The wind is light, the air still cool and heavy with the morning dew. Already though the sunlight is warm on our backs. The crisp, clean smell of Lake Superior’s cold waters fills the air. Ring-billed gulls fight over pier pylons. Occasionally one launches out over the lake, perhaps in search of a less contested perch. Beyond the pier sailboats are already unfurling sails and heading north, up the coast, currently downwind. The ferry shudders underfoot, the diesel engine coming to life for the short passage to Madeline Island.
The Ojibwe, who were here when the first Europeans paddled through, call Madeline Island Moningwanekaaning, which translates to Island of the Golden Breasted Woodpecker. Today, a more literal translation might be Island of the Northern Flicker, but that just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Moningwanekaaning is one of twelve islands clustered near the western end of Lake Superior, off the coast of present day Wisconsin. Moningwanekaaning is the only one that’s not part of the Apostle Islands National Seashore (the name Apostle Islands comes courtesy of the Jesuits). This is where the bulk of the action takes place in the first three novels of Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House Series, which, as I’ve mentioned before, our kids are obsessed with. It’s one of the reasons that we came up here, to see where the characters of those books walked and ate and slept and swam.
To some people that might sound strange, traveling somewhere because a historical novel happens to be set there, but it’s not the first time I’ve done it. All the little “how do you decide where to go” things I’ve written about previously take a backseat the number of times I’ve gone somewhere because I read a book about it.
Books fire the imagination in ways that travel guides and glossy magazines can’t. If I’d never read Henry Miller I’d probably have cared less about Paris. Prague would have meant less to me without Kafka. I couldn’t help noticing all the places in London that I knew about because Slothrop had affairs near them. And I’m never in New Orleans or near the Louisiana coast without thinking of The Awakening, A Confederacy of Dunces and The Yellow Wallpaper.
The desire to visit more than a few places I’d still like to visit can be traced to novels I’ve read — Tangier Morocco, Dublin Ireland, and Varanasi India to name a few.
The only problem with going to places you’ve read about is that they’ll never measure up to what you’ve read, which is to say they’ll never compare to what you’ve created for them in your imagination. I’ve spent the last month or so making sure the kids understood that Madeline Island is not currently like Moningwanekaaning is in the books.
They didn’t seem disappointed wandering around Madeline Island. Part of that could be that Madeline Island, save for the town of Laporte, actually hasn’t changed much since the 1830s, when the novel is set.
After a short ferry ride over we stopped in at the Madeline Island Museum, which traces the history of the island, but is also part of that history. The museum was made by joining four historic log structures end to end, part of a small 1835 American Fur Company warehouse, the former La Pointe jail, a Scandinavian-style barn of somewhat mysterious origin, and a building known as the Old Sailors’ Home, which was apparently a memorial to a sailor who drown. From what I could tell the museum is in four of the oldest remaining buildings on the island.
The museum was somewhat unique in our experience for having by far the most knowledgable, friendly staff we’ve encountered anywhere. I didn’t ask a single question that someone didn’t know the answer to. At one point I was pretty sure there was a private tour happening in one of the rooms, the guide was going into way too much detail and answered way too many questions, but no, it turned out to just be one of the staff whose sole job appeared to be hanging out on the artifacts room answering questions and telling stories. He was an Ojibwe historian and seemed to know not only the origin of every artifact in the room, but roughly the year it would have been created and used.
One of the women who worked there gave us a kind of personalized tour, pointing out artifacts and telling us not only the story of the artifact, what it was, where it came from and so on, but also how it came to be in the museum’s hands.
I’ll be honest, I don’t generally like museums much because everything is under glass and out of context. I’d rather find a tiny potsherd hiking in the backcountry than see a whole pot in a museum. Even the best museums that do try to get some context in their displays still leave out the modern context, who found it? What were they doing when the found it and so on. While none of the context is necessarily on display at the Madeline Island Museum, the staff seem to have all the information in their heads and if they see you studying something there’s a good chance they’ll come up and offer the full story of the artifact, what it is, what it was for, where it was found, who found it, what they were doing when they found it and how it ended up in the museum.
I would have stayed another couple hours in the museum and really it was only three rooms, but the kids were hungry and wanting to swim so at the advice of one of the museum staff, we wandered down to a little park with a nice beach the kids could swim at. We made sandwiches and went swimming to cool off.
There’s a hand drawn map at the beginning of each of the Birchbark Series books, showing roughly where the birchbark house was, where other characters lived and where various events took place. I, perhaps more than the kids even, wanted to see some of the places. I’d spent enough time studying the map to know roughly where they were.
After the kids had swam for awhile I convinced them to get out of the water (no small task) and we drove around the island to roughly where one of their favorite character’s house would have been. We walked through the wood along the shoreline and wondered about what it all would have looked like in 1837. Probably, I’d guess, not all that different than it does now.
We’d looked into camping on the island, and the campground happens to be roughly where one of the character’s houses was, but it was booked full for the entire month of August. We had to content ourselves with a day trip and after our short hike, we headed back to catch the ferry back to the mainland.
The next day was supposed to be our last day at Lake Superior. We set out reasonably early for a little beach a local woman told us about and spent the morning playing on the shore and swimming.
At lunch time Corrinne went back to the bus and brought some food over to the beach because no one wanted to leave yet. I realized I was really going to miss Lake Superior. I don’t know what it is exactly, some bodies of water just get under your skin. The UP is nice, Wisconsin was fun too, but really the best part of our summer was Lake Superior. Somehow we just couldn’t bear the thought of saying goodbye to it just yet. And since we’re fortunate enough to not really have to be anywhere, we decided to change our plans a bit and head up into Minnesota to check out one more side of Lake Superior — the north shore.