Row Around Madeline Island

Island Gazette, Madeline Island In Lake Superior
By Matt Collins, From: Vol. 46 No. 6 July 28 – October 6, 2009

Lost in Fog, Summer Visitor Finds Meaning in Row Around Madeline Island

A perfectly appropriate reaction to anyone who has rowed around Madeline Island would be to ask, “Why bother?” There is no sanctioned race, no charitable cause (at least for me) to support. It doesn’t match the distance or importance of Evan Erickson’s recent row to Duluth. I rowed around Madeline Island, and I didn’t really ask myself that question until about three hours into the journey. The answer proved to be at least as interesting to me as the row itself because of how unexpectedly challenging that row became on Thursday, July 23, 2009.

For days leading up to the planned morning of departure, the forecast indicated perfect conditions: light winds and calm water. Partially overcast skies, also predicted, made for a nice bonus. Secure in my knowledge that these variables were favorable, my attention turned to managing the mechanics and logistics of long distance rowing: keeping hands blister-free, hydrating and eating, preventing back and shoulder pain, and choosing between a clockwise or counterclockwise heading. Thanks to months of training and some great advice from Adventure Vacations and Boat Charters in La Pointe, I was prepared for these aspects as well. Everything pointed to an ideal day, except for one thing. I did not foresee what became a nearly insurmountable hurdle, and that was fog. Not a light fog, but one that would have been right at home in San Francisco or London.

Undaunted, at 7 am I dipped my oars into the water at Fir Cote dock, which points north to the mainland and is about a 12 minute row from the La Pointe town dock. It was then that I made the sort of foolish decision about navigating in fog that can get adventurers into serious trouble. Rather than maintain eye contact with the shoreline, which given the fog’s heavy cloak would have meant hugging the coast, I decided to execute my plan of rowing along a line that connects the many points that stick out into the lake, thereby cutting across its bays and inlets. My plan would save time and distance. The alternative would take much longer, so I oriented the bow of the Tonka 12’ rowboat toward the northern end of Sunset Bay, and within 15 minutes found myself completely enveloped in white. No sight of sun or shore, no sound of birds or boats. Only the Bayfield foghorn disturbed the silence, creating odd echoes and reverberations all around me. On a lake I thought I knew so well after over 30 years, I was lost.

While not immobilized by my disorientation, a series of “what if’s” registered in my mind as I stared out 35 yards in every direction into a solid wall of mist. What if I drift into the open channel? My left hand dominance would tend to steer me in that direction. What if the fog didn’t lift? That would surely end my journey. What if a boat, especially a motorboat, burst through the fog and hit me? I realized I’d be able to hear the boat coming, even if I couldn’t see it, but would have no way of waving or shouting off any on-comer. I realized I had to get to shore, but how?

My way out came courtesy of a technology that I had brought to measure my speed and distance. It’s an application called “Sports Tracker,” which runs on Nokia mobile phones. It works by communicating with a GPS satellite to constantly fix one’s position. It also provides relative heading. While pondering worst-case scenarios, I took out my phone and saw that I had been going relatively straight in a north-east heading up the channel. With a 90 degree turn to the left, I figured, the shore should become visible after only about five minutes working the oars.

But I didn’t execute a 90 degree turn. After making what I thought was the appropriate adjustment and 20 more minutes of rowing, I saw no sign of the island’s tree line. I checked Sports Tracker again, and this time saw that I had completely reversed course. I was still lost, though now had wasted about four kilometers, adding about 40 minutes to my already long day ahead. Quitting seemed to me an appropriate option.

Fortunately, nature then intervened in my favor. First, the sun burned a hazy hole in the fog, allowing me to orient my bow in its direction. I pulled hard until the sun disappeared. Then, the sound of song birds rose above the quiet from the same easterly direction. Shortly thereafter, I found the shore.  A quick assessment – still early in the day, provisions unused, hands and back feeling fine, a way of navigating now apparent – and I pressed on.

That decision meant I had to hug the shore, and this meant adding miles to my trip. I originally had estimated the row’s total distance to be about 25-30 miles, but that assumed a shortcut across every bay. Hugging the shore might add 20 percent or so to that total, which probably would put the family record out of reach. (My father, David Collins, circumnavigated Madeline Island in 9hr54min in 1991.)

The fog stayed with me until I reached Grant’s Point, a mere 30 minutes before my return to Fir Cote, which meant almost every tree, beach, cliff and cave was shrouded in a hazy gauze. The rest of the row was to me a blur of work interrupted by short breaks and the discernible milestones that indicate progress: Devil’s Cauldron, Big Bay’s beaches and lagoon, the South Shore Road, Grant’s Point, Town Dock, winter road, and home again. So this trip would not be about speed or enjoying the island’s varied and stunning views. With besting historical times and sightseeing off the table, the question remains: why bother?

I think the answer lies in what happens when everything but keeping the oars in the water is stripped away. I allowed myself no introspection, no probing life questions inspired by nature’s creation, and virtually no communication with any other person (though I did get a welcome visit from my family with about 90 minutes remaining, which lifted my spirits). Untethered from all the thoughts and routines that define the typical day, I felt liberated. The only thing that mattered was to keep going. I didn’t quit my row around Madeline Island because I wanted to see if I could pull it off despite getting lost, facing a much longer day than I expected, having a close call with a recklessly powered motorboat, and missing so much of the island’s glory. Even with all that, I still would rather have been out on Lake Superior than anywhere else in the world.

Think you can beat my time (9h24min, 36.25 miles traveled)?

Island Gazette, Madeline Island In Lake Superior
Evan Erickson, Publisher / Waggie Erickson, Editor
Subscription: $20/year
PO Box 400, La Pointe, WI 54850 or [email protected]

St. Joseph Mission Cemetery (Old Indian Cemetery)

The St. Joseph Catholic Mission was established on Madeline Island in 1835, when Slovenian priest Frederic Baraga arrived on the island. He chose a site along Sandy Bay (Crescent Bay) at what was called Middlefort. This location was about halfway between Michel Cadotte’s fur trading fort (Grant’s Point) and the American Fur Company’s new settlement known as New Fort or Fort Ramsey (the present-day location of La Pointe). Baraga had a log chapel and residence built, and selected an adjacent site for a cemetery. The first burial that he presided over occurred in August, 1835. It is quite probable that the cemetery site included older graves, as later archaeological studies have revealed several, earlier graves nearby. Baraga enlarged his residence so that he could operate a school, and replaced his church with a larger one in 1838.

Father Baraga moved the Catholic mission to the New Fort site in 1841. He disassembled his old church and had a new church building and residence built. Another cemetery was established adjacent to the new church. Both cemeteries were used for burials until the cemetery at Middlefort was finally full. Church death records indicate that the Middlefort cemetery was used until at least until 1900. According to administrators of Holy Family Catholic Church in Bayfield, the burial plat for the St. Joseph’s Mission Cemetery at Middlefort has been lost.

The St. Joseph’s Mission Cemetery at Middlefort is the final resting place for many late-fur trade and early settlement era persons of historical note. Michel Cadotte and Chief Buffalo are both buried in graves marked by headstones. Many Cadotte, Warren, Bell, Gordon, and Buffalo family members are buried there. People interred in the cemetery represent several different cultural/ethnic groups: Ojibwe, French-Canadian, Euro-American, and Métis. Many graves in the cemetery are marked by traditional Christian stones, crosses and decorative fences. Many Ojibwe graves were covered by traditional spirit houses where food and offerings were placed for the deceased until they had passed on to the spirit world. While early Ojibwe spirit houses were covered with birchbark, those in the cemetery showed the influence of Euro-American culture in that they were made of milled lumber and resembled Euro-American-style buildings. Some of these spirit houses are extant. The presence of the spirit houses has led to the cemetery being called by the misnomer, the Old Indian Cemetery. In reality, it is the burial place of people with varied ethnic origin, who associated themselves with the Catholic Church. (Many spirit lodges were placed over graves in the second Catholic cemetery but they are no longer extant.)

Today, the fenced cemetery is all that is left of the first St. Joseph Catholic Mission at Middlefort on Madeline Island. An interpretive sign and historical plaque mark the site. The extant cemetery fence is not original, and does not accurately reflect the true boundaries of the cemetery. Many graves are unmarked and undocumented, making identification impossible.

Shoreline erosion threatened the cemetery in the mid-20th century. A local congressman assessed the need for breakwater construction to halt shoreline erosion, but public funds could not be used for the church-owned property. In 1972, the Roman Catholic Church transferred title to the cemetery to the United States Government in trust for the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, allowing public funding of breakwater construction by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

The St. Joseph Catholic Mission Cemetery (Old Indian Cemetery) on Madeline Island has long been revered for its historical and sacred significance. It is a major attraction for summer visitors interested in learning about the island’s history and it is a sacred site for descendants and relations of those interred within. It has often become the subject of controversy when the cultural traditions, beliefs, and actions of these varied groups and individuals are at odds or are misunderstood. The cemetery is currently closed to the public but may be respectfully viewed from outside the fence.

Bristol, Linda E. Liber Defunctorum: St. Joseph Mission and Holy Family Catholic Church Death Registry, 1835-1900. (St. Paul: Sunup Press, 1994).

Mayotte, Patrick. “Madeline Island La Pointe Indian Cemetery in Need of Restoration,” News from the Sloughs [Odanah, WI]: November 1996.

Ross, Hamilton Nelson. La Pointe: Village Outpost on Madeline Island. (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2000).

Salzer, Robert J. and Robert A. Birmingham. Archaeological Salvage Excavations at the Marina Site (47 As 24) Madeline Island, Wisconsin. A report submitted to the Interagency Archaeological Services, National Park Service. (Beloit College, 1 April 1981).

“Catholic Church Gives Indian Cemetery Back to the Indians,” [Madeline] Island Gazette: Vol. 9 No.10, 22 October 1972.

“Cemetery Returned to Indians.” Newspaper clipping, no date, no source. Madeline Island Museum collection.

Correspondence relating to the St. Joseph Catholic Mission Cemetery, Madeline Island Museum files.

“Cemetery Needs More Attention,” Bayfield County Press: 4 September 1986.

“DA: No Crime in Croquet,” Duluth News-Tribune: 18 July 1996.

“District Attorney Closes File on Madeline Island Incident,” The [Ashland] Daily Press: 18 July 1996.

“Historic Grave Shows Neglect: Michel Cadotte, Early Fur Trader, Is Buried at La Pointe”, Milwaukee Journal: 13 November 1955.

“Hope for the Dying Cemetery,” [Madeline] Island Gazette: Vol. 4 No. 17, 15 August 1967.

“Indian Cemetery Restored,” [Madeline] Island Gazette: Vol. 4 No. 24, 11 November 1964.

Inventory of La Pointe Indian Cemetery. Readable stones transcribed, August 1971. Copy in Madeline Island Museum files.

“Ojibway Ceremony Marred By Conflicts Over Land Rights”, The Daily Press [Ashland]: 10 September 1987.

“Ojibway Defend Graves,” Duluth News-Tribune: 12 July 1996.

“Our View: Cemetery Should Be Closed to the Public,” The [Ashland] Daily Press: 19 July 1996.

“Respect Minority Cultures,” Duluth News-Tribune: 14 July 1996.

“Tribe Won’t Prosecute Property Owner,” The [Ashland] Daily Press: 20 July 1996.

Verwyst, P. Chrysostomus Verwyst, O.F.M. Life and Labors of Rev. Frederic Baraga, First Bishop of Marquette, Mich.. (Milwaukee, Wis.: M.H. Wiltzius & Co., 1900.)

Sheree Peterson,  Curator of Collections, Madeline Island Museum
A Historic Site Owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society

Plan your Apostle Islands Vacation

Bayfield, Wisconsin, nestled against the south shore of Lake Superior, is an excellent destination for your Apostle Islands vacation. It’s an easy drive from Chicago and the Twin Cities, and many choices await you there. In Bayfield you can find water sports ranging from fishing and kayaking to sailing and power boating. Complete boat charters are available. Walk the brick-paved streets of this quaint old fishing village and shop in the specialty and souvenir shops. Or read a book on the porch swing of a beautiful Victorian B & B. The Apostle Islands Cruise Service offers daily cruises to see the Apostle Islands and their lighthouses. The Chamber of Commerce in Bayfield can help you with hotels. Apostle Islands camping is fun for the more adventurous. Just make sure you check with the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Park Service Headquarters before you make your plans. No trip to the Apostle Islands is complete without crossing the lake on the Madeline Island Ferry Line to visit scenic, historic Madeline Island. Cars are allowed on the Island, but you may prefer to rent a bike or moped and ride out to see Big Bay State Park and Town Park. Hike the lakeshore trail and see ancient rock formations. Or hike the lagoon trail for wetlands at their best. Madeline Island also offers complete charter services, and you may prefer to make the Island your base of operation. The Chamber there can help you. Start planning today for your Apostle Islands vacation.

1 Washington Avenue
Bayfield, WI 54850 (ferry landing on mainland)

Visit Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

In 1963 President Kennedy was so impressed with the beauty of the Apostle Islands, that he decreed that they should become the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and be protected for all time. You can enjoy their undisturbed wildness by visiting northern Wisconsin The headquarters of the park is located in Bayfield, Wisconsin, which is an easy drive from most places in the Midwest. Several water taxis operating out of Bayfield will take you out to the islands to camp, but you must check in with the park service before you go. Or, if you prefer, there is a cruise service that goes to the Islands and visits the lighthouses of the Apostles. Your visit to Apostles Islands National Park should include time to spend in both the quaint village of Bayfield and neighboring Madeline Island. Madeline Island is the only one of the Apostles that has year-round inhabitants, and they will gladly share with you their experiences, history and culture. Ask any local what it’s like to live on an island in the severe northern winter and you’ll hear stories of both high jinx and grim survival. A wide variety of both summer and winter activities await you in this area.  Do it all at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Good Ice Road

Island Gazette, Madeline Island In Lake Superior
From: From Vol. 46 No. 2 January 20 to March 17, 2009

A Super Good Ice Road

The Island is having one of the best ice road years in 12 years hitting 60 days of regular vehicle crossing on Wednesday, March 18th.  In 1997 we had 67 days ending on March 26th.

The Ice Road has been very wide, straight and has stayed in one place all year until March 9th when Arnie and crew moved it over closer to the trees.  The old road had finally gotten a little worn out with a few too many cracks appearing.

The Ice Road has had very heavy traffic this year, however most everyone has obeyed the 15 mph speed limit and even better than that, they have been very good about lightning up when hauling loads. Lumber trucks and other larger trucks have been ok to cross this year due to the thick ice we have had.

We have all just totally enjoyed going to the mainland to do just about anything, just because we can. We can’t go to Ashland without bumping into several Islanders on any given day.

This year was a very cold December and an even colder January with 14 days in that month alone with temperatures that were below -10 degrees made an ice road about 36 inches thick.

The boats shut down on January 1st, the earliest in 19 years when the boats quit on December 30th in 1990. The boats have quit earlier than January 1st only six times since 1963.

This cold winter will have a total of 24 days with lows below -10 degrees. We haven’t been even close to that number since 1996 when we had 28 days that cold.  That year the Ice Road lasted 71 days and the boats first run was on April 25th. Talk about cabin fever!

The 45 year average the boats are down is 78 days. We are at 62 days and still crossing with cars, but not for long. When the boats will run, however, is still nowhere in sight.

Regular car travel will be finished any day now with slush and water getting deeper and the beach approach in Bayfield beginning to thaw out.  We will likely have a few days of the winter transportation vans running and parking on the ice and people walking to shore.  4-wheel drives will likely continue to drive for a few more days, plowing through the slush, slop and water holes and tearing deep ruts into the beach on the Bayfield side, getting stuck, until they get tired of getting stuck in the sand and pulling each other out.

It appears the first boats will not run until sometime in the first week in April or later, but only the weather knows for sure.

Island Gazette, Madeline Island In Lake Superior
Evan Erickson, Publisher / Waggie Erickson, Editor
Subscription: $20/year
PO Box 400, La Pointe, WI 54850 or [email protected]