I boned up a little on Madeline Island before setting off on a perfect autumn day. I read about the voyagers, the Native Americans, B&Bs and the boat tours, but I don't think I came across anything that said how peaceful the island is, or how disarming the islanders are.
Islanders like Diane Mahn, who lives in a school bus in the woods and waits tables at an island inn. She told me Madeline Island is like a separate country -- and on its national flag would be...
Let's say the beer symbolizes relaxation, the Green Bay Packers, adventure, and the bear, nature.
On the deck of the car ferry to Madeline, I met Mark Wangensteen, who's been coming to the island for twenty years. Wangensteen and his brothers raise emus, llamas and other exotic animals on a farm in the middle of the island.
Standing around the bed of his pickup -- Wangensteen, sipping one of the aforementioned symbols of Madeline Island, his dog chewing carpet in her kennel. I got my first hint that the islanders can be a little ... different. Madeline is the largest of the Apostle Islands, and I wondered...
White settlers apparently thought there were only twelve islands, not 22. And maybe the idea of "apostles" was appealing, if you think of these little islands making their stand against the largest body of fresh water in the world. They're losing, by the way. That peaceful sound you hear from the porch of your rental cabin is really the lake turning Madeline into a sandbar.
Jay Wiltz, a married dad in his early twenties, moved back to Madeline after college, back to a place that's isolated by miles of ice for months at a time. Doesn't he want more excitement?
His dad was fine. Usually, the lake freezes so thick during winter you can drive across it to the mainland. But until then, the ferry makes its daily runs and breaks through the ice every time.
There's a picture of a house someone was dragging across the ice. TRYING to drag across. The photo is pretty startling. But if playing on the ice is too adventuresome for you, Madeline has golfing, sailing ... and swimming.
Clair Coleman brings us to the bear on our imaginary Madeline Island flag, standing for nature. She grew up here, and through eighth grade was the only person in her class. "I was valedictorian," she says. She can't stay away from the lake.
The weekend I was there, Lake Superior changed color overnight from blue to grey-green, the weather from Indian Summer to early winter, but none of the 175 year-round islanders were surprised. They don't try to predict the lake's moods, or think about controlling it. This is one of those peaceful spots were people are attentive, but laid back; on time, but not in a hurry. The island encourages residents to have their own personalities, but it's not anarchy.
Diane Mahn, our Betsy Ross of Madeline Island, would make a lousy cruise ship activities director. She sounds like she's also working on a motto for the would-be island nation.
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