My husband’s family has had hunting cabins in various spots around Madeline Island for the better part of seventy-five years. I’ve been visiting the island for just shy of twenty years myself, and my husband and I were blessed to be able to purchase his parent’s cabin on the north end a year and a half ago. It’s safe to say that between the two of us, we’ve spent quite a bit of time there. Enough time (one would think) to become immersed in the community. Not so much.
Our cabin is on the far side of the island, and when we go there we generally are looking for solitude and quiet that can only be found in a cabin in the woods on an island, away from the stress of life and away from phones and internet. However, over the past year I’ve been wanting to meet and get to know the people who live there. If I’m honest, I’ve wanted that for awhile now, but didn’t know where to start. While I’ve frequented the island often, I still felt like a visitor. If I’m really honest, like an intruder. Madeline Island is a sacred place, and you inherently feel that the moment you step on her shores. In many ways, you don’t feel worthy of her mysterious and unique beauty.
The Islanders (the hearty souls who live on the island year-round) are known for their tight-knittedness and inherent leeriness of outsiders. They will vehemently protect the island that they love and call home. One can’t help but put your guard up when Johnny Unknown Tourist from Chicago drives off of the ferry in his Range Rover with a shiny new kayak perfectly placed atop it. Johnny may be a perfectly nice fella who will no doubt be treated amicably by the island folk (so long as he’s nice, of course), but he’s just crossed the Mother-of-All-Lakes as a strange visitor who may not yet understand and appreciate how special this place is. He also may not fully understand the code of the island. Let me explain…
See, Johnny and the Mrs. are undoubtedly going to get white-girl-wasted at Tom’s Burned Down Cafe (as everyone should, at least once)… maybe just wasted enough to strike up a conversation with one of the locals where he tries to impress them with his corporate job and his eldest son’s acceptance to law school. I promise you… They won’t be the slightest bit impressed, and won’t pretend to be. It isn’t because these folks aren’t nice. They’re some of the nicest people you will ever hope to meet. They just don’t have the time or energy to waste on Johnny’s insecurities or ego. But most of all, they just don’t care. Again, let me explain…
They don’t care because Madeline Island makes you realize how much better–and simpler–life can be when you don’t concern yourself with impressing anyone, when you open yourself up to vulnerability and are completely yourself. When you really don’t mind what other people do so long as they don’t harm anyone else. No one will care if you wear the same shirt three days in a row. In fact, it’s expected. There’s just simply no need to waste time impressing anyone. You should just come to the island to be set free of all that life-clutter. That is the code–and I would argue, amazing beauty–of the island.
Living on the island isn’t for the faint of heart. Roughly 200 people call Madeline Island ‘home’ year-round. There are weeks in the winter where getting to the mainland is impossible, and the ability to drive to Ashland’s Walmart to get some necessities is always dependent upon the weather. A Nor’easter can blow in with little warning, causing the ferries to stop running. A windsled takes the island children to school every day when the ferries can’t run because of the ice and when the ice road isn’t quite ready to drive on. And let’s face it, living in Northern Wisconsin in the winter is itself not for wimps. These people are as hearty and strong as they come.
So when I was asked to do a commercial photography job for our new islander friend Dave ‘Moped’ Marchetti, I jumped at it. Maybe this would be my ‘Anthony Bourdain’ moment where I could crack the code and finally get to know the locals as I broke bread with them.
The event was a dinner put on by Freehands Farm, a local event center, restaurant and florist in Ashland who sources local food for their cuisine. They are an outstanding bunch of folks who take a good deal of pride in what they do.
Dave and his partner Jay provided Bell Street to host the event. Jay’s family owns the Beach Club tavern and restaurant right off of the ferry, and along with Dave decided to purchase the long-vacant Bell Street Tavern and turn it into a vacation rental, wedding and event center.
Bell Street used to be my favorite place to hang out on the island. Its oversized fireplace and beautiful antique oak bar made it a cozy place to have a drink and meet with friends. It really is a beautiful building, too. When it closed five years ago, I was beyond sad. So of course I was anxious to again be inside of it while it buzzed with activity and smelled of good food.
At the beginning of the evening I was wondering how much these folks would enjoy me snapping photos of them. After all, I’m a relative outsider on their turf, documenting their festivities. I put myself in their shoes and wasn’t so sure I’d be down with a stranger with a lens in my face. Fortunately, they were a welcoming bunch and any time I introduced myself to one of them, they greeted me with a big smile and a strong handshake. I even got a couple of hugs before the night was over. These folks are the real deal.
My husband and I sat at the table Dave and Jay reserved for themselves and their friends. Before the night was over, three of us at the end of the table had spilled our wine and/or beer. I thought that was a good sign, and I was right. There were laughs, great conversation, talk of life on the island, and of course gushing over the delicious cuisine.
Freehands Farm knocked it out of the park with not only the taste of the food, but the presentation of it. We enjoyed a complete five-course meal made from locally-sourced ingredients, complimented by local beer and wine… Okay, so can I just stop right now and say that these people are phenomenal? The food was exquisite, the chefs, cooks and waitstaff were friendly and fun, and the whole mood of the evening was spot-on awesome.
The first course was an Apostle Islands bouillabaisse, which is typically a seafood stew, but they used fresh trout and whitefish from The Big Lake. It was out-freaking-standing. Second course was a Quinoa salad with roasted butternut squash, kale, blueberries and maple-miso vinaigrette, which was equally tasty. Third course was Lamb bulgogi over kimchee fried wild rice paired with south shore brew, and it literally made me sigh it was so good. I wish I had some more right now. The fourth course was braised grass fed short ribs with goat cheese polenta and roasted rainbow carrots. That polenta alone could have been a meal for me. So good. And lastly for dessert, Roasted Bayfield Apples with cider sabayon. Dear God, it was all excellent. JT and I both agreed it was one of the better meals we’ve ever had.
While the meal was outstanding, the company was even better. I knew at the end of the evening when two islanders offered to take my camera and take a shot of me, I had arrived (or at a minimum put a crack in the proverbial Lake Superior ice). Like all good and proud communities who look out for their own–if you’re lucky enough to be a part of one–you guard it well.
So once again, the magic of the island and her siren call has enamored me. This time it wasn’t the gorgeous scenery, the mysterious lake with all of her secrets, or an illusive ‘little village’ (shhh…it’s a secret). This time it was the people. And now it’s even more difficult to go back to real life as I know it. I’ve been ruined.
Thank you to the people of Madeline Island who made my husband and I feel not just welcome, but like family. It was an evening on the always-magical island that we will never, ever forget. We’re excited to spend more time with you in the future. And thank you to Dave, Jay and Freehands Farm who allowed us this opportunity to break bread with these good people and document their celebration.
For more information on Freehands Farm, please visit their website.
For more information on Bell Street Tavern Lodging and Events, please visit their Facebook Page.