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
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PO Box 400, La Pointe, WI 54850 or isg@cheqnet.net