Port Of Call: Ashland, Wisconsin, And The Apostle Islands
By Michele Bergstrom
How do boaters find their way to this charming waterfront city, an important portal to Lake Superior's Apostle Islands?
First, they check the weather—it's no secret Lake Superior loves to whip up surprises. On the all-clear, they fire up the engines, turn on the GPS, and unfold the charts. Delightful experiences beckon within these big blue waters and especially in energetic little Ashland, Wisconsin, a great place to stretch sea legs.
Those taking a jog off the Great Circle Route at the St. Mary's River, which divides the Canadian city of Sault Ste. Marie from its Michigan namesake, should follow the south shore west to Chequamegon Bay. Duluthians will head east, slipping around the thumb of the bay peninsula, then due south to Wisconsin's mainland. Canadian boaters can island-hop from Isle Royale across open waters to the Apostles. Or they can city-hop the north shore between Thunder Bay, Ontario, and Grand Marais, Minnesota, then to Two Harbors, Minnesota, before heading east to the Apostles. From the islands, it's a straight shot to Ashland, tucked into the middle of the bay's north coastline.
My husband, Randy, and I have boated on Lake Superior for over 20 years and love this mighty inland sea. Of the five Great Lakes, this one has generated the deepest respect, even fear, in boaters for its unpredictability, but it is also the one that inspires the most awe for its astounding beauty.
Consider this mind-boggling fact: Lake Superior contains three quadrillion (that's a three followed by 15 zeros!) gallons of water, making it the largest body of fresh water on earth. It is 350 miles long, 160 miles wide with a coastline length of 2,720 miles, and, at its deepest point, 1,333 feet. Average water temperature—don't fall in!—is 40°. Covering 31,700 square miles, it borders the United States and Canada, and three states: Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, dedicated in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy in his last official trip before his assassination, is an archipelago of 22 islands scattered over 750 square miles of Lake Superior coastal waters. In addition to a 12-mile-long strip of shoreline, 21 of these islands make up this magnificent national park.
Long stretches of near-deserted sandy beaches, sandstone sea caves continually carved by water and wind, old-but-functioning lighthouses, and rocky shorelines dotted with colorful rocks (including the elusive Lake Superior agate) are all for the boater (and kayaker) to explore.
Since the summer of 2004, we've moored our 38-foot Ocean Alexander trawler in the Ashland Marina. That's after we had purchased, then motored Ka-Ching 3,000 miles from Ft. Lauderdale through the eastern half of the Great Circle Route all the way to Sault Ste. Marie. From there, that last lock launched us westward 350 miles through Lake Superior to home waters around the Apostles, and finally to C Dock, Slip 36.
Amenities? Plenty. The Ashland Marina has 142 slips for boats up to 50 feet. An attendant is on daily duty for fuel, pumpout, and lift-out services up to 35 tons, as well as sales in the ship's store. There are restrooms with showers for slip tenants and guests. Transient slips are available with full hook-ups at $1 per foot or $25 for no services along the breakwall. While there are no mechanics on staff (although available within the area), manager Scott Stegmann and his crew are always ready to help.
Taxi service is available through Bay Area Transport, yet it's far more fun to see Ashland by foot. The marina is within easy walking to grocery stores and galleries, gift shops and clothing stores, coffee houses and great restaurants, even an award-winning microbrewery. The Bay Theater's movie marquee beckons with a '50s motif while showing the latest movies.
We've grown to appreciate this tidy city that stretches for 5 miles along the south shore. With a history as long as the huge, worn-out ore dock jutting nearly one-third mile into Chequamegon Bay, Ashland is picturesque with many architecturally renowned brownstone buildings. Enhancing them all is Ashland's famous mural walk. Be sure to bring a camera for this eye-popping meander through the city's eight-block business district, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Between 1998 and 2005, two local artists, Kelly Meredith and Susan Prentice Martinsen, brought the past to life by painting yesterday's citizens on the sides of old brick buildings. A Native American chief, city founders, pioneers, lighthouse keepers, lumberjacks, store clerks and early aviators gaze back at modern passersby. The seventh and newest mural covers half a city block and portrays airmen, marines, soldiers and sailors—actual veterans from past wars who lived in the area.
A History Lesson
History is big in Ashland. Museums here—and in the nearby Wisconsin towns of Washburn and Bayfield—honor the eight Native American tribes that lived on Chequamegon Bay shores, revere the dedicated missionaries who came to convert, record activities of the fur traders, and pay tribute to the entrepreneurs bringing industry. All those bygone men and women knew there was something beyond special about this ruggedly beautiful region and put an unforgettable stamp on it.
After settlement by whites in the 1850s, logging, shipping iron ore, and quarrying Lake Superior brownstone became boom-town industries. From 1890 to 1920, sawmills and long shipping docks made up the waterfront for 2 miles as vessels of all kinds moved in and out of this important harbor. Even passenger steamships and sailboats made regular stops while touring the Great Lakes. Capable of handling large fleets, Ashland was considered the third largest Great Lakes shipping port during those years. Only Chicago and Buffalo were bigger and busier.
Five major railroad systems steamed through the city over thick-timbered trestles (some still visible, although inactive) moving the area's vast natural resources into a world eager for them. Iron ore from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan's Gogebic Range and the Mesabe Range of Minnesota was loaded onto ships and barges from the Ashland ore dock. Huge logs from soon-to-be-denuded forests floated in cordoned-off sections of the shipping docks. Government buildings, banks, churches, and mansions were built with the celebrated brownstone. The city prospered with a peak population of 16,000.
Gradually, during the first 50-plus years of the 20th century, industries that had kept the city active day and night began slowing, then shutting down. One spectacular fire claimed the Vaughn dock; others deteriorated from wild winds, water, and weather. Jagged log pilings still jut through the waves—remnants of those enormous old docks.
Of all those mighty structures, the Ashland ore dock is the only one still standing, although it is no longer functional and beginning to crumble. The largest concrete structure of its kind in the world, it is 80 feet high, nearly 60 feet wide, and 1,800 feet long. From our vantage point in the marina, it dominates the city skyline with its huge, rusty-red prominence.
Ashland admits to a downtime when lumbering and mining crawled almost to a standstill. Yet the lure of the lake and the challenge to navigate her waters always remained. Ashland has worked hard to develop a new image and now serves the modern world with vigor. The current population of nearly 9,000 has modernized the city with bright new buildings, an exceptional environmental college, a technical school, tourism enticement, and a dedication to preserving its best natural resource: the waters of Lake Superior.
Landlubbers and those with veteran sea legs find much to do here. A waterfront trail, most of it paved, extends 3 miles from Bayview Park on the east side to Maslowski Beach (great swimming for families) on the west. Right from the marina, one can hike, bike, or rollerblade alongside Chequamegon Bay, learning Ashland history from many interpretive signs. Artesian wells spouting the purest of waters dot the trail. Cool off with a big drink!
Prentice Park is the largest Ashland park with 100 acres of walking trails and boardwalks along Fish Creek Slough. This unique freshwater marsh teems with waterfowl of all kinds, including tundra swans, great blue herons, blue-winged teals, sandhill cranes, American bitterns, hooded mergansers, and horned grebes. Twenty species of warblers have been sighted here, in addition to many shore birds, bald eagles, and wading birds—a birder's dream!
The Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center, a $7 million building, sits on a 180-acre site 3 miles west of Ashland that's open all four seasons and a must-see for visitors. An observation tower, extensive boardwalk system, 100-seat theater, and historic and interpretive exhibits highlight this beautiful facility. Bordering Whittlesey Creek National Wildlife Refuge, the NGLVC is another exceptional birding spot. It's all free and open seven days a week. Bring those binoculars and cameras.
The northern section of the Chequamegon National Forest, totaling 845,000 acres of recreational and educational opportunity, is in the heart of Ashland County. Rivers and lakes and trails and trees—miles and miles of wooded, wild diversity. Go!
A brisk mile-long walk south from the heart of Ashland is Northland College, a four-year, private liberal arts college renowned for its focus on the environment. Established in 1892, the campus sports a number of attractive new buildings, including the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute, an outreach facility. Also in the neighborhood is the popular Ashland campus of Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College.
Back in 1989, Scott Mitchen, a local enterprising treasure hunter, used sonar imaging equipment to locate underwater logs of virgin timber. These "sinkers" were preserved by fresh, frigid waters and low oxygen for more than 100 years at the bottom of Lake Superior. The dense logs, heavy with water and sap, slipped underwater while waiting a turn through sawmills, and lay undisturbed until hauled up with winches, airbags, or cranes on barges. Some of these logs are from trees over 800 years old and products of clear-cutting most of northern Wisconsin at the height of lumbering between 1870 and 1910.
Timeless Timber, the largest manufacturer of this rare virgin growth timber in North America, now recovers and processes two million board feet of lumber without sawing down a single living tree. Some of the recovered trees include beech, cypress, elm, hard maple, red oak, northern white pine, and red birch. Along with beautiful furniture, cabinetry, floors, and paneling, the wood has been made into exceptional musical instruments. Its tight graining makes sonorous string, wind, and keyboard pieces.
On the city's east side, Timeless Timber operates a museum and gift shop filled with artifacts made from these gorgeous woods. Milled lumber from the deep can be purchased at the site. It is truly worth seeing. Randy, my personal woodworker, has made two coffee tables for Ka-Ching from these woods—one of red birch and the other from maple enhanced by cherry. Cocktails around them always generate the story of this environmentally sensitive company.
There is so much more! Thespians will revel in Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua, a famous 900-seat, all-canvas theater 3 miles south of nearby Bayfield that offers up to 70 top-notch performances (dramatic and musical) all summer long. There are two Native American casinos in Odanah and Red Cliff, as well as golf courses, many area waterfalls, guided fishing for salmon and lake trout, and fruit farms that encourage visitors to "pick-your-own."
After all this activity, we find we're starving. One of our favorite dining spots is the Deep Water Grille, a downtown restaurant and bar noted for both fine dining and pub fare. Home to the award-winning South Shore Brewery (tours available), the restaurant features six microbrews on tap. Randy loves the Nut Brown Ale while I favor the Honey Pils—all tasty complements to excellent cuisine. How can anyone resist salmon puttanesca, Brie-and-leek-stuffed chicken breasts or caramelized scallops? The beer cheese soup is a must.
Ashland Marina sits in the shadow of the stately Hotel Chequamegon, another favored dining site. Attractive meals are served in Sirtoli's Dining Room where North Shore chowder, fresh walleye and whitefish entrees, among many others, are prepared to perfection.
In the lower level overlooking the harbor, Molly Cooper's Lounge offers lighter selections (with the exception of Bloody Marys, which are meals in themselves), sandwich specials, and a tasty Friday fish fry. All can be served on the outside deck, perfect for viewing dazzling Lake Superior sunsets. If you're dining outside on Thursday nights, lively band shell music floats over the bay as local and imported musicians gather to share talents.
Three blocks from the marina is the 2nd Street Bistro, originally a soda shop in the '30s, now a flavorful eatery featuring live music. Try this: pan-seared juniper-marinated duck breast, basmati rice, and a pear flavored with pearl onion jus. Follow that main entrée with homemade mango and avocado ice cream in a sugared cup with fresh blackberries and toasted coconut.
The beautiful and new Explorers Point Restaurant, an impressive log structure west of town, has garnered excellent reviews for its menu and gorgeous views of Chequamegon Bay. There are many smaller and equally tasty restaurants around the city, such as Frankie's Pizza and Breakwater Cafe.
A delightful bakery, The Daily Bread, sells unusual breads and sweet things, so fill up that boat with whatever tickles your olfactory nerves. Across the street is the Chequamegon Co-op, one of the cleanest, well-stocked, reasonably priced health food stores anywhere. It is also the site of another colorful mural. Next to it is the Black Cat Coffee House, a magnet for students, progressive thinkers, and coffee lovers.
The Sixth Street Market is renowned for homemade bratwurst, including links made with wild rice, green apples, cranberries, and jalapeños. Brats grilling over hot coals while swinging on the hook as a purple-red-orange sunset floats over the western sky—who could ask for more?
Explore The Apostle Islands
Ah, swinging at anchor. Time to talk about the Apostle Islands, a huge reason boaters come to Ashland.
For many summers, Randy, our three kids, and I motored our assorted succession of vessels (yup, they got bigger and bigger) to these jewels of Lake Superior. We've searched for agates along rocky shores (even snorkeled for them), hiked golden beaches and wooded trails, jumped off high sandstone rock formations into clear-to-the-bottom frigid waters, bounded up the steps of lighthouses, and dared to pick blueberries in patches well known to black bears. We can never get enough.
But first, here's a bit on background and regulations. On December 8, 2004, Congress declared 33,500 acres of the Apostles—about 80 percent—as wilderness, titling it the Gaylord A. Nelson National Wilderness after the late Wisconsin governor and senator, who worked for years to create this national park. While continuing to honor the native Ojibwe people, fur traders, fishermen, loggers, and settlers who stamped their own respective stories on the islands, this act assures the park's natural environment will remain preserved as it has been for hundreds of years.
In 2006, after much public input, fees were proposed and will be implemented this year. Fees are collected from usage of group camping sites, with the revenue going to upkeep, repairs, and facility improvement within the park. Docking fees will also be in effect for overnight stays, so please check this website for information to fit individual situations: www.nps.gov/apis/planyourvisit/recreation-user-fees.htm. (Another excellent site highlighting boating around the Apostles can be found at www.nps.gov/apis/planyourvisit/boating.htm.)
What do these changes mean? Basically, they make sure this magnificent watery wilderness will be protected from development, all the while allowing sailing vessels and powerboats to continue visiting docks, lighthouses, and visitor centers. Motorized vehicles and noisemakers that would destroy the tranquility of the islands, such as ATVs, snowmobiles, chainsaws, and fireworks, remain totally unwelcome.
Helpful park rangers will continue to be present on a number of the islands from May until October. These in-the-know folks give fire pit chats and guided tours sharing facts about island history, plants, animals, and topography while maintaining order and providing safe surroundings.
Our favorite island? At 8 miles long and nearly 3 miles wide, Stockton Island, 25 miles northeast of Ashland, pulls us in the most. With its attractive visitor center, 20-plus campsites, and extensive trail system, it's the most popular island. It is also the site of an abandoned brownstone quarry, accessible by a 1.5-mile-long trail from the Quarry Bay pier.
When both our boats and kids were smaller, we preferred the safety of the secure cement docks at Presque Isle and Quarry Bay. Now we all love to swing on the hook under sunsets and full moons, waves lapping the hull. If the weather is soft with no northerlies, we drop anchor in Julian Bay on the island's other side, site of a long "singing sands" beach, a fascinating bog that's home to sandhill cranes, painted turtles, and great rock formations. There is no better way to start the day than to wake at sunrise, sit up on the flybridge with coffee mug in hand, and spot a black bear plodding along the beach.
One April shortly after ice breakup, we were the first boat to return to Stockton. While we never encountered any bruins, what a thrill it was to add our sandy footsteps to those of the just-awakened black bears! (The island has one of the largest concentrations of black bears—36 at last count—in North America. They're actually an uncommon sight, being far more afraid of humans than a threat to anyone's safety. Of course, with any wild animal, caution is always urged, particularly when food is involved.)
Volunteers from all over the country spend summers in the islands' lighthouses, providing tours and lively stories of past residents in these compounds. Raspberry Island Lighthouse, the "showplace of the Apostles," has undergone extensive renovations so on guided tours future visitors can appreciate the unusual lives lighthouse keepers and their families experienced. Scheduled to be complete this summer, it will be worth stopping by. Docking is available at the sturdy pier or boaters can drop anchor in a nearby protected bay and dinghy in. An easy trail leads from the beach to the lighthouse.
The Michigan Island Lighthouse is another favorite. It's quite a haul up the old cement steps from the dock (be aware of surges while tied—it might be better to anchor off the island and dinghy in), and another huff-and-puff up the lighthouse steps, but the 360-degree panorama of sparkling waters and emerald-green islands from the top of the lighthouse is spectacular, all the way around to Minnesota shores 40 miles away.
There are two lighthouses on these grounds. The original white-stucco structure was built in 1856 and in operation only one year before being shut down. Authorities at that time determined Michigan Island was not important enough to benefit passing ships. Yet, in time, that thought changed. Refurbished with a three-and-one-half order Fresnel lens, it was reopened in 1869 and operational for 50 years. (A Fresnel lens is a beautiful and functional series of glass prisms set in concentric rings above and below a central drum section. Designed in 1822 by a French physicist, Augustine Fresnel, the lenses were amazingly effective and could be seen for 20 miles.) It was eventually replaced by the current lighthouse, a steel tower from Pennsylvania that had been operating on the Delaware River near Philadelphia.
Other great lighthouses to visit include Devil's Island, the last station to be manned in the Apostles. It was the only one to retain a Fresnel lens. (Over the years, other Fresnel lenses in island lighthouses were gradually replaced by automated lights.) The lighthouse received a major makeover in 2003. Despite its relatively remote location, Devil's Island is a favorite among boaters and kayakers drawn also to the amazing sea caves rimming the island.
Sand Island, located near the western end of the archipelago, is home to the most attractive of Lake Superior lighthouses. Built in 1881 of sandstone quarried on the island, this Gothic building draws many boaters and kayakers curious about its history. We highly recommend going by dinghy or kayak to explore the island's ancient sea caves constantly sculpted by waves, wind, and ice—breathtaking!
In its heyday, Sand Island supported a community of farmers and fishermen, whose discarded antique artifacts (including a rusted, rumble-seated old car sunk up to its hubs) and schoolhouse foundation are still visible in the woods.
Outer Island is the most remote of the Apostles. Its lighthouse stands high on a clay bluff open to the lake's full power. Erosion of the banks has prompted an extensive stabilization project in order to save the tower. There is a dock, but exposure to wave movement makes landing there a challenge. Enjoy, but be careful.
Every island offers something to visitors. Manitou is the site of a restored fish camp used in the 1930s, with buildings and original artifacts on display. A park ranger is there to give daily tours during the summer. Oak Island offers 11 miles of wooded and lakeside trails, several campsites, and a lovely sand-spit beach.
Basswood and Hermit Islands have abandoned brownstone quarries to visit, while Rocky and Cat Islands are great for rock hunting. The island closest to Ashland, Long Island, is actually a narrow sand spit separating Chequamegon Bay from the open waters of the lake. Treasured by area families for great swimming, the island sports dozens of anchored boats on a hot summer day. We have visited all the islands and found them uniquely wonderful.
At 14 miles long and 3 miles wide, Madeline Island is the biggest island of the group, but is not part of the national park. It is the only inhabited island (year-round population of 200) with commercial activity. It, too, is very popular with boaters who find the Madeline Island Yacht Club an excellent place for full services and renting a slip for a day or two. Ferries run all day and into the night between delightful Bayfield and La Pointe, the little town that is the heartbeat of the island, bringing bikers and hikers and tourist-filled cars for fun-filled visits.
There is much to do on this island, from renting scooters for island exploration to dining in many fine restaurants to swimming at Big Bay State Park's superb beach. The Madeline Island Historical Museum is a must for anyone eager to learn area history. Kids love it for the hands-on exhibits.
Named after the Ojibwe wife of well-known fur trader Michel Cadotte, Madeline Island has always been sacred and historically significant to native people. Two of their chiefs are buried on the island, one in an old cemetery marked with wooden spirit houses, and the other in a grove of four pines across from the graveyard.
These enterprising native people remain culturally influential in the area. The Red Cliff Indian Reservation is at the north tip of the bay peninsula. It offers a full-service marina with 45 slips, campground, and miles of hiking trails, and operates a fish hatchery open to public tours. The Isle Vista Casino is within easy walking distance of the marina. A powwow the first weekend in July brings many visitors to watch feathers and fringe, bright beads and moccasins whirl in energetic and traditional dances. Fun for all!
The other band of Lake Superior Chippewa (another name for Ojibwe) lives on the Bad River Reservation and operates the Bad River Lodge and Casino on Highway 2, 5 miles east of Ashland. The Kakagon and Bad River Sloughs, 16,000 acres of wetlands, have been the source of wild rice for generations of these native people. The rice is harvested in August, with a Manomin Fest and powwow celebrating this natural yield. Another colorful, cultural event no one should miss!
How more inviting can this area be? Aweigh those anchors and away!
Apostle Island-Area Marinas
Madeline Island Yacht Club
La Pointe, WI
Port Superior Marina
Apostle Islands Marina
Pike's Bay Marina
Roys Point Marina
Siskiwit Bay Marina
About The Author
Wisconsin's Northwoods is home to Michele Bergstrom and her husband, Randy. The couple has responded to the pull of Lake Superior's challenging beauty every summer for more than 20 years. Favorite spots to cruise in their restored 38-foot, 1985 Ocean Alexander trawler, Ka-Ching, are the Apostle Islands and the north shores of Minnesota and Canada, with Isle Royale a bi-annual treat. Four years ago they purchased Ka-Ching in Florida and brought the boat to Ashland, Wisconsin, through the eastern part of the Great Circle (see "Slow Boat to Wisconsin" PMM Oct.'05). Michele, a freelance writer who has kept extensive journals of her adventures, is currently working on a novel, often while swinging on the hook.