At Grandpa Tony's, a yellow clapboard ice cream and pizza joint kitty-corner from the ferry dock, local kids hold court. On the lawn outside, broad pines shade a few scattered picnic tables and bikes lie on the ground, their owners banging the screen door on their way to get cones. A deeply tanned boy on a skateboard click-clacks down a wooden ramp intended for wheelchairs. His T-shirt reads, "Be glad I'm not your kid."
The message was clear: I am unpredictable, irreverent and I am not out to please.
The same could be said for the boy's island home.
Unlike most places on the tourist map, Madeline Island -- a 14-mile strip of wooded rock in Lake Superior, just 3 miles across the water from Bayfield, Wis. -- lacks the usual taffy shop-and-lace curtain polish. Sure, you'll find what you want or need in the charmingly disheveled town of La Pointe: rental bikes, kayaks, whitefish sandwiches, souvenir sweatshirts. But around the corner from Tony's, an open-air bar called Tom's Burned Down Cafe appears to have grown out of a trash heap, its decor made up of junk art. And down the block, an aging miniature golf course challenges putters with rips and buckles in its artificial turf.
The place -- with its quirks and laid-back vibe and a history that stretches back nearly 400 years -- exists more for the 250 year-round residents than the 3,000 summer arrivals. And that's just fine with me; without any spit-shine quaintness, the island lets me believe I'm one of them, a local living the simple life.
American flags snap in July's brisk lake breeze along the main road. The library trusts visitors with library cards. Island kids roam freely, leaving bikes unlocked as they go. It feels like vacationing in 1950.
Days quickly become delightfully monotonous: Run into town to get the newspaper at 8 a.m. (wait much longer and the limited supply at the Island Store may be gone), cobble together breakfast, pack a lunch, head off for the day's adventure (the beach, a bike ride, canoeing), eat dinner in the screen porch of the rental house, play Yahtzee, sleep, repeat. It could almost get boring if there weren't so many surprises.
My family of three headed to Big Bay Town Park planning to canoe in the lagoon that sweeps inland from Superior. The lake, with its frigid waters and sometimes rough waves, was out of the question with our 6-year-old in tow. We'd called Bog Lake Outfitters, whose owner, Rose Fahien, was out of town and relying on the honor system: Put your money into a box, grab a canoe from one of the racks, and head out.
Sounded easy, and it would have worked, too -- if only we could have found paddles.
We looked under upside-down canoes, behind trees, in tall grass. A friendly couple, set to launch, joined the search party, but eventually resorted to telling us, "We'll look for you when we return and you can use our paddles."
Our consolation was the beach, which offers two things missing from much of Lake Superior's shoreline: a luxurious stretch of sand and relatively warm water owing to the shallow water in the bay.
Some hardy swimmers come with floaties and loll about in the water. I prefer sitting at the edge of the sand in the shade of a tree and wondering at our luck upon finding this place, where sand hugs the bay for more than a mile and ends, on both sides, with rock outcroppings that muscle into the water.
The next day, we met Fahien atop the cliff at Town Park. She was deeply apologetic, found us a canoe with a center seat for our girl, and pushed us off with a "Take your time; go as long as you like," although we'd paid for only an hour.
I wish the patience of our little one had allowed it. As we glided through glassy water, great blue herons fished among grasses on the shoreline. Painted turtles plunked into the water from floating logs. A kingfisher watched for lunch from a tree. We paddled around specks of islands bearing little more than a single tree, then headed back to shore.
Visitors have been enjoying the lagoon, and the rest of the island, for hundreds of years. Just before the 1900s, summer guests began to arrive. European settlers came in the mid-1800s and missionaries in the early 1800s. Keep backing up and you have the fur traders, some of whom landed as early as the mid-1600s, and before them, the Ojibwe and, before them, who knows?
Signs of a rich history are all over the island, beginning with the island's name. Fur trader Michel Cadotte, after setting up a permanent trading post in 1793, fell for the daughter of Chief White Crane. She took the Christian name Madeline when they married, and her father decided the island should be renamed after her.
Near the marina, the Indian burial ground, also the Catholic cemetery, remains a sacred place for the Ojibwe. Beads and coins lay scattered on grave markers, gifts to the ancestors. Weathered spirit houses, mini-homes for souls before they depart the Earth to join the Great Spirit, top several burial sites.
Downtown, an original log warehouse of the American Fur Company houses part of the vast and fascinating Madeline Island Historical Museum. Nearby, the public library acts as a reminder of how things once were. The building, originally a school, has two doors in the front (though only one is used today): one was for boys and one was for girls.
One day, my husband, daughter and I rode bikes to Grant's Point, a peninsula that was the site of the first Ojibwe settlement. The Ojibwe had found their way to Madeline Island from the East Coast after the Great Spirit told the tribe to travel west, to a place where "food grows on water." From Grant's Point, you can see Long Island, where wild rice once grew in abundance. As we walked to the water's edge, we passed a tide pool separated from Superior by a swell in the sand. Swimming in the pool were a hundred tadpoles. Madeline's next great explorers: frogs.
The island kept offering unexpected delights. (Spotting a camel nibbling on a bale of hay outside a barn we passed on the way to the beach was one double-take surprise.) But one thing was certain: The day would come when we had to use the return ticket on the ferry and go home.
So, on a bright Saturday morning in July, we pulled our car up to the dock. With 20 minutes to kill, I walked into town to buy my daughter a Madeline Island T-shirt in pink. I made my way there just as the ferry was unloading its fresh batch of lucky visitors.
It's a snazzy dance they choreograph down at the dock: First come the pedestrians, then the bicyclists, and finally cars thread their way out of tight spots on the ferry. For the return, the moves run in reverse. And when everyone is tucked in neatly, the boat heaves off the dock and into the deep blue waters of Superior.
We sat atop the ferry and watched as Madeline receded into the distance. Soon, our attention turned to Bayfield, whose pretty Victorians rise against the hills. But before we rolled off onto the mainland, I tried to cast one last look at my favorite island. The angle was all wrong; I saw only open water. No matter, I thought, I know what to expect next year. Or do I?
Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282