WE TACK NORTHEAST OUT of the marina, cutting across Chequamegon Bay, leaving behind Bayfield, a northern Wisconsin hamlet nestled on a hillside strewn with grand Victorians and Queen Anne mansions and brick-lined streets that lead to the harbor below.
Bayfield is considered the Gateway to the Apostles, an archipelago of 22 islands on the western edge of Lake Superior, ranging in size from tiny 3-acre Gull Island to 14,436-acre Madeline Island. It is the perfect starting point for what my husband and I call island adventures du jour, day trips on our chartered sailboat to wherever in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore wind and our whims take us.
We start with a quick jaunt to LaPointe, the quaint town on Madeline Island, the only one of the Apostles inhabited year-round. Like Bayfield, it has restaurants, shops and places to stay.
We soon discover that life on Madeline was the apex for island life a century or so ago. Docking at Raspberry Island and alighting for the park tour of the lighthouse and keeper’s quarters, we experience the more rugged existence of a family far from the mainland but still wanting the comforts of a home. But when we land on Manitou, all pretensions at decor are long gone as we view a 20th-century fishing camp. These bare rooms showcase a harsh life where men spent the winter fishing. The only break, and surely not a welcome one, from this Spartan existence, was the 13-mile trudge across frozen ice to Bayfield to deliver their catch.
On Basswood, all that’s left of a once profitable business are the remains of the long abandoned quarry: stone walls and rusted machinery. Although people fled the islands unable to find a sustainable way of life, wildlife has flourished in abundance. As we trim sails near Oak and Hermit, we spy a nest of bald eagles while one takes wing overhead.
Early one morning we make the long day’s sail to Devils Island. One of the most outer islands, it’s unprotected from the rough waters of Lake Superior. Here, winds and waves have carved caves along its rocky shore.
That night we drop anchor in a sheltered and calm crescent-shaped bay on the southern side of Stockton, reputed to have the country’s largest population of black bears. With other islands in sight, the beauty here is serene, unlike the powerful but raw magnificence of Devils Island. But bears aside, It’s a gentle night on the water. Because we’re so far north, we see the traces of aurora borealis and so many shooting stars we grow weary of counting.
But as glorious as these days at sea are, by Day Five I am tired of putting on clothes damp from the moist night air and showering at the way overused marina. I am ready for shore leave, and I am ready for it now.
And so we decide to spend the night at Bayfield’s Old Rittenhouse Inn, an expansive Queen Anne-style home with a wrap-around veranda, dormer windows and gables, built in 1890 as a summer home. Opened by Mary and Jerry Phillips more than three decades ago, the inn’s food was at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement so popular today. Menu items change frequently but can include filet mignon stuffed with oysters or seared breast of duckling with wild chokecherry glaze.
That night, watching the lights of the boats bob up and down in the bay and hearing the distant call of the seagulls, I sleep on clean sheets, knowing that in the morning I can, after having taken a long hot shower, don dry clothes before raising the sails once again.