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Madeline Island Title

Madeline Island
By John Rabe

Listen with RealAudio: Madeline Island

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...

Diane: A beer bottle probably, umm ... a Packer symbol. We'll say a bear.

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...

John: Which apostle was Madeline? I keep trying to figure that out.

Mark: I think that was the apostle Red's brother was Madeline. That's who it is. You know, there was Peter Paul and Mary. And then Madeline and Red were the other apostles and that's where it came from.

John: The apostle Red. I like that. Is he recognized in Wisconsin as an apostle?

Mark: Well ... according to the Bible, no, but the Wisconsin Bible, he is. Those are the unheard-of apostles.

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: So that's the beer. How about adventure?

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?

Jay: My dad last year came up and his snowmobile went through the ice and he had to crawl back up on the ice.

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.

Jay: So there's open water where the ferry track is. And he drove his across the open water. They can do that. They can go across open water but you don't want to take your hand off the throttle.

John: You talk to your dad after this?

Jay: Yeah sure. I was working at the bar.

John: And you said...

Jay: 'You stupid or something? What are you trying to do?'

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: When it's warm enough I swim every day, two or three times a day, and sometimes even when there's ice in the water.

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.

Clair: I don't know how to explain it. It's just magical. I have to be by water. You get out of the weather and you feel so much better no matter what is wrong you feel top notch when you get out.

John: Mid-October 1998 ... the official Lake Superior lake temperature check. Oh, it's cold! It's really cold.

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.

Diane: We just want people to come and slow down and relax. We don't want it to be a hustle-bustle; we've got to go see this and see that. It should be you walk off the boat and feel the all the stress flow out of your body and you sit down and look at the lake and the next thing you know you look at your watch and you've been sitting there for four hours, and where did the time go and who cares.


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