The land of Hiawatha/Wisconsin's Apostle Islands are a nature-lover's paradise

Ye who love the haunts of Nature, Love the sunshine of the meadow, Love the shadow of the forest, Love the wind among the branches . . . Listen to these wild traditions, To this Song of Hiawatha!

-- From ``The Song of Hiawatha''

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's haunting invitation to the land of the Ojibwa Indians is enough to persuade any nature-lover. His is a wilderness replete with ``palisades of pines'' and ``purple clouds of sunset.'' Yet peel off Longfellow's elaborate imagery, and the shores of Gitchee Gumee -- ``the Shining-Big-Sea-Water'' -- are none other than those of Lake Superior.

Visiting the wooded southern shoreline of this massive tract of water, I'm reminded of Longfellow's words. The place still has the primitive beauty and the marked absence of civilization. Especially picturesque is a cluster of 22 islands sprinkled off the Wisconsin Bayfield Peninsula.

The Apostle Islands provide a rich illustration of nature's diversity and character. Not until 1970 did Congress recognize the importance of adopting 20 of these 22 islands of relatively untouched wilderness into the national park system. Today, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore serves a dual purpose: to preserve wildlife while serving as a choice recreational area for the public.

Hopping a ferry from the Bayfield mainland, my trip begins with a scenic 20-minute ride to the largest of these isles. Madeline Island, with its year-round residents and a covey of stores in the village of LaPointe, is the Apostle Islands' link to civilization.

Stepping onto the dock, I find the world here moving a notch slower. Visitors pedal rented bicycles down uncongested, foliage-lined roads. Hikers comb secluded stretches of beach, while golfers relax on a nine-hole course. Tidy, rustic campsites are plentiful, and accommodations for the less adventurous include cottages, condominium rentals, and a motel. Frequent ferry service, a small marina, and an airport provide easy access to the island.

Madeline was once called the Island of the Golden Crested Woodpecker for its abundance of yellow-shafted flickers, and it was here that the Ojibwa tribe built its largest village. Remnants of the civilization can be found at an Indian burial ground near LaPointe and in the Madeline Island Museum, a brief walk from the ferry dock.

This quaint, hand-hewn log museum served as a major fur trading post for more than 100 years. Hanging from the walls and ceiling are numerous Indian artifacts, including intricately beaded clothing, tom-toms, and a birchbark canoe. A kick-sled, logging sleigh, tools, and various other items indicate the life style of the island's later white settlers.

For some visitors, a romantic cruise with coral sunsets and a splash of teal-blue water is the way to enjoy the Apostles. Leaving daily from Bayfield on the mainland, the excursions provide narrated histories of the islands, including an account of how each island got its name. The story goes that a French missionary named Charlevoix ventured into the area in the 1600s and, after sighting only 12 of the islands, impetuously named them ``the Apostles.''

Cruises can also include Lake Superior trout cookouts, picnics, Sunday brunches, and special accommodations for private parties. A favorite daytime stopover is Raspberry Island, with its old lighthouse and elaborate gardens. Also visible from some cruises are the protected wilderness islands where gulls and endangered species of birds nest.

The Apostles offer lush fare for devoted nature-lovers in search of a secluded spot. Outer Island, for example, is a remote island that hosts one of the Apostles' six lighthouses listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Devil's Island boasts magnificent sandstone cliffs, and camping is limited to two parties at a time. Campers reach these destinations by excursion boat or water taxi. Thirteen docks scattered throughout the chain of islands accommodate residents and visitors with their own cr afts.

Of course, a penchant for hermithood is not essential for enjoying the Apostles. Stockton Island, the second largest, is easily accessible by sailboat, water taxi, or excursion boat. It offers an abundance of both family and primitive campsites. Sandy beaches, swimming, well-groomed hiking trails, wildlife, and beautiful vistas make for a relaxing stay.

``This is a sailor's paradise,'' one park ranger told me. Seven marinas dot the Bayfield area, and weekend sailboat regattas are frequent during the summer months. Water clarity is also excellent for divers.

There are other reasons for venturing to the Apostles. On my ferry ride I spoke with a couple from Minneapolis who said, quite simply, that they were there not only for the spectacular scenery, but also to escape the swelling summer mosquito population back home! Practical information:

One-way ferry tickets cost $4.25 per vehicle plus $1.75 for adults, $1 for children. Ferries run every 15 minutes during the summer.

More than half a dozen cruises are available, including the Raspberry Island Sundowner and the Sand Island Lighthouse cruise. Prices for adults range from $8.75 for shorter cruises to $14.95 for the 50-mile Grand Tour cruise. Cruises run from June to October. Call (715) 779-3925 for reservations.

Water taxis, accommodating 1 to 6 passengers, cost $35 an hour. Campers can be dropped at Stockton, Raspberry, Oak, Sand, Rocky, and South Twin Islands for no additional charge.

Sailboats can be rented from three outlets, and diving equipment and instruction are also available.

Free National Park campsites are provided on 17 of the islands. Madeline Island also offers some additional rentable campsites.

For accommodations in the area, I recommend the Old Rittenhouse Inn in Bayfield, a Queen Anne-style mansion with nine Victorian guest rooms. Rooms run from $58 to $78 and include working fireplaces. The inn serves gourmet dinners for $22 per person. Reservations should be made well in advance by calling (715) 779-5765.

Questions can be directed to the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce, PO Box 138, Bayfield, Wis. 54814, (715) 779-3335, or Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Headquarters, Route 1, Box 4, Bayfield, Wis. 54814, (715) 779-3397.

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