A sea stack on Madeline Island

Memorial Day Weekend 2021: Porcupine Mountains and Madeline Island

After nearly a year of abstention from all non-essential travel, with vaccinations in our immune systems, and receipts to prove it, we ventured out into the wilderness of northern Michigan and Wisconsin to take in the stunning coastline of the world’s largest body of freshwater (by surface area): Gichigami, or Lake Superior.

Our adventure began at Union Bay Campground in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Michigan’s upper peninsula. Danielle and I first visited this park in 2015 while we were en route to Denver from DC. We’ve been back several times since to do day hikes up to Lake of the Clouds and along Presque Isle River’s the waterfalls. But this park, with its 90 some miles of trail, always beckoned us back for a longer stay we finally redeemed this year.

The first thing that amazed us here was the lakeshore. Superior is amazing in how it seems to transform entirely around the other side of every point. We’d never really been down on the lakeshore here before. The high copper content of the area gives the beach a distinctive reddish hue and our campsite was directly on the shore. Our sunset setting each night, a beachfront of large rock slabs layered by pressure over time and weathered by centuries of lake activity.

László having a splash party during the wind set up.

Despite Superior’s vastness, it is not tidal. Instead, winds arising from temperature changes, weather fronts, and storms disrupt the water and send waves across the lake. This seiche effect can push and pull water from a shore. When one side of the lake is seeing 6m waves, the surface level drops on the opposite end.

We had some high winds while we were camping which resulted in little pools stuck in nooks and crannies that reminded me of tide pools you’d see at the ocean. These ephemeral seiche pools (did I make that word up?) provided László an excellent site for a good splash party.

We also managed to pick up a new favorite hike. The Nonesuch Falls hike meanders through an old mining village. Along the trail are clearings where homes and other small structures stood during the copper mining boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s until the copper proved too difficult to extract.

The hike down is a leisurely half mile to the falls, at which point you can wander trails between buildings, wade into the Little Iron River, and explore the area. It’s a great hike for a family, especially one with a 2.5 year old.

Cornucopia, WI

On the northwestern shore of Bayfield Peninsula, Cornucopia is home of Wisconsin’s northernmost post office, and base camp for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. We didn’t really know what to expect coming to Corny and our last minute campsite at Siskiwit Bay Marina and campground turned out to be a highlight of the trip.

Sunset over Lake Superior, Cornucopia, WI.

Without any tree cover, the beach sites are intensely exposed. A downside dramatically offset by the view and direct access to the beach. On a clear day, you can see the Sawtooth Mountains in Minnesota peeking over the horizon, it’s possible to identify Two Harbors in some spots. This long clear view over the lake provides perhaps the best sunset in the state.

Across the street (literally) from our campground was Lost Creek Adventures, a kayak outfitter who run sea cave tours in the Apostle Islands. We opted for their half day sea cave tour, which was perfect for the time we had. It was our first time in a boat of any kind on the lake, and we really couldn’t have asked for a better experience.

Victory after passing through the Car Wash sea cave on kayak.

Seeing the sea caves up close, whether by boat or over the ice, is the best way to really observe the intricacy of the rock formations. Maybe next year we’ll do the full day tour that heads out to Sand Island.

Another perk of staying directly on a marina: we got to watch a sailboat be lifted up and carried around the marina. The equipment, some of which was quite old, was also delightful, especially for László — “How can you ignore this crane!” It turns out 2.5 year-olds can spend a lot of time just staring at large pieces of machinery.

Finally, after almost two years we got to see Uncle Tony, who drove all the way up from Seattle (by way of the Twin Cities, of course) to hang out on the beach with us. He joined us for fish fry at Little Nikki’s and then spent the night on the camper’s folded-down dining table. Tony and I hiked the lakeshore to the Crevasse. We had a great time catching up. I think we both wished we could hike even further out but were grateful for the time we had.

László, me, and Tony on the beach in Corny.

Madeline Island

László fell asleep as we occasionally glimpsed views of the islands lying beyond the trees on the way to the ferry. It’s unusual to constantly have a view of land from the shore. It’s simply too vast. Islands in the near field and distant shores beyond, we discovered a new way the lake constantly changes and surprises.

Our campsite was tucked into the woods at Big Bay State Park. It was a refreshingly quiet destination to end the vacation. We had no agenda, and especially on Memorial Day very little to do. This gave us plenty of time to explore the park, wandering the lagoon boardwalk, the trails along the rocky shore around the point, and the beach at the Town Park. The sun set much earlier on this side of the peninsula, with the hills of the peninsula blocking the horizon, but was still bright well after 9 PM.

We’re definitely coming back but perhaps well save Madeline Island for a day trip in the future. Multiple crossings on the ferry can add up and while we didn’t feel stuck on the island, we look forward to accessing opportunities on the mainland in the future.

I like quiet recreation. Paddling a canoe or a kayak, pedaling a bike, or hiking a maintained trail slows me down, helps me think about the work required to shape the land into what it is now, and the power of the individual in that process. The sandy beach is the product of centuries of water and moving rock from far flung parts of the lake, wearing down to these fine particles, and eventually settling in this protected cove. Just a short walk around the point, the coast turns rocky, and a sea stack stands apart from the land by a small channel of water yet remains connected beneath the surface.

I like to admire the improbability of a tree rooting itself into the top of that sea stack, enduring life as a sapling battered by the elements year after year, and somehow finding the nutrients and stability to mature. Could I notice these things from a power boat or seaplane flying along the coast? For me, the solitude of engaging the land on smaller, quieter terms gives me the time to notice and appreciate the contours of the landscape.

All told, we had a fantastic vacation. We managed to have a ton of fun in a short amount of time. These are all great destinations, none of them so far from our home that we had to expend a ton of energy to get there, and they gave us a new appreciation for our state’s landscape.

Madeline Island’s history is important as the spiritual center of the Lake Superior Chippewa, who call it Mooningwanekaaning. It is the first (and only?) place in Wisconsin with bilingual English-Ojibwe official signage. I don’t want to dismiss the significance of keeping indigenous languages alive, nor the value in simply reminding White tourists of our legacy of colonialism. Every place we stopped on this vacation had some significant indigenous history; Madeline Island was the only place to confront us about it. Still, the complex relationship between the Lake Superior Chippewa and European settlers started in the 1600s and continues to this day. The lack of any apparent works to accompany words here had the feeling of other empty land acknowledgements.

Madeline Island was ceded to the United States in 1842, and our government proceeded to disregard the terms of our treaty basically immediately. It’s a story that repeats itself across the country from the late 17th centuries until the present. When we think about heritage in Wisconsin, we often ignore these uncomfortable bits and instead erase the indigenous heritage our ancestors attempted to exterminate. We prefer to focus on the more entertaining and sentimental: Al Capone’s hideouts, traditions and cuisine of mining communities, and the “vanishing” lifestyles of White Americans. All of these things are part of our history, too, but commemorated disproportionately.

Whenever we travel, we try to be mindful of our impact on the people and the places we visit. In some ways, knowing the landscape and lives our fellow residents lead is an extension of our identity as Wisconsinites. That identity often erases people and stories that don’t fit rigid narratives about who we are. We do our best to learn those stories before we go, while we’re there, and when we return. We can do more when we return. Vacationing is a balance between relaxing and enjoying ourselves while also reflecting on the ways it is an extractive act. Indigenous cultures aren’t ours to consume as entertainment while we’re away. Instead, the things we learn and experience while we’re away can help us as we strive to make our home communities more inclusive and equitable.