Wisconsin's newest park offers a rare Apostle Islands experience from a wild slice of the mainland.
The path beneath our feet in the new Frog Bay Tribal National Park in Bayfield, Wis., is soft and springy as we walk over peat moss and decades of fallen pine needles, leaves and bark that have collected on the boreal forest floor.
As we make our way through the towering birch, hemlock and cedar, we hear birdsong from some of the 90 species that live in the park.
Down on the curving mainland beach, where we had landed our dinghy earlier, a quarter-mile strand looks out toward the Apostle Islands' Gaylord Nelson Wilderness area. From our vantage point, we can see out toward Oak, Hermit, Raspberry and Stockton islands.
Our family came to this spot not just to get a good view of the Apostles, but to visit Wisconsin's youngest park, which opened to the public in August. Owned by the Red Cliff Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa, the 90-acre park is co-managed by the tribe and the Bayfield Regional Conservancy.
We set out on a blue-sky day that offered no hint of the ferocious thunderstorm that had buffeted the islands the night before, sailing from Quarry Bay on Stockton Island to Frog Bay, where we met our guide, Ellen Kwiatkowski, executive director of the Bayfield Regional Conservancy.
Kwiatkowski drove to the park, which is about 15 miles north of Bayfield, and met us on the beach. There, we hiked with several couples from Milwaukee.
As we walked along the single trail through the primordial forest (other paths will be built in coming years), we found a pair of fragile ghost plants pushing up out of the pine duff and moss.
The delicate gray flowers (a type of fungus also known as Indian pipe) rose through the peat, their black-tipped petals arching over like tiny bells. We stepped around them, careful not to crush them.
Kwiatkowski said the park is home to many rare plants, but she declined to name them for fear of attracting collectors to the site.
"That's not what we want to happen here," she said. "This is a place to contemplate nature and beauty, not take from it or pollute. No ATVs or snowmobiles. Camping is not even allowed here."
Foundation of culture
The park is next to the Frog Creek estuary, where American Indians once fished and harvested wild rice. The Chippewa also gathered medicinal plants, hazelnuts, berries and other plants for food, dyes and basketry. In fact, the Apostles area is considered the foundation of Chippewa, or Ojibwe, culture. Oral histories tell about a centuries-long journey that began in the East and led the Ojibwe to Lake Superior.
The park is unique in other ways, as well. While there are thousands of acres of wilderness offshore in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, only a tiny percentage of it is on the mainland.
"The Apostles aren't very easy for a lot of people to reach who don't have boats," Kwiatkowski said. "But Frog Bay Tribal National Park is a place where people can easily reach to hike and be on the lake and a pristine beach. And ultimately, each place is distinct and special," she added. "What is being protected at Frog Bay isn't the same as what is being protected on the Apostles."
Though it's small for a park, Frog Bay Tribal National Park represents a big step toward "repatriating" reservation property that is no longer in tribal hands, said Kwiatkowski.
According to Kwiatkowski, the Lake Superior Chippewa have long wanted to buy back land within its 14,000-acre reservation, nearly half of which is in non-Indian hands. But the idea to purchase the Frog Bay land surfaced only several years ago.
It started with a conversation with Tia Nelson, the daughter of former Wisconsin governor and U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, after whom the wilderness area is named.
The Nelsons were longtime friends of David and Marjorie Johnson, a Madison couple who purchased the land in the 1980s. The Johnsons wanted to protect the land, and began discussions with the Red Cliff Band. In the end, the Johnson family donated half the cost of the 90 acres to the tribe. The remaining $488,000 came from a Coastal Estuarine Land Conservation Program grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Bryan Bainbridge, a Red Cliff council member, sees the purchase of the Frog Bay land as just the beginning.
"We hope to use it as a learning tool for both reservation and nonreservation members to educate them about the Great Lakes," he said. "And even though we are a poor tribe, we'd like to expand the park and eventually acquire the estuary and its rice beds."
Kwiatkowski is hopeful, too.
"This land has long been important to the tribe," she said. "But it was inaccessible because it was privately owned and access was restricted," she said. "Now, it will be permanently protected for nature-based recreation, traditional and spiritual ceremonies and to further the understanding that all land is sacred."
Brian Clark is a travel writer who lives in Madison, Wis.