Lake Superior Magazine
By James R. Marshall
The unquestioned queen of our fabled Apostle Islands, Lake Superior’s diadem of waterbound jewels in Wisconsin, is Madeline Island. Lying some three miles off of Bayfield, this 14-mile-long island has been of historical note for several hundred years. Today, it is home for many growing young families, and this tale will explain the devotion to children of this lake-bound community.
If you are a youngster on Madeline Island, you might find the expected school course work to be somewhat of a challenge. Take U.S. history and geography, for instance. Learning about our wonderful country could be almost overwhelming … since your whole world is really just an island!
So was born an every-other-year, Madeline Island tradition for the local fourth- and fifth-graders to take a “Trip Around Wisconsin.” And as of last year, the biennial project’s financial future was greatly improved, thanks to the good will and strong back of an islander!
Many of us assist the activities we believe in, but on Madeline Island things get done a little differently. Summer finds prosperity pounding on the door, and the following winter - or “off season” - finds many ways of siphoning off the accumulation. Beyond just tackling the real challenge of an education, island youngsters must deal with sometimes formidable additional challenges like transportation.
Native islander Evan Erickson has watched the “Trip Around Wisconsin” embellish classes during the two trips already taken, and he is keenly aware of the recurring fund raising needed to sustain this tradition. The relatively secluded kids literally “bloom” as they gain an understanding of the much bigger world on their educational road trip.
Evan found a way, his own way, to help out. As publisher of the Island Gazette, he announced in his newspaper his intention to row a 15-foot boat from Madeline Island to Duluth, Minnesota, pass under the Aerial Lift Bridge and then row back to Madeline. He asked for pledges of payment for each mile he would cover, with the funds to go into the Parent-School Association coffers to be earmarked toward the “Trip” that the fourth- and fifth-graders take every other year.
Evan’s goal was to create a basic fund to benefit the next five or more trips, and thus benefit the next 10 years of Island school kids. He also wanted to pay tribute to a friend and boatbuilder, Rufus Jefferson, whose boat he intended to use.
Evan accepted pledges in any amount per mile, saying he considered the total trip to be 150 miles, so at a dollar a mile the fund would gain $150! A pledge of 10 cents a mile, he noted, would earn $15, for some a princely amount, and every donated dime would go to the students’ tour and not to rowboat expenses.
Lake Superior Magazine heard about all of this from Hazel Hanson, a Duluthian who resides on Madeline Island all summer, and her sidekick, Nancy James, picture framer extraordinaire. These two have backed many island life style or just plain “living” improvements, including restoring a lovely church there. Their word was all I needed. If Hazel says it’s “good,” it’s GOOD.
Evan did make it to Duluth and did indeed row under the Aerial Bridge. On reaching the Superior Harbor shore, the weather demanded that he return to Madeline Island by truck and just plain hide out for a few days until he could come back for the final leg. I met up with him at Loons Foot Landing in Superior as he prepared to begin the long row back to the island with $7,800 in pledges riding on his success. In those few moments, I realized that I was in the presence of one incredibly fine man. And one very special 15-foot boat, The Spirit of Madeline Island.
Indeed it’s special. The boat is one of a number of similar size designed and partly built by a seasonal Madeline Islander, Rufus Conable Jefferson. In 1990, this same boatbuilder and inventor disappeared while out in a 15-footer of his design named Far Shore Explorer.
As I examined the boat before me in Duluth, I stood back, amazed that Evan had rowed this tiny craft from Madeline Island, easily much more like 90 than 75 miles.
Explaining that I was a friend of Hazel Hanson and part of Lake Superior Magazine, I gained his attention. It was a bright morning, a lovely September 16th, and he explained the many features of this wonderful boat as he readied it for the trip home. The continued firm support of Madeline Islander Jim Fahien, a close friend who had made the moment possible.
At 10:20 that morning Evan got under way, those strong arms translating his energy and his dream into a moving reality. We watched him clear the docks and angle toward the Superior entry, realizing that the final leg was now under way. Jim Fahien took great pride in explaining that this was actually Evan’s fourth major trip in a very small boat.
The first was a trip when Evan and friend Alan Ralph each rowed a boat around Madeline Island. Not really an exceptional accomplishment, except that they were just 12 years old!
The second was more notable as he and Alan, then 42, made an “anniversary” circling while raising $5,000 in pledges for a nursery school. The third was a trip around all of the Apostle Islands, but this time Alan refused to go along.