The Incident at Madeline Island

Hi everyone,

Welcome back to Traveling With Tom. This week, something a little different. Earlier this year I took an online writing class through the Madeline Island School for the Arts. After the class, we, the participants organized a writing group. We meet once a month to share stories written towards a prompt. This month our challenge was to: write about a time in your life where something magical/spiritual/synchronistic happened to you. I had a hard time coming up with a decent idea until I thought of “The Incident at Madeline Island.” I shared the story with the writers group this morning sans photos. This afternoon, I share it with you complete with a few photos. Let me know what you think.


It was September 29, 2016, a Thursday. We were camped in Site 52 at Big Bay State Park on Madeline Island. We had been there since Sunday afternoon and had two more nights of camping before taking the ferry back to Bayfield early Saturday morning. My Traveling Partner was attending a quilting class at the Madeline Island School for the Art (MISA). Every morning, I would take her to class and pick her up in the early evening. While she was quilting, I would read, make dinner, shoot photos, and drive into LaPointe for coffee and a look around.

This morning, I decided the weather was right for a sunrise shoot at The Cliffs inside the Park. They are picturesque sandstone bluffs and sea caves along the east edge of the park, a couple of miles from the campground. I’d photographed them before when attending photography workshops at MISA. The setting and landscape was familiar and inviting.

It was pitch dark, no moonlight to illuminate the way. It was about 6:20 AM when I loaded my photography gear in the Red Rider, our trusty tow vehicle. It was a cool but not a cold morning. I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, a weather tight jacket, and a ball cap. My jacket pockets were stuffed with extra batteries, a shutter release cable, a small flashlight, an iPhone, light gloves and earmuffs if needed. In the short drive to The Cliffs, the truck heater barely had time to warm-up. The parking area was empty, I had the place to myself.

I quickly gathered my two cameras and tripod to make the two-hundred-yard walk through the dark grove of trees to The Cliffs. I could hear the waves washing against the rocks along the shoreline. Upon arrival, there was a tiny glimmer of light developing on the eastern horizon. After surveying the shoreline, I climbed over the low wooden log rail fence that served as a caution to visitors of the potential dangers ahead. Things like the three foot drop off onto The Cliffs, then a short distance away, a drop of fifteen feet into the ice-cold waters of Lake Superior. The bright beam of the flashlight guided me over tangled tree roots and loose rocks down a makeshift path to the hard slick surface. I made a note of the puddles of water in the shallow basins carved into the rock surface. They would make nice reflections in the foreground as the emerging light made its appearance. I could see a thin cloud line developing just above the horizon. Maybe, just maybe, they would light up to create a beautiful glow as the sun rose. This would add another element to the composition.

I set up the tripod with one camera and the telephoto zoom lens. Later I would swap it out for the camera with the wide-angle lens. I began to carefully pick my way along the rocks to find a good composition for a long exposure in the low light. I picked out a rock bluff off in the distance with a grouping of small saplings growing on the stone top. I’m always amazed a nature’s ability to adapt to the harsh conditions. The trees to the right were just beginning to turn gold and red, not a lot of color yet, just enough for contrast. Below, the waves were splashing against the rocks as they had for thousands of years, gradually wearing bits of rock to create dramatic textures and patterns. I made a few photos then readjusted the settings to give little more exposure to the scene. For the next five minutes or so, I moved around shooting different angles and compositions. I was in my element, trying to make photos to tell a story and share with the world.

I kept an eye on the horizon as the sky began to lighten. I set up and waited for the scene to unfold. The puddles were in the foreground. The vivid colors never appeared that morning in the distant clouds or the sky overhead. In a visit to The Cliffs a couple years before, I captured vibrant pinks and purples as the sun came up. It didn’t happen this time, not even close. I did get a few ok photos but nothing special. Oh well, that’s the way it goes somedays, I had fun anyway. (Here are a few of the photos I took that morning).

I looked at my watch, it was 7:20. I needed to hurry back to take my Traveling Partner to her class. She would be waiting for my return. With one camera draped over my shoulder and the other mounted to the tripod, I looked for an exit from The Cliffs.  Next to a sandstone protrusion, I saw an exposed sturdy tree root about eighteen inches above the surface. It was clear others used this step to leverage their way up off The Cliffs to level ground. The wood fence was just above me so I reached up with my left hand to grab the rail. I didn’t notice the heavy dew that settled on the top of the rail. With my foot on the root, my left hand on the rail, and the right holding the tripod with the camera, I launched myself up. I only went part way when my hand slipped off the rail and I began to fall backwards. It was all over in the blink of an eye although at the time, it seemed to go in slow motion.

As I fell, I glanced to the left and noticed a boulder about two feet in diameter. On my other side was the rock wall. I was literally between a rock and a hard place. I clutched the tripod closer to my body.

Fortunately, I fell in the narrow passageway, my head missed the wall and the rock, so did my cameras. My cap went flying off. The fall knocked the wind out of me, I struggled to breathe in those first few seconds after landing flat on my back. As I lay there, I felt throbbing emanating from my left side; my rib cage and arm had taken the brunt of my fall. As I proceeded to extract myself from this precarious position, those ribs sent the message that all was not fine. Finally standing, I stood there dazed and realized it could have been worse. I said to myself; “You are luckiest SOB around; I think you’ll live!”

After dusting myself off and retrieving my cap, I found a different exit from The Cliffs. Then gingerly made my way to the Red Rider. It was still the only vehicle in the parking lot. With my ribs and arm aching, I climbed into the cab and drove slowly back to the campground.

When I pulled into our site, I noticed my Traveling Partner sitting at the picnic table in her pajamas and jacket. “That’s weird,” I thought. Not long after I left to shoot photos, she accidently locked herself out of the trailer. Her phone was in the trailer, there wasn’t service anyway. Fortunately, she was entertained by the many deer that were grazing the sparsely populated campground. I had the other set of keys in my pocket. As I unlocked the door, I told her of my incident at The Cliffs. I assured her that my cameras were just fine, but my ribs and arm were not. She’s a retired Registered Nurse and was called back on duty to assess my injuries. She didn’t think my ribs were broken, just bruised.

After I removed my jacket, I noticed blood on my left arm. During the fall, a two-by-four-inch piece of the first two layers of skin was scraped off from forearm to elbow. Since this wasn’t the first time I had scrapes and cuts while camping, we have a well-stocked first aid kit in the trailer. My Traveling Partner cleaned and dressed the wound with 4x4s slathered with Vaseline then wrapped with Kling. We discussed whether I should go to the clinic in LaPointe to have my ribs checked out. It’s staffed by a nurse practitioner two hours a day, the only health care on Madeline Island besides the ambulance crew. If I needed an x-ray or other care, I’d have to catch the ferry and drive twenty-five miles to Ashland. She left the decision to me. I didn’t go.

She was late for class after performing nursing duties and getting ready after being locked out. She hates being late. When my Traveling Partner shares the story of the incident, it’s a different version than mine. She claims the wood fence means stop, don’t go beyond. I didn’t and don’t see it that way, it’s more like a yellow light. I argue there are no warning signs in sight. She then goes into great detail about the wound on my arm, I’ll spare you all the gory details.

My ribs hurt for the next week or so every time I tried to twist or bend. The wound on my arm took several weeks to heal, I was left with a large scar devoid of pigment and hair. Since then I’m more cautious when approaching risky situations, recognizing I’m not as limber and agile I once was. A few other lessons I learned: slow down, take your time; make sure your affairs are in order; and always carry your trailer keys,

By the way, when I shared this story with my photography friends, they asked if the cameras were damaged before they ask if I was ok! Typical photography geeks!

Here are some photos I took in the same area in 2015, a more spectacular scene!

Hope you enjoyed the story.

Until next week, happy virtual travels!



6 thoughts on “The Incident at Madeline Island

  1. Great story. So glad the cameras and you survived to shoot another day.

    1. Thanks for checking in Mike. I think women have built in radar for risk aversion, much different than men. Maybe that’s why men have shorter life expectancy!

  2. Great story! and yes, the fence means stop. That would be a long drop into that cold water!

    1. The fence isn’t that close to the water! Hope you are doing well. Are you thinking about the fall JazzFest?

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