Rustic Frog Bay, first national tribal park, opens in Red Cliff

This access road is adjacent to the new and rustic Frog Bay National Tribal Park.

The opening of Wisconsin’s newest and most unusual park, north of Bayfield, will occur with little public fanfare this summer. Frog Bay Tribal National Park is not the kind of place that will ever be praised for its size, amenities or attendance.

You might not know how to get there unless someone guides you. You might not realize the land’s significance because no signage spells it out.

The parking lot always will be small. The road there ends with a dirt-sand road. Park boundaries are unclear, as is – at this point – the locals’ attitude about how or whether to direct you.

To come is at least one rustic hiking trail, which will lead to a sandy beach, but don’t expect lifeguards, boat docks or floating rafts for swimmers.

“The intent is to keep it pristine,” says Ellen Kwiatkowski, executive director of the Bayfield Regional Conservancy. “It’s meant to be silent and rustic.”

Frog Bay park, on a quarter-mile stretch of Lake Superior shoreline, overlooks the Apostle Islands national wilderness area and is on a Native American reservation. The acreage was under private ownership until a federal grant helped buy back the property.

No other tribal park in the nation is open to the public. These 88.6 acres are home to globally endangered plants and almost 100 species of birds, in an unlogged boreal forest. The lakeshore view speaks quietly and profoundly for itself.

“Protecting the site will also help preserve tribal cultural traditions and way of life,” notes the U.S. Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program, which provided $488,400 for land acquisition and management by the Red Cliff Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa.

The land “was used for many generations as a teaching ground for plant medicine, a place for sitting out (fasting), and as a beautiful, scenic area for canoeing,” writes Jennifer Burnett of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.

“We are hopeful in securing additional funding to purchase the adjacent property to expand and reclaim ownership on all lakeshore property at Frog Bay,” Red Cliff leaders write in a 2012 newsletter.

Kwiatkowski describes the park as “an amazing project,” in part because work to conserve and share the space has involved her nonprofit group, the tribe, state and federal governments. David and Marjorie Johnson, Madison, had owned the land since 1980 and sold it at one-half of its appraised cost.

The Bayfield conservancy established a partnership with the Red Cliff tribe, wrote grant applications and helped raise matching funds. The conservancy also holds a conservation easement on the property, which restricts inappropriate development.

As Richard LaFernier of the Red Cliff led the way to Frog Bay’s shore, the 44-year-old sampled wild raspberries, pointed out poisonous snakeberries and recalled his boyhood of sledding on ravines and canoeing from bay to islands. The moss that we walked on, amid the tall cedars and pines, felt like a thick and spongy carpet.

Twice he found a feather on the beach. Twice he carefully smoothed and stuck the quill upright on the sand. “We don’t let the feather touch the ground, out of respect for the bird,” he explains.

“This land was never mind to own,” he adds. “It belongs to the Creator, but I would protect it.” In his Red Cliff Band are about 6,200 members.

For more about Frog Bay: brcland.org.

About four miles south of Frog Bay is Legendary Waters Resort and Casino, which opened one year ago to replace – as Robert Pokorney, general manager describes it – “the tin can across the street,” a shed-like casino that stayed in business about 20 years.

The new structure faces Lake Superior, all 47 guest rooms have a water view, and gamers have their choice of 325 slot machines, plus four blackjack tables. A birchbark canoe by Marvin DeFoe of the Red Cliff Ojibwe hangs in the resort lobby. The marina is a popular launch point for kayaks because of Apostle Islands proximity.

“We’re up here all the time,” says Mary Mallinger of Minneapolis-based Wilderness Inquiry (wildernessinquiry.com), which uses the Red Cliff launch to begin one-half day paddles to a Lake Superior shipwreck and multi-day Apostle Island camping trips.

In casino display cases are Chippewa photos and artifacts. An option to resort lodging is the adjacent 24-slot RV and tent park. Robert says the new casino is four times the size of its predecessor, and 85 percent of his 180 employees are Red Cliff members.

“The people here had been dreaming about this type of place for decades,” he adds. “It was an important decision to give up a very special part of the reservation for this purpose.”

Enabling the project was a $23.5 million loan from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux in Minnesota, which also provided the Red Cliff with a $966,000 grant in 2008 to finance debt consolidation and community development.

For more about Legendary Waters: legendarywaters.com, 800-226-8478.