Friday, September 9th, 2022

I took vacation on Friday, Sep 9, and Monday, Sep 12, so I could make a long weekend out of a visit to Big Bay State Park on Madeline Island, one of the Apostle Islands

Big Bay State Park

I’d been rained out of about half of all the camping trips I planned this summer and it looked at first as though I was going to get rained out of this one, too. Early in the week, the forecast called for rain all weekend, but as the week went on the three days of rain gradually shifted from the weekend to the week. I made no plans to go anywhere else. I was going to Big Bay come hell or high water.

It takes about six hours to drive straight through from Our Little Red House to Big Bay, but I did not drive straight through. When I was about an hour south of Stevens Point I realized I did not bring a book to read before bed. Knowing I would not be able to get a good night’s sleep without something to read, I stopped at Stevens Point to visit a book store, then continued on to Wausau, where I stopped for lunch at the Red Eye Brewing Company.

Until I left Wausau, the skies were clear and sunny, but just north of Wausau the clouds began to crowd in, and by the time I passed through Merrill, about a half-hour north of Wausau, it was raining. For the next three hours I drove through a steady, gloomy, cold rain from Merrill to Bayfield.

When I made plans to go to Big Bay, I originally thought I would stop at Copper Falls State Park to hike the trail for about an hour, but by the time I got to the turnoff to Copper Falls I was already more than an hour behind schedule. There was a ferry to catch from the mainland to Madeline Island, and I wanted to get to Big Bay before it was dark, so Copper Falls would have to wait until another time.

The ferry is scheduled to depart Bayfield at the top of every hour. Google Maps was stubbornly telling me that I was due to arrive at 5:05 no matter how much faster than the speed limit I drove. I typically drive about five miles per hour faster than the speed limit but I started pushing it to seven or eight miles faster when I saw I might miss the ferry. Didn’t make any difference to Google Maps. In the very rural stretch between Ironwood and Ashland I gave it still a bit more gas but still couldn’t shave any time off my estimated arrival. Eventually I surrendered to the inevitable, relaxed my foot off the gas pedal and eased into Bayfield at exactly 5:05 pm.

The main road into Bayfield ends at the Bayfield pier, where I could see a ferry tied up, so I parked the van nearby and looked for someone to buy a ticket from, but nobody was around. Asking around, I discovered the ferry departed from a wharf just to the north of where I was parked. I got back into the van and drove up there to an empty parking lot where a dripping-wet teenager in a rain slicker was selling tickets to a ferry that was nowhere to be seen. Thinking I’d just missed the ferry, I bought a ticket, parked the van (fourth in line behind other campers) and set out in search of a restroom. Just as I found a sign pointing the way, I glanced out across the water and saw the ferry arriving! Came back to find the ferry at the dock with cars streaming off the deck! There was just enough time for me to get back to the van and start the engine before we began to drive onto the ferry, which departed at 5:30 pm.

In the four days I was on Madeline Island, I never saw a ferry arrive or depart on time. To be fair, I saw them arrive or depart four, maybe five times, but still: never on schedule. I think they get there when they get there, and they leave when they’re loaded up.

I call this “Crazy Dude with Car Ferry” — La Pointe, Madeline Island

I drove straight from the landing at La Pointe, Madeline Island, to the state park, about 5 miles from the dock, and had just enough daylight left to unload the bike and the kayak, then set up the tent over the back end of the van. The gloomy overcast shortened the day by quite a bit. In the dim twilight I took a walk around the campground to get a look around. Saw several deer, which didn’t seem to be bothered by having people close by. It was almost too dark to see by the time I got back to the van, so I shook the rainwater off my coat and hat, climbed into the van, and buttoned up for the night. Read my new book until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any more.

A misty morning at Big Bay

Woke early Saturday morning, dozed until about six. Dressed and took a walk down to the beach, eager to see what the park had to offer. The beach is a barrier island which stretches almost all the way across the innermost part of the bay, creating a lagoon on the inland side. The barrier island is just wide enough that trees, grass, and scrubby little bushes have established themselves on the island. There’s a boardwalk up the inside of the barrier so you can hike from one end to the other without trampling the delicate flora growing along the way. It’s a long walk from one end to the other, about a mile and a half, and I hadn’t had any breakfast or even coffee yet, so I only went about halfway before doubling back.

On my walk I crossed paths with a flurry of three little kids chased by a mother with a coffee thermos. “HI NEIGHBOR!” the kids called out to me as they ran down to the beach. “WE’RE GOING TO SEE THE BEACH! WE SAW THE SUN SET LAST NIGHT! DID YOU SEE THE SUN SET? OKAY SEE YOU BYE!” I’m never not amazed by how much energy each and every kid can generate.

After a cup of tea and a banana, I took a drive around the island to see what there was to see, and also to find a boat ramp or some kind of public access to the bay where I could launch my kayak. Turns out there isn’t any. You can rent a canoe or a kayak from several places, but if you bring your own, you have to carry or drag it quite a ways to get it to the beach where you can launch it. For me, this ended up being about a five-minute walk from my camp site, not a huge inconvenience but this is one of the few state parks I’ve been to where there wasn’t easy public access to the water.

My drive around the island was pleasant enough but there wasn’t much to see outside the state park. Some of the shore line was nice but it’s clearly all posted private property, so I didn’t even think about stopping to walk it. Quite a lot of the island was accessible only on unpaved roads which were far from shore, so there’s not much to see that you wouldn’t see on any back road in northern Wisconsin. I drove almost every road on Madeline Island in a little more than an hour and was back to eat lunch before noon.

After lunch, I dragged the kayak down the trail to the beach. When I say “dragged,” I don’t mean that I literally dragged it on the dirt and rocks and roads of the park. I mean I strapped it to a tiny wheeled trolley and led it like a good little doggie. Just wanted to make that clear. “Why don’t you just carry it?” I hear you ask. Although my kayak only weighs about sixty pounds, I can’t carry it very far because 1) I’m old & lazy, and 2) my kayak is eighteen feet long, which makes it very difficult to carry for any distance at all. Hence, the trolley, which works a treat and which I can fold up and stow in the reach hatch of the kayak. If you have a canoe or kayak, get a trolley for it, they’re great.

Launching from the beach near the campground meant I had to paddle the length of the barrier island to get to the inlet to the lagoon, about a twenty-minute paddle. There’s a footbridge across the inlet supported by a couple of rustic timber-crib piers which don’t raise the footbridge very high off the water. I had to fold myself as tightly as I could against the deck of my kayak to get under it. Just to make it really interesting, there were a half-dozen children taking turns jumping off the bridge. They clearly knew I wanted to go under the bridge but they were so caught up in the excitement of jumping into the water that they couldn’t quite summon up the willpower to stop until somebody’s mother, watching from the shore, finally climbed up onto the bridge and held them back for the minute it took for me to squeeze beneath the bridge and paddle on.

The lagoon behind the barrier island is broad and beautiful and dotted with dozens of small islands, some no more than a muddy lump covered in brush with maybe a single tree sprouting from it. Others were much larger but none of them appeared to have any place to make landfall so I was never tempted to climb onto one and have a look around. The whole time I was there the water was glassy smooth, encouraging me to paddle lazily around the lagoon for about an hour before heading back the way I came.

All that paddling in the warm sunshine put me in a napping mood, so after a quick bite to eat I slouched in my camp chair and dozed for about 30 minutes. I do a lot of napping on trips like this. Why not? It’s usually quite peaceful and the hiking, paddling, and biking tires me out just enough to want to catch a few winks. I’ve also got a reclining camp chair that’s super-comfy and rocks back and forth, making it perfect for napping in. So of course I take a nap whenever I can.

After my nap I still had plenty of daylight, so I rode my bike to the southern part of the state park, locked it up in a rack in the parking lot, and walked back to camp along a trail that skirted the edge of the cliffs along Lake Superior. I almost didn’t. I’m not as active as I should be these days and my bones and muscles were complaining about being forced to walk uneven terrain, paddle for hours, and bike miles down the road, but I knew I’d kick myself if I didn’t try to enjoy every bit of the park I came so far to see. So after thinking it over an extra two-three minutes, I committed to walking the trail back to camp, and enjoyed it immensely.

Saturday night dinner was smoked salmon, cheese & crackers, and a cup of tea to wash it down. I took a walk around the campground after dinner to settle my dinner, then sat by a campfire until it was too dark to see.

Sunday morning was very chilly. Didn’t want to get out of bed, but very much wanted a hot cup of tea. Also, had to pee. In the end, I could not resist any of these needs.

I took my tea and a fig bar down to the beach to watch the sun rise, but the sky was overcast so no sun. Walked along the beach with a gentle surf lapping at my feet and a pair of sandpipers leading the way. Spotted the tracks of a doe and her fawn in the sand. They must have been there less than an hour before I was.

Paddling on Lake Superior!

After returning to camp for coffee and a bite to eat, I dragged the kayak down to the beach to paddle around the south end of the park where I suspected there might be some caves in the shoreline. Paddled for maybe twenty minutes when the shoreline went from tumble-down trees and dirt to solid rocks carved by the waves. Didn’t find any caves, or at least not what I would call a cave, but there was one very deeply carved rock overhang propped up by a column of rock that might’ve been a cave a long time ago. I ducked under it very briefly just so I could say I’d paddled my kayak into a “sea cave” on Lake Superior.

The wind came up as I paddled back to the bay, bringing to mind all the warnings about how quickly conditions on Lake Superior can change. It was never so windy that I was in danger of being swamped, or at least I don’t think it was. I never took any water in the cockpit, even though waves were breaking across the deck. But I am a totally neurotic worrywart so it was impossible not to think about rolling over and getting dumped as I made my way back to the beach. Which I did in good time, and completely dry. As I said, I just worry too much.

Back at camp, I traded the kayak for a bike, went for a ride to the ranger station at the entrance to the park, and left it there while I hiked along the cliff face to see if I could find the cave from the dry side of the shore line. It was easier to find than I thought, but much less impressive-looking from up top. Hiked a trail loop back to the ranger station and biked back to camp for lunch and a nap.

The nap didn’t work out this time, mostly because I strung up a hammock and tried to sleep in that instead of my tried-and-true camp chair. I’ve seen other people napping in hammocks and thought, wow, that looks comfortable, but I’ve bought two different hammocks and neither one of them is what I would call comfortable. They both bend me almost double in the most uncomfortable way possible and besides that, they completely wrap me up like a banana skin. I think I’ll have to give up on hammocks for now.

I wanted to get a shower before bed Sunday night. I can go one night without a shower, but two nights without a shower and I start to stink so that it bothers me. The showers at Big Bay State Park were closed because of something they were doing with the septic field, so I had to drive up to the campground at Big Bay Town Park where they had coin-operated showers. I’ve used coin-operated showers before but it had been a while so I’d forgotten the most important lesson of coin-operated showers: Just shove all your money in the slot. It says a dollar seventy-five for the first three minutes and twenty-five cents for each minute after, but that doesn’t mean you have to plug it every minute. If you’ve got ten dollars in quarters, shove it all in there and enjoy your shower instead of hopping out every minute. Hopping out only gets you frustrated and cold.

Went into town after my shower to hunt up some souvenirs and have a look around the town of La Pointe. There wasn’t much to see, so I didn’t stay long. I was back in camp well before sundown, where I feasted on just about everything left in the fridge. Built a fire after dinner, cracked open a beer, and settled down with a book until it was too dark to read, then played with the fire until I burned up all the wood before heading off to bed.

Didn’t get much sleep Sunday night even though I went to bed early. A trio of young women in the camp site across the road were up until the wee hours drinking and playing pop music on their boom box. Several people asked them to quiet down but they just laughed and kept partying. I don’t have any memory of when they finally shut off the music and went to sleep, but I got up before sunrise to have plenty of time to pack and get the first ferry off the island. Under any other circumstances I would have pulled out of my camp site with my only my car’s running lights on but on this particular Monday morning I was very happy to flood their tent with my headlights. Made sure I gave them the high beams, too.

I was first in line for the first ferry off the island, which was scheduled to depart at 7:00 am but which didn’t leave until almost eight. After stopping at a coffee shop in Bayfield to pick up a hot cuppa and a chocolate chip cookie, I set off at 8:15 am and arrived home at 2:40 pm, pretty good time considering I stopped at every wayside I saw to stretch my legs and get some air. There’s an especially nice wayside on Highway 51 between Manitowish Waters and Woodruff, overlooking Diamond Lake, where I stopped for lunch and lingered for about a half-hour. It’s almost entirely hidden from the highway and every time I’ve visited, there was never more than two or three people there.

Big Bay State Park, Sep 9 – 12 | 8:44 am CST
Category: camping, hobby, kayaking, play, travel, vacation | Tags:
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