Sometimes the best travel stories happen by pure chance.
For Oklahoma residents Dennis and Rose Marie Fennell, a summer trip to Michigan's Upper Peninsula led to just such a story. On the way there, they passed the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland, where they happened upon a brochure about Bayfield.
"We kind of took a detour, and we ended up in the Bayfield/Washburn area," said Dennis Fennell. "We just took a fancy to the area."
Part of the fancy was fed by the Fennells' love of sailing, with Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands offering some of the best in the Midwest. But it was another brochure that tipped them off to Bayfield's white side.
"We have winter, but not like winter they have up there. So we thought, well you know, it's a change of pace for us, and we started thinking about maybe a trip up there in the winter. And then we ran across the sled dog race and that intrigued us even more, because we'd never done anything like that," Fennell said.
In 2012, the Fennells made their first winter trip to Bayfield for the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race as part of the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce's voluntourism program, which allows visitors to be a part of the mushing action.
"That was really exciting," said Rose Marie Fennell. "It was something that you actually had hands on. It made all the difference in the world."
The race, now in its 20th year, takes place Feb. 7-8. Up to 70 mushers participate in two main races — an eight-dog, 80-mile race and a six-dog, 60-mile race — while more than 2,000 spectators watch from the start and finish line and warming shelters and bonfires along the route.
But the 100 or so volunteers get an even closer seat to the race, helping handle dogs, control the crowd and tend to bonfires. As part of the voluntourism package, volunteers receive two- or three nights of lodging, two breakfasts, an opportunity to meet some of the mushers at a spaghetti dinner Friday and a dinner and mixer Saturday, and, of course, a prime view of the race as a volunteer.
It wasn't just the dogs, however, that brought the Fennells back to Bayfield for the 2013 race. It was the town's two-legged inhabitants.
"When you go to this dog sled race, you're part of a hundred, maybe 200 people. So you just get that feeling of belonging to a group, even though you don't know them," Dennis Fennell said.
Rose Marie Fennell noted how a woman from the chamber of commerce was invaluable in helping them plan their first trip, even having them follow her to a viewing spot to catch another glimpse of the dogs during the race. "Had it not been for her, we may or may not have gone the first time," she said.
Like the Fennells, many travelers are drawn to the Bayfield peninsula in summer to explore the quaint towns of Bayfield, Ashland and Washburn on land and Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore by sea.
But in winter, the flow of tourists slows a bit, and the area becomes a snowy playground with even more options for exploration.
With more than 100 inches of annual snowfall, Bayfield is bustling with opportunities for outdoor adventures in winter, including the area's main summer draw: the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
The red-and-brown sandstone caves along the islands and mainland shoreline are a draw for kayakers and sailors in the summer. Come winter, Lake Superior's brutally battering waves turn the caves into glittering ice palaces, draping them in giant icicles and frozen waterfalls of white, gray and brown.
During cold years when the ice is thick enough (usually the end of February), visitors can walk on the frozen lake along the shore to reach the mainland caves about a mile north of Meyers Beach. Call the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Ice Line at (715) 779-3397, Ext. 3, to check conditions before heading out.
If the ice isn't thick enough (at least 11 inches), you can still catch a glimpse of the caves from the mainland along the Lakeshore Trail, a rugged, 4.5-mile path along the cliffs. The trail includes a number of short, steep climbs and stream crossings, and with deep snow, it can be an even more challenging hike. Snowshoes would be helpful; rentals are available from Sweet Sailing in Bayfield, 120 Rittenhouse Ave., (715) 779-3682.
When I visited Bayfield two winters ago I was drawn by the same animals as the Fennells, signing up for a two-day dog sledding and winter camping excursion with Wolfsong Adventures.
Wolfsong also offers four-hour morning or two-and-a-half-hour afternoon runs — both of which the Fennells have done — and two-day trips (without camping). But these aren't just sled rides. Wolfsong strives to provide the full dog-sledding experience, and on my trip we not only helped harness and unharness the dogs but also fed and watered them.
"We thought that that was really important for people to get to know the dogs a little bit, that it's not just a sleigh ride," said John Thiel, who opened Wolfsong with his wife, Mary, 20 years ago. "The dogs respect you a lot more if you put some effort into the trip. We felt like the dogs deserve to have people understand what they're doing, and people really like that. That turns out to be just as important to people as the actual ride."
He's right. Interacting with the dogs before our ride was just as rewarding. And on the trail, the silence of the woods, the falling snow and the lean Siberian huskies hitting their stride made for a breathtaking landscape — the perfect combination of exhilarating and relaxing.
For more snowy escapades, try the 2-mile round-trip Big Ravine Trail, which starts behind the baseball diamond on Sweeney Ave. and follows a steep ravine lined with hemlocks outside of town. On the south side of Bayfield, the Brownstone Trail follows an old railroad line for a 5-mile round-trip hike.
On Madeline Island, the only inhabited Apostle Island, Big Bay State Park offers even more hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country ski options. When conditions allow, the island is accessible via a two-mile ice road across Lake Superior, lined with discarded Christmas trees.
Mount Ashwabay, named for the three peninsula towns of Ashland, Washburn and Bayfield, has 11 runs and a terrain park for downhill skiers and snowboarders, and the Jerry Jolly trail system featuring 40 kilometers of trails for classic and skate cross-country skiers.
Downtown dining delights
Downtown Bayfield, with one main drag just a few blocks long, is easily walkable and stocked with charming shops and restaurants.
"The town is like a winter postcard scene that time of year. It is just absolutely beautiful," Dennis Fennell said.
While some Bayfield businesses shut down in the winter, the bright pink exterior of Maggie's at 257 Manypenny Ave. beckons year-round. The flamingo-flanked interior is a fun contrast to the deep freeze outside. Try the Super Superior Sandwich, made with Lake Superior whitefish, cucumber, arugula, tomato and an avocado vinaigrette on focaccia.
Maggie's sister restaurant, the Egg Toss Bakery Cafe, is a favorite of the Fennells. The cafe serves up breakfast delights like granola pancakes, made with homemade granola batter, and warm, fresh-baked bread. I'm a fan of Big Water Coffee Roasters for a strong cup of joe brewed using house-roasted beans.
For dinner, the Landmark Restaurant is a fine option in the old Rittenhouse Inn, 301 Rittenhouse Ave., an 1880s Victorian perched on a hill with views of the lake. Go all-out and opt for the five-course meal, each course featuring local and seasonal ingredients explained by the maitre d'. In December the Rittenhouse hosts Wassail Holiday Luncheon and Dinner Concerts, when the Rittenhouse Singers perform for visitors throughout the inn. Call (800) 779-2129.
StageNorth, 123 E Omaha St., Washburn, this winter will stage "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" Dec. 5-8 and 12-15, and "The Land of Oz" Jan. 16-26. The theater includes an attached bar (this is Wisconsin, after all) for pre- or post-show refreshments. Call (715) 373-1194 for showtimes and ticket information.
Beyond the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race in February, the Bayfield peninsula plays host to a number of events in the winter. At the Bayfield Winter Festival, Mar. 6-8, visitors can brave freezing Lake Superior during the Polar Bear Plunge; scramble through a winter obstacle course at Mount Ashwabay's WinterDASH; or run, bike, ski or skate along the ice road to Madeline Island at the Run on Water.
Also in February is Book Across the Bay, a 10km ski/snowshoe race across Chequamegon Bay from Ashland to Washburn. The race, held Feb. 14, begins at 6 p.m. and is lighted by 1,000 candles in ice luminaries. Call (715) 682-2500 for more.
For more on the Bayfield area and the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race voluntourism program, contact the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Bureau at (800) 447-4094.
Updated: Nov. 20, 2014
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