Lessons from the hermit in the times of COVID

Stuck inside, practicing good social distancing, my eyes drift to a large, framed map of the Apostle Islands that I keep just above my writing desk. Even the names on that map are enough to spark wanderlust: “Hermit Island.” Was there really a hermit? What did he do out there all alone? Could you live alone on a small island cut-off from the rest of the world? Are there lessons for us in his story that could offer solace during our COVID isolation? Curl up and read on. What you are about to read is a shadowy mix of fact and fiction, enough to make serious historians roll over in their ivory towers but in these days when we are all COVID-Hermits, what else is there to do?

For as long as there have been societies, there have been those who’ve chosen to live apart, who turn their backs on the world to … do what? Listen for voices in the wind? Search the clouds for signs of the divine? Think dark thoughts, enlightened thoughts, no thoughts at all? It is said that from 1847 to 1861 Hermit Island was home to a mysterious man who lived alone, tending a garden, making barrels to sell to passing fishermen, keeping mostly to himself. Few hard facts remain, even his name, although the old maps speak of this place as “Wilson’s Island.” Yet, was that his first name, or his last? How did he come to live here, and why? What poetry or curse did he find in the silence of this 778-acre island? 

A clipping from The Bayfield County Press dated October 22, 1953, written by Eleanor Knight more than 90 years after the hermit’s death, claims that “Wilson” was born in Canada of Scottish parents in 1792. At 18, he left his home, and a fiancée, on a sailing vessel taking him down the Pacific Coast cruising timber and living the wilderness life. “Fear was unknown to him,” the article says, “And the things he did … grew into legends.” Returning in 1817, he found his parents dead and his intended bride married to another. Wilson lit out for the wildest country he could find trying to out-run his sadness. There are tales of joining the Hudson Bay Company as a fur trapper, of a wife and daughter abandoned along the Columbia River, a cache of gold let to him by his parents, and of his love for a small group of islands he glimpsed in his travels: the Apostles.

By the 1840’s, according to the newspaper article, Wilson was working with the American Fur Company on Madeline Island, another of the Apostles. His wilderness life had left him “powerfully built” and “lithe, quick in all his movements.” He considered himself “the best man on Lake Superior.” That is, until he met John W. “King” Bell. A feud between the two men came to a head with a public fist fight in 1847. Wilson, the loser, loaded a small boat with his belongings and what was left of his pride, and left to find an island of his own.

The heart of Hermit Island rises slowly. From a clearing near the island’s crest, the lake twinkles below like a blue eye just opening from sleep. Even less is known of Wilson’s solitary life on the island. It is said he built a one-room cabin, kept chickens, read The Whole Duty of Man by lamplight, and left only for supplies and then only on Sundays hoping to encounter as few other people as possible. 

There is little record of where Wilson’s cabin stood, no sign of it now so many years later. Lack of solid details leaves the mystery open, allowing visitors to walk the island over and over asking, Is this the clearing where his garden was? Is this a trail he might have walked? Did he sing while he gardened? And when he saw a fishing boat far off with a trailing flock of gulls like puffs of white smoke, did he wonder what the voices in the galley sounded like after so many months of silence? Even his death is shrouded in mystery. Stories range from being murdered by thieves ransacking the cabin for his fabled stash of gold coins, to coiling in the throes of delirium from the evils of homemade alcohol.

In life, and in death, the hermit left more questions than answers. The newspaper article author herself says “unfortunately, time has erased all but the plain facts, and even the ‘facts’ contradict each other.” Who was this man? Was it solitude or the fear of society that did him in? With solitude, where is the line between invigorating and insanity? Will we ever find the truth, and should we even try? What is the role of human history in a national park wilderness?

The answers, to Bob Mackreth, long-time historian at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, may say as much about the desires of park visitors today as about the hermit himself. “The Hermit’s greatest significance to me is as one of the better-known and most intriguing members of the rich cast of characters in the Apostle Islands drama,” says Mackreth, now retired. “His story, and the way it has grown through the years, illustrates the way people seek human connection with this archipelago. Though Hermit Island is now labeled as wilderness, ‘untrammeled by man,’ in fact men and women have been living and working on the island for a long time. That people are willing to speculate and embellish shows how eager they are to find a human dimension to go along with the islands’ natural and scenic splendor.”

Seeking a human dimension through the story of a man who shunned society may seem like a contradiction. Is it even possible? How would the Hermit have weathered the solitude of COVID? Should we all hunker down with just a brood of chickens and a good book? Can we use this time of social distanced isolation to explore a bit about the hermit in all of us? Just another flock of unanswered questions on a remote and beautiful island where no answers are whispered on the wind.

Jeff Rennicke, Executive Director

COVID UPDATE: If contemplating a visit to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore during this pandemic, the NPS requires all visitors to adhere to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and local public health authorities to protect visitors and employees.  This includes staying at home, with limited exceptions and, if using shared or outdoor space, maintaining social distancing of at least six feet and where that’s not possible, wearing a mask as required by the Federal Mask Mandate for all federal properties.

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