By Konnie LeMay
Imagine visiting Outer Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin. The old lighthouse towers above you, the wind whips the waves on the vast Lake Superior. It is an impressive visit.
Now imagine yourself on Outer Island standing beside 60-year-old lighthouse keeper John Irvine on September 2, 1905, watching as the wooden cargo schooner Pretoria flounders in a storm and the 10-man crew scrambles into a lifeboat. The lifeboat capsizes. You see Irvine plunge repeatedly into the freezing water to throw out the rope that helped to pull five lucky men to safety.
“The biggest sea I have seen since I have been at the station, which is eight years. About 2:30 p.m. sighted a schooner about 2 miles NE of station. About 4 p.m. seen small boat leaving schooner. I, the keeper, hurried down with a white flag in my hand and a piece of rope to render what assistance I could. I helped to pull five men ashore, pretty well exhausted. Five were drowned,” Irvine writes with typical understatement in his logbook.
Meeting keeper Irvine definitely gives your visit historic proportions.
More often, travelers like you want more from their travels, reports the Travel Industry Association of America. Travelers want the stories of the places that they visit.
The latest trends in travel - “cultural” and “heritage” tourism - have arrived in the Lake Superior region and promise to bring new interpretations for visitors while giving residents ways to preserve and present their heritage and their arts and other cultural gifts.
“People are really looking for cultural education and enrichments,” says Jan Sawenski, charged with cultural and heritage tourism promotion for Minnesota. “It’s a growing segment in travel.”
Offering insight into the culture of the lake region is not new. Old Fort William in Thunder Bay, Ontario, for example, is considered among Canada’s best visitor spots and uses costumed interpreters to bring the voyageur and first nations history alive.
All around the lake, groups are organizing a variety of options for people interested in the heritage of the places they visit. Small museums, informative maps and brochures and even organized “arts” tours, like one through Michigan’s tourism department, open cultural doors.
Promotion of local heritage also helps locals to see the richness of their own regions, Jan says. “We take for granted what’s in our own back yard.”
Preserving the maritime culture of Wisconsin is part of the job for Jeffrey Gray, the state’s underwater archeologist working with the Wisconsin State Historical Society.
“The sailor and the anchor are a part of Wisconsin’s flag, and there’s a reason for it,” says Jeff. He has joined others in developing a series of Wisconsin Maritime Trails. The first phase, marking 12 wreck sites with buoys, has been completed on Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. Wisconsin Sea Grant has developed plastic guides to certain shipwrecks, useful for history buffs and for divers to use while at the sites.
“We wanted to preserve and protect the shipwrecks, interpreting them to the public. But looking at just the shipwreck, you’re looking at just a small piece of the whole story,” Jeff says. “You really need to take a look at the lighthouses, the historic waterfronts, the maritime museums.… There’s people doing great stuff all over the Great Lakes. Every little town, there’s some type of preservation going on and we’re trying to help each one of those out.”
Visitors relish true stories, says David Strzok, a founder of the Bayfield Maritime Museum in Wisconsin.
“That’s one of the things that makes us a better attraction,” he says. “They don’t want to be suckered in with the biggest (plaster) bull in Wisconsin.”
Similar things are happening in Minnesota along Lake Superior and inland to the Iron Range. Ironworld Discovery Center in Chisholm, for example, has permanent displays and brings alive the region’s cultural heritage.
“People of 43 different nations migrated to the Iron Range,” says Danae Beaudette, general marketing specialist.
In season, the center offers events like National Polkafest, Slavic and Finnish celebrations and an art series. Plus the center’s research facility, open year round, can trace family roots through censuses, naturalization papers, reference books and oral history.
The Wild North in Minnesota has developed a series of Heritage Tours to aid visitors in traveling back into time and to learn each region’s stories.
“We have 49 heritage sites selected throughout northeast Minnesota and we provided heritage signage,” says Marlene Pospeck, heritage tourism coordinator for the Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Board.
A regional study found that travelers were most interested in seeing historic sites, Marlene says. “Those kinds of travelers stayed longer and spent more money. It really instills pride in the local community and kind of gets them involved in the tourism effort as well.”
Want to Know More?
Try these travel bureaus and contacts.
Fort William Historical Park: 807-473-2344
Ironworld Discovery Center: 800-372-6437
The Wild North: 800-664-9453