Senator Gaylord Nelson and the Apostle Islands

Earth Day founder

(feature photo: View of a kayaker at the Apostle Island sea caves from Meyers Trail)

Apostle Islands map (2)
Map: Environment and Climate Change Canada

By Karen Rodriguez

The rocky Meyers Beach Trail follows the shore of Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula to a view overlooking the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore sea caves. Forty feet below the trail, cold Lake Superior waves crash as kayakers paddle under red sandstone arches. Offshore, 22 islands welcome ferries, sailboats, motorboats and kayaks for camping, fishing, birding, hiking and lighthouse viewing. All but one island, Madeline, are relatively wild; some would say re-wild, because all were previously logged, farmed, fished or quarried. All but Madeline Island are part of the National Lakeshore, the legacy of Earth Day founder and Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson.

Senator Nelson championed the idea of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, which was designated in 1970 by President Nixon. In order to protect island ecosystem rare plant and animal communities as well as an extensive cultural history, nearly 80% of the National Lakeshore was designated the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness in 2004. The National Lakeshore is a compromise. Nelson originally proposed all 22 islands plus the present day Bad River and Red Cliff reservation lands as part of a national park. However, conflicts with island property owners over use of island resources that would be allowed under a national park designation, as well as Native American access to natural resources such as fish, game and wild rice, altered the National Lakeshore boundary in the final proposal. Madeline Island, Stockton Island and the Red Cliff and Bad River Reservations were excluded. Stockton was added several years later.

“Gaylord Nelson’s challenge as the architect of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore lay in getting the different levels of government—and the competing ideas about how to value nature that each represented—to share power in a way that facilitated the management of natural resources.”*

picture 1
Apostle Islands coastal wetland on the Bayfield Peninsula

The fishery has been consistently economically important to the Apostle Islands and Chequamegon Bay region. The rugged island shoreline and coastal wetlands along the mainland provide the perfect habitats for lake trout and whitefish spawning, the best in Lake Superior. Commercial fishing depleted fish populations; a hatchery, still operational, was built outside of the town of Bayfield in 1885 to augment populations. However, even with the hatchery commercial fishing was no longer profitable by the mid-1900s. The shift to recreational fishing followed the depletion of fish populations just as the popularity of exploring islands formerly denuded by logging and altered by brownstone quarrying increased. People desired an escape to “wilderness” in order to relax from city life. For Senator Nelson, this shift provided an opportunity to emphasize recreation as an economic paradigm and call for a federally protected area accessible for limited activities.

The Apostle Islands sea caves

The “two hour tour” of the National Lakeshore (accompanied by the theme from Gilligan’s Island) begins in Bayfield. The ferry passes the red sandstone sea caves, lighthouses, and islands where old fish shanties once stood on the shore. The tour guide provides a history and a few tall tales. Several islands allow primitive camping or walking tours. Several are off limits as bird and animal sanctuaries. Fish buoys are scattered throughout.

Inside Tom’s Burned Down Café

Madeline Island (called Mooningwanekaaning by the Ojibwe—signage throughout the island is bilingual), the largest of the Apostle Islands, is not included in the National Lakeshore due to extensive development over the last several hundred years. The island includes Big Bay State Park and the historical town of La Pointe as well as privately owned farms, tourist cottages, an art school and a golf course. With a year-round population of 300, access to the island from two-mile distant Bayfield on the mainland is by car ferry in the summer and an ice road when Chequamegon Bay is frozen in the winter. Tourists love the island for its cultured remoteness, and in at least once instance, quirkiness. The Madeline Island walking tour brochure sums up the eclectic décor of Tom’s Burned Down Café: “metal art, signs, junque, and other artfully arranged stuff.” The laid back atmosphere includes live music, friendly conversations and of course beer and pizza in an open tent-like structure sporting irreverent and clever admonitions and phrases plastered everywhere.

Chequamegon Bay wharf in Bayfield

The charming town of Bayfield, gateway to the Apostle Islands, sits on the shore of Chequamegon Bay overlooking Madeline Island. Shops, restaurants, and small hotels cluster together within walking distance of the marina with its ferries, sailboats and kayaks. The atmosphere is casual, relaxed and comfortable as well as elegant, unusual and fun. The owners of the Old Rittenhouse Inn, a classy bed and breakfast housed in two Victorian mansions, are gourmet cooks. Maggies, a popular restaurant, is known for its fish livers. In summer the Mount Ashwabay ski slope becomes the site of Big Top Chautauqua, headlining topnotch music groups and home grown musicals about the history of the region.

Fortunately, Senator Nelson’s foresight and persistence resulted in a 720 square mile area of Lake Superior where island forests have regrown, fish and wildlife have rebounded, and people enjoy wilderness experiences. The comforts provided by communities around the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore enhance the value of the islands.

*page 189, A Storied Wilderness

The books:

Christopherson, Bill. The Man from Clear Lake, Earth Day Founder Senator Gaylord Nelson Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press; 2004. An uplifting biography of a beloved Wisconsin Senator and Governor, this book establishes Nelson’s place as a leading environmentalist. A man of integrity and humor, his positive responses to the challenges of the 1960s and 1970s are hopeful reminders that courage is still possible in a world of mistrust and untruths.

*Feldman, James W. A Storied Wilderness, Rewilding the Apostle Islands Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press; 2011. Recounting the history of the Apostle Islands, the book details how 22 islands were fished, logged, quarried, and farmed, then left to “re-wild” and become a National Lakeshore of national significance.

Holzhuetter, John O. Madeline Island and the Chequamegon Region. The State Historical Society of Wisconsin; 1986. This brief early history of the region focuses on the Ojibwe residents and their interactions with the Europeans who settled here.

The places:

Lake Superior and Chequamegon Bay region of northern Wisconsin includes the Bayfield Peninsula, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Madeline Island, Red Cliff Indian Reservation, the Bad River Indian Reservation including Kakagon Sloughs, and the communities of Bayfield, Washburn, Ashland, La Pointe, Odanah and Cornucopia

Content and all photos copyright 2017 Karen Rodriguez

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