Once upon a time on Outer Island in Lake Superior, a lumber company cut much of the remaining old growth hemlocks and other trees to make baby furniture. The lumberjacks lived in a camp near sandstone ledges on the shore. They used a railroad built by previous loggers through the middle of the island to haul the heavy logs to a dock for shipping to shore. Eventually, the crew built an air strip so they could go home on weekends.
The company that used the wood was Lullabye Furniture of Steven’s Point, Wisconsin. By the 1960s, logging on the island cost too much, so the men left their camp. They also left behind the buildings, old trucks, a stove, a water tank.
Slowly, the forest took its revenge. Snow knocked down the buildings, the trucks rusted, animals carried away seat cushion stuffing for their nests. The forest regrew, swallowing the lumber camp and reclaiming the land as its own.
Last month, I meandered out to the most remote spot in Wisconsin: Outer Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Lake Superior. Now, the folks on Washington Island off the Door County Peninsula in Lake Michigan might argue that they live in the state’s most remote spot. I guess it’s all in how you define “remote.”
The Milwaukee Journal gives Outer Island this distinction. However, the rest of the internet says it’s Washington Island.
To check on which place is really the remotest, I consulted with the Wisconsin State Cartographer’s Office. Jim Lacey, associate state cartographer, said he has not tried to define such a spot in the state yet. Is it defined as the farthest outpost of civilization that a person can easily reach, or is it the place farthest from any roads and the hardest to reach?
We went back and forth a couple of times about a worthy definition. Lacey agreed that it wasn’t very hard to get to Washington Island – all a person needed to do is pay for a ferry, drive their car onto it, and they’re set.
Outer Island, on the other hand, is twenty-eight miles from the port of Bayfield, Wisconsin, has no ferry and no roads. To get there, a person either needs to have their own boat, spend a couple days paddling a kayak, or pay a small fortune for a water taxi. A water taxi is basically a private motorboat ride. That’s how I traveled to the island last month.
Lacey said, “To sum it up, I’m afraid I don’t have a very satisfying answer for you! I think this is one of those situations where a deceptively simple question gets very complicated, very quickly.”
But, to my way of thinking, the difficulty of access and the lack of civilized conveniences makes Outer Island the “winner” for the remote spot title.
Anyway – I had a great time camping on the island. Visiting the place again reminded me of a research project, which never quite worked at the lighthouse, in part, due to the island’s remoteness.
Nine years ago as part of my job with Wisconsin Sea Grant, I accompanied Chin Wu, a researcher from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to Outer Island. His goal was to install a webcam atop the lighthouse to track the development of rogue waves and wave patterns off the island’s coast.
The National Park Service was cooperating with the project, so they drove our small research team out to the island for the installation. Once at the island, the park service staffer let us into the lighthouse and led us to the top of the tower.
We installed the camera and plugged it into the solar power system atop the lighthouse. Thankfully, the day was calm and warm, so hanging around outside ninety feet in the air wasn’t too scary.
I took some great photos, but they were never published because the project didn’t pan out. Why? The webcam needed a cell phone signal in order to transmit the photos. Back then, the cell phone system wasn’t powerful enough on the island for this to work.
Even smart people need to learn things the hard way, sometimes, I guess. It just goes to show that science doesn’t always work out despite the best of intentions. But these photos are too cool to waste, so here you go. Mr. Wu has since gone onto conduct other projects in the Apostle Islands, which were much more successful, such as this WISC-Watch website, which provides tons of info about wave and wind conditions.
Russ and I meandered to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore last month. We had the privilege of camping on Outer Island for two glorious, warm nights. Lake Superior was so calm, we could hear ore boat engines quietly throbbing even though they were dozens of miles away as they passed the island.
I took this shot from the beach near the lighthouse. You can just see the lighthouse over the tops of the trees by the dock. A wave-worn rock provided a perfect foreground. Can you feel the peace?