The trail leads over a dune and delivers us to Julian Bay Beach. First things first. I take off my shoes and tie them to my daypack.
That’s better. Barefoot is the only way to travel this mile-long beach on Stockton Island.
Barefoot and slow. In and out of the clear water. Over the occasional downed tree. Up and around wooden remnants of a schooner barge half-buried in the sand.
Most beaches are lovely places. But this sweeping arc of sand on Julian Bay, 14 miles from the mainland at Bayfield, is a place apart. On one side, the world’s largest expanse of fresh water. Behind the beach, a classic pine savanna, where elegant white pines cling to the dunes. Another visitor would tell us later about seeing a black bear’s tracks — pads, toes, claws — pressed into the sand.
Walking along the beach, we leave our own tracks where wavelets slide ashore. The waves soon erase any evidence of our passing.
“How about under that white pine, in the shade?” I ask.
“Sure,” my wife replies.
We plop down and pull lunch from our pack. Crackers, cheese, trail mix. Simple. Like everything else about spending time on this 10,000-acre island. Simple. And slow.
The pup spends a couple of minutes pouncing on some ants, then falls asleep, muzzle between oversized paws, nose against a clump of dune grass.
We gaze down the entire length of the beach. We see almost no one else. It’s a Saturday in August. We see two groups far down the sand, tiny dark figures against the lake. Two sailboats are anchored offshore, far apart. From one, a man and woman row ashore in a dingy and hike off. They disappear over the dune where we arrived at the beach.
The people who come to Stockton Island typically are hooked on this place. We talk to a Minneapolis man on the ferry dock.
“Been here before?” I ask.
“Been coming for the past 40 years,” he says.
At an evening campfire program, a park ranger asks campers to tell him the best thing that happened to them that day. A young boy, maybe 9, has come to the island by sailboat with his family.
“I’m happy to finally be here at my favorite place on Earth,” he says.
What must it be like to be a kid out here, wandering the trails, swimming endlessly, digging in the sand, falling asleep to the wash of waves on your nearly private beach? Paradise. Sort of like it is for adults.
There are plenty of good places to pitch tents across the Northland, but most campgrounds come with roads and cars. On Stockton, you’ve left all of that behind. That’s why the loudest sound you’re likely to hear is the crash of incoming waves chewing away at a sandstone cliff. Or, a few times each week, the low growl of the ferry boat making its run from Bayfield.
Mostly, the silence here is a palpable presence, urging you to simply sit and look out over the water.
Who comes here? Old couples. Young families. Kayaking trippers. Moms and sons. Dads and daughters. Sailboaters. Yachters.
In other words, precisely who our predecessors had in mind when they created national parks — all kinds of folks. What a terrific concept, this park and its 21 islands. A piece of country so geologically fascinating, so powerful, that wise people more than 40 years ago decided it should belong not to a few but to all of us. Like Yellowstone. Or Teddy Roosevelt in North Dakota. Or Isle Royale.
It isn’t without controversy and some sacrifice that places like the Apostles get set aside and protected.
But it is impossible, sitting in the sand on Julian Bay, not to feel extremely grateful to those who made it happen.