By Steve Bergsman
Photos by the Author
I could see Madeline Island, the largest of Apostle Islands, from my hotel room window – sometimes. Occasionally, the fog would roll in or the squalls would pick up and my view of Lake Superior would disappear into the dampness.
This was beginning to be the journey that almost never was. I had come to the northernmost point of Wisconsin to visit this little-known national park, one of the most solitary in the great American national park system. Called the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, it consists of 21 islands, a sandspit, and 12 miles of coastline — all in all, about a 720-square-mile area in the midst of Lake Superior, the greatest of the Great Lakes.
My itinerary looked fabulous.
On my first morning, I was scheduled to board a private boat for some fishing in Chequamegon Bay just to the south of Madeline Island, the only island not in the park system. The morning looked gray, the sky tentative. There was an uncomfortable stillness about the small, picturesque town of Bayfield. I stopped into the local coffee shop for a quick breakfast. As I’m chomping into my bagel, a short, squat man in rumpled clothes comes in. From behind the counter, the young girl hands him his regular mug filled with the morning brew. He sits down across from me and opens up the New York Times. Suddenly noticing me and apropos of nothing, he, like a modern day Ishmael, deeply intones, “it’s going to rain.”
I smile, bleakly.
As if I didn’t get the message, he adds, “I’m willing to bet on it.”
Thus the curse was laid upon my trip.
The winds were already beginning to whip cold off the lake and when I went to find the fishing boat, the captain headed me off at the parking lot. “We won’t be going out today,” he says. ”There’s a gale warning for the lake and swells will be hitting 10 feet. You wouldn’t enjoy it and we wouldn’t catch anything.”
I thought I heard him say he was heading for Florida the next day.
I looked at the waters, which were choppy with small whitecaps. It was a false read, because these were bay waters protected by Madeline and the other Apostle Islands. But, it gave me hope that the Apostle Islands Cruise Service would still be sailing in and around the islands later that afternoon.
Nope, even the big boat wasn’t going to chance the weather, which by now had begun to fill out the prophecy, big drops sluicing at 45 degrees due to the winds coming over the lake. Bayfield was soaking and gloomy despite it being the first day of summer.
Then hope arrived. A local fellow was willing to take another fisherman named Larry and me into the interior to fish trout on one of the local rivers. We quickly said yes, and set off on a mad scramble to get gear, most importantly waders, because we would both fly and reel fish from shallow waters. I also bought a waterproof parka, not feeling my water-resistant jacket was up to the weather. Our guide, named Bill, was the former president of the local chapter of the conservation group Trout Unlimited.
Although Bill drove a Prius, he looked like a wild mountain man, with long unruly hair, a scruffy gray beard, and weather-beaten skin around his eyes.
We headed south from the shores of Lake Superior to the small town of Mellen, then turned east for about eight miles before moving onto a dirt road. We traveled that road until it dead-ended on the shores of a rapidly running stream called Tyler Fork, which fed into the Bad River, which in turn emptied into Lake Superior.
A lot of water must have been running into the big lake because Tyler Fork was rollicking. Meanwhile, overhead, the sky, which had brightened, turned gloomy again and thunder cracked hard in the distance.
We put on our waders. Bill, oddly enough, only brought two rods, one for fly and one for reel. After hiking down through some tall grass, we entered the water, cast, reeled, cast and reeled. We moved around a bit. Bill, who heretofore seemed mild as a mouse, suddenly turned into super-fisherman, aggressive and antsy. After five minutes of no fish we moved. Five minutes more, we moved. He hooked a small brook trout, but it wasn’t enough to keep him interested. We climbed out of the water and began hiking through the thick forest to find another spot upstream.
Meanwhile, the mosquitoes arrived in waves as thick as a shower curtain. Then the rain started to fall, heavy through the trees. Bill would not be intimidated, but Larry was. He quit the water to hang back by the car. I foolishly trudged after Bill, through the forest, through the mosquitoes, through the rain. Despite our peripatetic efforts, we never caught another fish.
Later, I asked Larry why he dropped out. He answered, “I’m not into extreme fishing.”
The next day, I awoke to weather even more grim than the one before. Once again I was told the lake was too dangerous, so after biding my time touring around the old city of Ashland, I was told another local fisherman, this one named Craig, was heading out into the bay and would take on some guests. Larry and I, plus another visitor, boarded his small boat about 3:30 in the afternoon.
Outside the bay, the swells were still 10 feet, but the wind had died down and the bay was choppy but altogether not too bad. Craig was going to hightail it north, paralleling the shore until he came to a peninsula that seemed to mark the line between calmer waters and turmoil, then slowly meander back, trolling all the way.
Craig jacked out six lines, two of which were for deepwater and weighted down with eight-pound lead weights. The water surface was 59 degrees, but the air much colder. The sky was the color of the lead weights and fog obscured the horizon.
After about 20 minutes, one of the deepwater lines jerked. We had a fish. I took the rod and began reeling. It’s probably walleye, said Craig, and he watched over my shoulder as I reeled that sucker in, only to lose it trying to bring it out of the water. It turned out to be our only strike of the afternoon.
Within the hour, the fog rolled through the bay, the wind picked up and temperature dropped quickly. We headed home. Although, we didn’t catch a thing, I didn’t care. At least, I finally made it onto Lake Superior. It was the start of something good.
The next day the cruiser took a boatload of guests and me around the Apostles, and by the afternoon I was kayaking through sea caves.
But it all began ominously. The sky above Lake Superior was as gray as the iron-clad barges the ply the Great Lakes carrying ore, timber and weighty commodities of one sort or another.
I looked out the window of my hotel. Except for the ferry, nothing seemed to be moving out of Bayfield, certainly not pleasure craft and private fishing boats. I felt just as immobile.
It was still raining, and then the winds died down. The fog came and went at its leisure. The weather was good enough for the cruise boat that plied the waters around The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
From my hotel room overlooking the Bayfield Marina, I should have been able to see from my window Madeline Island, but due to the rain and fog it kept appearing and disappearing in the midst like a ghost from a sunken barge. Well, if I wasn’t going to get any sports in, at least I’d be able to see the Apostle Islands up close. I took the cruise.
Since the weather hadn’t really settled yet, the first thing the captain told us all was, “where we’ll go, I don’t know.” He was going to play it by ear, or by what the lake would tell him, because as almost everyone tells you who lives near Superior, “the lake is the boss.”
The captain continued, “we’ll get close enough to some things, the exact itinerary I don’t know.”
The waters around the Apostles didn’t appear too rough, except nearer to some of the outer islands. I think we got pretty close to the whole tour before it was all done. Life was as big as the lake.
Northern Wisconsin is surprisingly remote. The closest major airport is Duluth, Minnesota, which was my flight destination. I flew Delta from Phoenix to Detroit and then to Duluth. I returned to Arizona again on Delta out of Duluth, but with a change of planes in Minneapolis. From Duluth, I drove east in a rental car to the town of Bayfield (www.delta.com).
WHERE TO STAY
In Bayfield, I stayed at the Bayfront Inn, a great location with a view overlooking the waterfront and Madeline Island in the distance. (www.bayfrontinnbayfield.net).