Photos by Felicia Schneiderhan
Every March, when winter starts its forever slog on the northern shores of Lake Superior, our family’s crew of five starts plotting our next summer adventure. In the sea of uncertainty surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic last spring, we would need our boat more than ever to accommodate the ideal socially distanced vacation.
Mazurka is our 1980 Marine Trader trawler. Her 38 feet in length were perfect when my husband, Mark, and I lived on her in Chicago for four years (yes, even in winter). For the past decade, she has moored in Knife River, Minnesota, a friendly, under-the-radar marina for our floating cabin. We now have three “tsunamis,” ages 10, 8 and 6. In early spring, the kids forget the boredom and downtime of going 6 knots; all they remember are Lake Superior’s summer playgrounds, including Isle Royale, the Keweenaw Peninsula, the great Sleeping Giant and their favorite, the Apostle Islands.
The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore would be ideal for a socially distanced getaway. This archipelago off the northern coast of Wisconsin, with 21 protected islands and a stretch of mainland, is easy compared to the big lake’s more distant locales. The water here can be 15 degrees warmer than the rest of the lake—perfect for swimming. And just past Outer Island, the colder waters are renowned for fishing. There also are shipwrecks, hiking trails, lighthouses and an all-you-can-eat buffet of wild berries (and the bears to go with them).
Because of the virus in 2020, the islands were closed to campers, so we figured we’d have the place to ourselves, though we could still reach mainland ports and call BoatUS in a jam. ’Cause here’s the deal with a 1980 Marine Trader trawler: They’re quirky and fun, but the teak isn’t the only thing that needs a ton of work. (If you own an old boat, we’d definitely be friends. Unless you also work full time and have three kids, in which case we’ll probably be friends one day when everything calms down.)
Our plan was to unplug from society for two weeks. No internet or phone. A break from the daily anxiety and stress of pandemic living. Just us and the bears picking all those delicious blueberries.
After a blissful first night on the hook at Oak Island, we decided to pull anchor for another island. Mark turned the key. The engine started right up, but something didn’t sound right. Our normally calm captain started rushing around frantically.
“The starter won’t shut off!” he hollered. “Get Ed on the phone!”
Ed is Mark’s brother, a large-diesel-engine mechanic, best friend to Mazurka’s 120-hp, six-cylinder Ford Lehman engine. Maybe it was luck or the boat’s good karma, but for as many mechanical disasters as Mazurka has, she somehow always manages to open a window. In this case, we were granted miraculous cellphone reception.
The trick with an old boat is to stay calm and methodically troubleshoot until the problem resolves. Every seasoned boater has a story about this process, which sometimes lasts well into the night. While Mark did troubleshooting with Ed on the phone, I led the tsunamis out to the bow with snacks and books, and read aloud to them to quell my own anxiety and fear. We were on an anchor with a starter that wouldn’t shut off, and with smoke and a burning smell rising from the engine room. Welcome to day two of our vacation.
Within the hour, Mark and Ed had figured out the problem and the solution. As Ed told me, “This isn’t a disaster. You’re still going to be able to have your vacation.” An electrical short on the primary solenoid had bypassed the secondary solenoid’s connection to the ignition key at the helm. Basically, the starter remained engaged and turning even with the ignition in the off position, and it wouldn’t shut off even after the engine fired up. Also a little concerning: The solenoid wires were glowing red and starting to smoke.
Mark shut down the engine manually with the fuel injector pump shut-off lever, then jiggled some wires (always a good tactic) to disconnect the problem wire from the starter. He then took a new wire with both ends stripped and made a temporary connection to engage the starter. He held the wire with pliers right at the solenoid and jump-started the engine while our 10-year-old revved the throttle at the helm.
Engine purring, we headed to Washburn Marina, one of the best in the area. Back to civilization: internet, email, news, pandemic. Get out the masks.
A few years back, with three kids younger than 4, we took an overly ambitious cruise up the northern shore to Thunder Bay and the Sleeping Giant. Weather kept us in a harbor for a week straight. I was miserable because I had ideas, you know? Reality was not matching my vision, and I broadcast that misery all over the Canadian shoreline and my fellow crewmates. Since then, I had chilled out enough to realize that the Apostles trip was not going to go according to my master plan, either. The boat and nature were in charge. I would probably have a lot better time if I just accepted things as they unfolded. At the very least, I wouldn’t bring down the rest of the crew with me.
Washburn turned out to be a sweet little place for us to spend a few days. Ed ordered a new starter to be delivered to the local auto parts store, and the next day, Mark installed it. He even improved the design and put in a kill switch to the starter. The kids and I picked wild raspberries on a walk to the local playground, browsed in a thrift store, and watched Netflix.
Mazurka started up like she never has before, and we headed to Stockton Island, popular for its expansive, sandy beach. We were a little surprised to find more than 20 boats (14 of them rafted together) in what we assumed would be our private harbor. In previous years, we went to ranger talks about island wildlife and conservation efforts. We learned how indigenous fire management has returned to the islands in line with Ojibwe practices, to honor and manage the natural resources, like wild blueberries. But this year, there were no ranger talks, very few blueberries, and no black bear somersaulting down the sand dunes and frolicking in the waves (which I had witnessed from 50 feet away). Still, we spent a blissful, sunny day on an isolated swatch of the sugar-sand beach. Things could have been a lot worse.
When the wind shifted out of the south, we briefly docked at the lesser-visited Otter Island (where we ran into our optometrist) and then headed to the north side of Oak Island, joining two dozen boaters vying for Saturday-night space. We had to race for an anchorage, which is sort of sad when you’re going the turtle speed of 6 knots and every other powerboat can overtake you. One captain, at least, had the courtesy to call us on channel 16 and ask where we were headed, right before he surpassed us with his flotilla.
Once on anchor, we sat on the bow and listened to a Jimmy Buffett/Pete Seeger wannabe with his amplifier and guitar, giving a concert with the impending lightning storm. Our kids asked where all these people had come from.
In the morning, we hiked Oak’s rugged trails in a rainstorm, returning after lunch to find only two boats left in the harbor. Bring out the card games and the hot chocolate. Twenty-four hours later, hungover on too much sugar and too many junie b. jones books, our 10-year-old declared, “I am an extrovert and cannot just see you four people all day, every day.”
Point taken. He knew his friend was spending the week on Madeline Island, and we gave in to more society.
The spiritual seat of the Lake Superior’s Ojibwe, Madeline Island is not actually a part of the National Lakeshore, though it’s the most frequently visited via ferry from the mainland. It’s home to the Madeline Island School of the Arts and to Big Bay State Park. The town of LaPointe has a laid-back feel, but the pandemic distorted the whole chill vibe in an eerie way. We met up with neighborhood friends from home and spent the evening at the school’s new playground, staying long after dark until the mosquitos finally chased us out. Under a bright moon, the kids swished down the empty street on their scooters, asking if we could live like this every day.
The next morning, we decided to make the long trip back to home. And our post-trip debriefing was as off-kilter as the trip itself. What went right? A lot of things. But why did it not feel satisfying at the end?
Maybe because even our low expectations were a setup for disappointment. We wanted a socially distanced trip, an escape from society, and this was one of the most social cruises we’ve ever taken. Our kids have grown to a point where we are not enough for them. And the easy trip lacked a critical factor: adventure. We specifically chose a familiar place to avoid extra stress. But that’s sort of the problem these days: too much familiar, too much of one another, too much everyday stress, and not enough new challenge to invigorate the brain.
So this coming March, we may decide to set off for the Slate Islands, or go really big. The Great Loop awaits.