The Mystery of Bear Island

Once again, we left the farm in capable hands and journeyed to the northwoods for our annual get-off-the-farm vacation. Our first evening began at the family cabin deep in the heart of Chequamegon National Forest. Going there one must be prepared for total quiet save for the glorious chorus of bullfrogs at dusk. Leave the cell phone at home, that won’t work here. And forget plush accommodations. While it is comfortable, it’s still a little rough on the edges. But that’s okay. The focus is on the natural surroundings. That includes long-standing cabins that have been around the block a time or two and exhibit the wear and tear to show for it. A visit up there always includes a walk to poke around haunting hints of these past occupancies.

Outer Building Bear Lake

A little bit of history whispers here. You can kind of hear it, but can’t quite make out the words. You almost see it, but you don’t quite see it. Like trying to look directly at a nebula. You just can’t, but out of the corner of your eye, you can see something, maybe, if you hold still long enough.

boat grounded

Which is what led us to our journey to Bear Island.

Bear Island

Bear Island may not really be an island. That is in question. Marshy land connects it to terra firma from what I gather. Tall galoshes might get you there, but a canoe would be better. That being said, this pretend island doesn’t really have a name. I just call it Bear Island out of convenience. So there floats the first mystery of Bear Island. It sure looks like an island from where I sit on the back patio of the cabin. I hear it’s siren call. Which is probably not a good thing…

Island: “Come to me you dumb fool”

Me: “oh, okay”

And so we went.

But first, let’s back up a bit. My husband told me the story of one man who in the 1950s sought to write an article for National Geographic about living on an island in the northwoods during winter. It was upon this very island he chose to build a cabin and live out the winter. This was before all those off-the-grid-living-in-Alaska-struggling-to-survive reality T.V. shows. Interesting that some 50 or 60 years ago someone else was playing with that very same concept.

The cabin still exists there on the island, and no one is to step foot on there. I’m not sure why. So it only seemed logical that  Pete and I decided we would step on the island. (First premonition, watch where I step) We were going to paddle there. But first we had to do a recon. In the fading light of dusk, we slipped out on our canoe to search for an inconspicuous landfall with the intent of striking out first thing in the morning. Because we must not be seen. By what…cod? Yes, well, we mapped our landing and paddled back to the cabin to prep for the coming morn. Prep included a glass of wine and popcorn. Strenuous yes I know.

The next morning we set out across a quiet lake, and pulled ashore in our appointed place. I was very disappointed no one met us with a platter of cheese, crackers and a free ticket on the gondola ride to the top. What kind of island is this?

Bear Island land fall

A secret island, that’s what. No one has stepped foot here in years so the lore goes. I’m not sure I believe that but it’s fun to imagine. So after a quick climb up we came upon this cabin built in the 50s. Despite its many years, I could tell that it wasn’t just slapped up in a day. It’s main structure held fast, while decay wrinkled its brows.

Bear Island Cabin

Bear Island Cabin 2

The fact that it’s still standing after some 50 or 60 years is a testament to the care taken into building it. Which is saying a lot considering someone had to transport materials across the lake to build this. Including a stove and bunk beds which are still in evidence there. I wonder how long it took them to build it, and did it have running water? And really, how isolated was he? Were there not other cabins on the main shore at the time?

Bear Lake Cabin Bunk Bed

It was a very interesting, secretive sojourn to this island. Just paddling out in the quiet light of morning across a very still lake was in itself beautiful. Walking amidst tall pine trees on soft, piney ground to catch a glimpse of history added to the mystique.

Bear Island Lake View

One other little island mystery that I still can’t figure out is how I stepped on an upturned nail that went straight through the heel of my boot, but not the heel of my foot. After that little incident, I thought it best to respect the island and leave forthwith. After a little more walking around away from debris and potential nails, we set off back home for another beautiful paddle across a still lake, leaving the island and its past residents and rusty nails to its own solitude.

Bear lake paddle


4 thoughts on “The Mystery of Bear Island

  1. I loved the narrative of your adventure. Bill and I visited the island and the author of the Nat. Geog. article came and visited us once. He was returning to the island to retrieve a log that he had kept when he spent the winter there. He found it and stayed for a few drinks to tell us about his winter there. We can talk about it sometime.


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