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The Apostle Islands: A Distant Discovery

I won’t lie: It takes a long time to get to Bayfield, Wisconsin, from just about anywhere. But travelers willing to make the journey will be rewarded with the serenity and charm of this lakefront town and the beauty of its crown jewel, the Apostle Islands.

Located at the end of a peninsula on Wisconsin’s northern Lake Superior coastline, Bayfield and its nearby communities are on the opposite side of the state from more highly trafficked destinations such as Milwaukee, Green Bay and Door County. Visitors flying in are better off using a Minnesota airport — I flew into Duluth when I visited last September at the invitation of the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
The long trek proved more than worthwhile. This area of the state is picturesque and serene, full of local pride and abundant in maritime culture. There are numerous opportunities to explore Lake Superior, the famed Apostle Islands and the distinctive history of the region.
If your group includes adventurous travelers who are thirsty to discover destinations off the beaten path, this is a trip that merits your attention.

Lakeshore Exploration

I arrived in Bayfield in the afternoon and enjoyed a sunset dinner of Lake Superior whitefish at a local restaurant overlooking the harbor. The next morning, I paid a visit to the Apostle Islands National Lakes Visitor Center to get the lay of the land and learn about the landscape that I would spend the next two days exploring.
The visitor center is a beautiful historic building constructed of Apostle Islands brownstone. Inside, an introductory film details the natural and human history of the area.
There are 22 islands in this area of Lake Superior, 21 of which make up the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The islands were named by French Jesuit missionaries who called them the Islands of the Twelve Apostles, despite the fact that they number many more than a dozen.
Ranger Neil Hawk told me about how the islands have changed throughout the centuries.
“The islands were heavily logged in the 1800s and early 1900s,” he said. “It’s been 70 to 80 years since the last logging, and the trees have regrown. It looks very wild now.”
After an introduction at the visitor center, I boarded an Apostle Islands Cruises vessel to explore Lake Superior and the islands.
“I’m going to make it my mission to show you all 22 Apostle Islands today,” the boat’s captain said as we pulled away from the harbor. “We’re going to cover 55 miles of pristine Lake Superior. This is the world’s largest freshwater lake in terms of surface area. It’s roughly the size of Maine.”
We didn’t see all of Lake Superior, of course, but we did manage to see all 22 of the Apostle Islands. Each island has a story to tell, and the captain recounted many of them as we cruised past. We saw historic quarries, logging cabins and fish camps and heard tales of some of the colorful characters who used to inhabit the islands.
At the farthest point of the cruise, we saw perhaps the most famous site in the National Lakeshore: Devil’s Island. Centuries of waves and erosion have carved spectacular, deep sea caves into the face of the island rock, causing beautiful formations framed by the green of the island’s trees and the deep blue of the lake. The captain slowed the boat to a crawl and made several passes within feet of the cave walls, allowing everyone on board to get a close look at the island’s features.
The cruise also showcased several of the six lighthouses on the islands. The Devil’s Island lighthouse towers above the island’s cliff face. On Raspberry Island, a historic lighthouse and keeper’s home are still accessible during the summer months by way of a special ferry that drops visitors off for two hours to explore the island and the lighthouse.


Culture on Display

Back in Bayfield, I enjoyed lunch on the second-story patio of a restaurant overlooking the bay, then set out to visit a pair of museums that give visitors a look at the nautical and cultural history of the area.
I started at the Bayfield Maritime Museum, a small facility packed with historic vessels and artifacts from Lake Superior’s commercial fishing past.
“This building is a boat storage facility,” said the museum’s Dan Albrecht as he showed me around. “In the summer, we bring in the artifacts and make it a museum while the boats are on the lake. Our emphasis is on commercial fishing, Lake Superior shipwrecks and the Apostle Islands.”
Because the entire exhibition is disassembled and reassembled every year, the museum’s packing crates double as exhibit shelves, re-creating the environment that you might find on board a commercial ship. Exhibits detail fishing techniques, sailor’s knots and Bayfield’s boatbuilding heritage. I especially enjoyed a photo essay showing scenes from a day in the life of a commercial fisherman.
Museum visitors also see a number of full-size boats. The centerpiece of the museum, the Scout, is a large wooden boat that turns 100 years old this year. The museum also has a full mast and sail from the deck of a sailboat, and volunteers are working on building a replica of a 1941 fishing skiff in front of the museum.
Next, I visited the Bayfield Heritage Center, a small museum set inside a former home. A docent walked me through the museum’s exhibits, explaining that the area started as a logging camp and then evolved into a fishing center before becoming a tourism and water sports destination. Many of the fishermen who came to the area were immigrants from Norway, and Norwegian heritage still runs deep in the community.
Among the highlights at the museum is a display of home furnishings from Sand Island, one of the Apostle Islands that was a fishing and farming community before the island became protected as part of the national lakeshore. The antique ice box, stove, beds, chairs and other items on display paint a picture of the lifestyle of the families who lived on this remote island as late as the 1960s.


City of Murals

The next day, I ventured to Ashland, another Wisconsin town on the opposite side of the Chequamegon Bay from Bayfield and the islands. My morning started at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center, an unusual facility that is a cooperative venture of several government and nongovernment agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, the National Parks Service and the Wisconsin Historic Society.
The center is a combination of an indoor exhibit space, with displays illustrating the heritage and history of the Lake Superior region, and an outdoor nature preserve. The 180-acre site includes a black-ash forest, a tamarack swamp and a sage meadow. A three-quarter-mile boardwalk extends over the wetland, allowing visitors to see the natural habitats typical in this area of northern Wisconsin. The center also features a five-story observation tower, built to resemble a lighthouse, from which visitors can see the surrounding sanctuary and the Chequamegon Bay.
Among the most interesting elements of the visitor center is a 360-degree, multistory mural that wraps around the inside of the observation tower. Created by a local muralist, the artwork depicts the interaction of man and nature in the area and features the faces of people who have lived in the Ashland over time.
The visitor center mural was the first of many murals I would see in Ashland that day. Ten years ago, the community embarked on an art project that has since yielded 13 murals throughout the city. The murals are painted on a variety of public spaces and private buildings, and among their topics are lighthouses and their keepers, a historic grocery store, Wisconsin’s Native American heritage and Ashville’s contributions to America’s military campaigns.
Groups can take a trolley tour of Ashland that showcases all of the murals, and the local chamber of commerce can arrange for a mural artist to join the tour to explain the painting technique and tell visitors more about the mural project.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.