The Island. They’re some of my absolute favorite humans in the world, and getting to spend that week with them each year makes the whole experience all the more special.
So, though it’s not technically a Ladycation, I hope you enjoy this next collection of stories as I try to capture my childhood home, and most cherished place: Madeline Island. Thanks for reading! Join me next week on LadycationSunday as my peeps and I begin our week-long camping adventure at Big Bay Town Park! And don’t forget to follow Ladycations to stay up to date on the latest trips, tips, and tales! Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.