There’s a genesis story of how Apostle Islands National Lakeshore came to be that goes back to a helicopter ride on Sept. 24, 1963, and, more importantly, who was on the helicopter.
Supporters of creating the federal park to protect one of Lake Superior’s most scenic areas, namely Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, convinced President John F. Kennedy to come to the region and tour the islands.
Also on board Marine One that day was Martin Hanson, renowned Wisconsin conservationist, who had worked a little pre-event magic by arranging to have most every sailboat in Bayfield out on the lake with sails hoisted as Kennedy flew over.
Kennedy reportedly seemed distant and uninterested at first — maybe the Soviets and the space race were on his mind, maybe the escalating mess in Vietnam or racial tension in the South. The story goes that Hanson tapped the president on the shoulder and pointed to the armada of sailboats on the water below. Kennedy immediately took notice, seemed to engage in the tour and went on to support the concept of protecting the islands.
So it may well be because Martin Hanson knew JFK was a sailing man back on Cape Cod that the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore came to be.
In a ten-minute speech in Ashland after the flight, Kennedy credited Sen. Nelson — also the founder of Earth Day and who also spurred creation of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway — for convincing him to come to the region.
“Anyone who flies over those islands, as we just did, looks at that long beach, looks at those marshes, looks at what a tremendous natural resource this can be, and is now, for nearly 50 million Americans, who will live in this section of the United States in the coming years, must realize how significant this occasion is,’’ Kennedy said to a huge crowd in Ashland, where the airport is now named in his honor. “Lake Superior, the Apostle Islands, the Bad River area, are all unique. … In an age of congestion and pollution, man-made noise and dirt, Lake Superior has a beauty that millions can enjoy.”
It took another seven years to work through Washington, but 50 years ago today — on Sept. 26, 1970 — Congress took final action to create the park. And while there was local opposition at the time, and hard feelings as the park acquired what had been private property and imposed new regulations, it now seems most folks are mostly glad it happened.
“There are still some hard feelings to this day. But I don’t think many people would argue that the region isn’t better off with the islands protected in a sustainable way. It's allowed the islands to remain the same as they were 50 years ago, except maybe more rewilded now,’’ said Erica Peterson of Bayfield, board chairwoman of the Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. “The park is the economy of Bayfield, why people come here to visit. And it’s pretty much a way of life for those of us who live here.”
The Friends group had planned a year-long series of events marking the 50th anniversary, starting last winter and culminating this fall. The COVID-19 pandemic put the kibosh on virtually all events, except some that were held virtually. But instead of ending the party on the 50th anniversary as planned, Peterson said the group will start the celebration today and try to reschedule events in 2021.
Lynne Dominy, Apostle Islands superintendent, said the park for 50 years has melded and protected multiple histories of the region — from Ojibwe hunters and gatherers to loggers, lighthouse keepers, farmers and commercial fishermen — all while protecting a rare environmental and scenic gem. She said collaboration between the Park Service, local residents and visitors is critical for continued success.
“It’s all interconnected, the past and the present, the local economy and the ecosystem. The islands and the lake have shaped the people who have lived here,” Dominy said. “National parks belong to all of us. And we have a shared responsibility to take care of them. Hopefully, that’s what we’re here for.”
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is unique even for the Lake Superior region as not just a playground for outdoor recreation but also a bastion for unspoiled nature. It features pristine stretches of sand beaches; spectacular sandstone sea caves; some of the largest stands of old-growth forest in Wisconsin; a diverse population of birds, animals and fish; and the largest collection of historic lighthouses in the national park system.
The “park’’ covers 21 different islands and a 12-mile stretch of mainland on the Bayfield Peninsula and has become a destination for not just sailors but also kayakers, boaters, divers, lighthouse lovers, hikers, campers, sport anglers, beachcombers, wildlife watchers and others.
Maybe most importantly for the people who love the area, the park has retained the beauty of the islands, keeping them mostly undeveloped. And while tour boats and recreational boats move between islands and docks on their shores, much of the interior of each island is preserved as official federal wilderness, named in honor of the late Gaylord Nelson.
But the park also harbors more human history than most. People have lived on the islands for thousands of years. More recently, Ojibwe peoples hunted and gathered on the islands, and later, European immigrants built homes and farms, fishing operations, quarries and logging camps.
As shipping became a mainstay on the Great Lakes, and in the wake of many foul weather shipwrecks, the federal government built lighthouses on several of the islands, several of which are now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
“So much of what’s protected at Apostle Islands is the history of the people who have been here before us,’’ Peterson noted. “And that’s the way it should be.”
That includes recent efforts by the Park Service to include Ojibwe culture and history in park management, such as returning intentional fires to some islands so the blueberry crop improves, much as Ojibwe peoples did for centuries.
Since its original enactment the park was expanded to include Long Island in 1986 and the Ashland Harbor Breakwater Light in 2014. Thanks to Park Service efforts, Long Island is now a regular nesting area for threatened piping plovers, the only one on Lake Superior and one of only two sites in Wisconsin.
It's not a vast park. The official federal Lakeshore includes 69,372 acres. The park boundary extends out a quarter-mile from the shore of the mainland and from each island, beyond which National Park Service rules don’t apply.
Because all types of boats come and go at will, with no specific entry points to the park, measuring visitorship isn’t easy. But through staff surveys of crowds in key areas, permits issued for docking and camping, and records kept by tour boats and other businesses that enter the park, it’s estimated 240,000 people visited the park in 2019.
While traditionally the majority of park visitors come from southern Wisconsin and the Twin Cities area, this year visitors have come from 35 different states, which is unusual, Dominy noted, and may reflect the longer road trips many Americans are taking during the pandemic.
The next 50 years
“The key question on this anniversary is what haven’t we done over the last 50 years that we need to do over the next 50 that are critical to the stewardship of this park,’’ Dominy noted. “And we need everyone in the community involved in the answer. Anyone in this job (park superintendent) has to foster that sense of community.”
That stewardship is why Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore formed in 2002. The group has slowly built up to about 300 major donors and 800 members, annually raising and spending about $100,000 on park projects that the often under-funded Park Service can’t afford to do alone. Many of those projects are aimed at increasing accessibility to the islands — docks, trails, campsites, interpretive areas — for all visitors in general but especially for those who are physically challenged.
“Making good trails is important not just for accessibility, but also for the environment on the islands,’’ Peterson noted. “If people stay on the trails, they aren’t making their own paths through sensitive areas.”
The Friends group is specifically chartered not to lobby for park policy or management but to stay out of controversy and work alongside the Park Service on specific projects.
“We don’t take an advocacy role,’’ Peterson noted. Park staff “tell us what their project priorities are and we pick the ones we think we can do the most good on.”
That includes a new accessibility ramp recently completed at Stockton Island and, delayed this year and now planned for 2021, rebuilding an amphitheater on the island used when students and other groups come to learn. Next up may be improved Lake Superior beach access at Myers Beach on the mainland, where only a single stairway is available now, sometimes overwhelmed with visitors.
In what was slated to be a year of multiple live celebration events, canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Friends have worked to make virtual tours of park attractions available online. In October the group’s board of directors hopes to interview candidates for the Friends' first full-time executive director.
Peterson recalls her first visit to the Apostle Islands area when she and her husband, then living in Eagle River, Wisconsin, took a January trip to Madeline Island.
“We loved it so much we came back the next summer and chartered a sailboat. We just fell in love with the islands, like everyone else who comes here,’’ she said.
That was in 1983. In 1984 the couple moved to Bayfield and Erica became an interpretive park ranger for the Park Service. New careers brought them to other areas, including Colorado, Guatemala and the Twin Cities. But six years ago they returned to stay in Bayfield and the Lake Superior islands they call home.
“I love wilderness. And we live in the biggest wilderness in North America: Lake Superior,’’ she said. “This area sustains us… And every time I’m sailing and look out at all that undeveloped, rugged shoreline, I quietly say thank you to the people who had the foresight to make this park 50 years ago.”
Peterson said several red flags concern her looking to the next 50 years, including how people use the park and what’s happening to Lake Superior around the islands.
“Water quality is going to be an issue. There's more algae now. The water isn’t quite as clear. I’m noticing now that, when I drop my sailboat anchor, I can’t see it as far down into the water as I could a few years ago,’’ she noted. “We have to take a larger look at what protecting the park means, and climate and water quality are going to be big issues going forward.”
A message from the Superintendent
When Apostle Island National Lakeshore Superintendent Lynne Dominy wrote about the park’s 50th anniversary earlier this year in a message to the public, she asked people to “reflect on the value of human foresight’’ that 50 years ago preserved the Apostle Islands as a federally protected lakeshore.
Dominy, who came most recently from Acadia National Park on Maine’s Atlantic coast, has worked at seven different Park Service properties in 33 years with the National Park Service. She’s been at Apostle Islands for about 18 months.
“Without the conscious efforts of many people to create public lands, how much land would be left for you to visit? Would black bears, martens, piping plovers, and river otters still have a home?’’ Dominy wrote. “Would there be beaches on Lake Superior open to sail or paddle to? Would eagles have trees in which to nest and would plovers still exist without safe shorelines for nesting? Would there be places of solitude to escape and inspire? And could you find a beach on which to gaze at the Milky Way or see the shimmering auras of the northern lights?
“I ask you to join us in acknowledging foresight and the shared responsibility of stewardship. Think about this place and others which add meaning to your life. Feel the wind in your face and the sand between your toes. Find a freedom of spirit as you run along the sandy shores or plunge into the ice cold waters. Search for quiet and contemplate why it is so hard to find. Then capture the stars in your eyes and consider the immensity of the universe as it folds around you. Let this place touch your soul to remind you what it means to be alive and what it is like to experience wild.”