Called to the Greatest of the Great Lakes

I was born in Rhinelander and grew up there, so I'm a Wisconsinite to the core. My family lived on a small lake, so our lives revolved around water. There were five of us siblings, we’re all only a year or two apart so we would do everything together.

Photos by Megan Monday

Beth Palma | Washburn, WI

“My mom made us all take swimming lessons with the Red Cross as soon as we were old enough because she couldn’t swim. Once we proved we could be safe, my parents gave us a lot of freedom and the lake became our playground.

We would go out and paddle all day in canoes mostly, sometimes we’d swim long distances to this island or that to go exploring. If we didn’t take our dog with us, he would follow us, running along the lakeshore until we would finally give in, paddle to the shore and let him jump in our boat.

We had a little water ski boat, so I learned to ski at a young age. By the time I was a teenager, I was performing in water ski shows.

In the winter I would walk on the ice to visit my friend who lived on another part of the lake. I remember this one day, there was a storm, I was about 10 years old. I really wanted to make it to her house so I just closed my eyes and just kept walking. By the time I made it, I tried to open my eyes but I couldn’t because they were completely frozen shut.

My parents instilled great values in us. They always told me I could be whatever I wanted and do whatever I wanted, I just had to be willing to work hard for it.

Looking back, I’m grateful for my childhood and the freedom we had. I think often about the beauty of the lake, the waves, the islands, and the adventures we had at home. I loved it; I loved everything about it.”

Become part of the Love Wisconsin

“After high school, I started at the community college but didn’t go very far. I loved skiing so I got a job working at a ski resort in Ironwood, Michigan. I had a friend who had worked at resorts out west as a photographer and they said, ‘You could probably be a photographer at Ironwood, nobody’s doing it there.’ So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll give it a try.’ I asked my boss, I borrowed a camera, and essentially I taught myself how to become a ski photographer on the job. I was able to ski while taking pictures, so that helped a lot.

After that, I started to get more interested in photography. In the summer, another friend said, ‘Boy, it would be nice if you would come over to Bayfield and take pictures of the sailboat races on Superior. People would buy your pictures.’ So I photographed the races every chance I could.

I would go out in a chase boat and take pictures whether there was wind or no wind. Then at the end of the week, I would sell the pictures to the captains and crews. It made me curious about sailing. It looked like so much fun, but I didn’t have a way to get out on a boat yet.

Being near Lake Superior in my early 20s left a big impression on me. I was just in awe of it. It was like an ocean and I didn't really have much experience with oceans growing up in a small town in Wisconsin.

As I spent more time near the big lake, I started to notice how it made me feel. There was a serenity to it. I was in awe of its beauty. I also appreciated the small towns and life going on there, people making a living on and around the water. It was all really different and interesting to me.

I remember one time back then, I was sitting on the beach and a storm front was coming in over the lake. I knew I should probably leave, but I really just wanted to stay and feel what it felt like to be in it. So I sat on the beach, kind of hunkered down and waited for it. All of these ducks and other waterfowl came in and gathered along the shore to just be quiet. We were all there just waiting for it. It kind of looked like this wall was coming in at me closer and closer. And then it went through. It was absolutely amazing. That experience cemented my love for Lake Superior.

I wished I could stay, but I wanted to take my career in photography to the next level, so I headed off to study photography in Minnesota for a year. Then I moved out to Oregon to work at Mount Bachelor as a ski photographer and videographer. While I was working out west, I signed up to attend a one-week professional photography workshop in Maine.

The first night I showed up for this workshop, the instructor paired everybody up for the week and I was paired up with this handsome guy. I like to say we were paired together in that moment, for life.

He’s from Omaha, Nebraska, and was going to school for commercial photography at the time. We started dating. It took us a couple years to get together for good because of the distance.

But eventually he moved out to Oregon, and then we got married and started having kids. We moved a lot in our marriage, trying to find the right fit…Oregon, Colorado, Michigan, Nebraska. All the while, I was always dreaming about when we might be able to move to Wisconsin so we could be close to Lake Superior.”

“Okay. It might sound a little corny, but I always feel like I was called by the lake, by Lake Superior. And you’ll hear other people say it, too. People feel drawn to it. I think it’s something about the beauty of it, the presence of it. It can be very calming and it can be very exciting.

Sometime in my younger years, I had made up my mind that I was gonna live near Lake Superior someday. When my husband and I were dating I even brought him up here and said, ‘Do you think you can do it? If you can’t…sorry!’ I just felt a very strong pull that I needed to do it someday. We always talked about it, but it was never the right time. So finally, by the time I was 40 and we’d lived in a lot of different places, I said, that’s it, we have to go.

Our oldest child was going into sixth grade. I said, ‘We have to do it now, our kids won’t want to move anymore soon.’ We were in Omaha and my husband was working for FedEx. They came through with a transfer for us, so we moved to Washburn! My husband worked his full-time job and I went to work as a school bus driver and wedding photographer so I could have the flexibility to be with the kids.

The second summer we were here a group of people were starting a community sailing program. They were offering children’s classes, so I brought my kids down. They had these little boats called Optimist Prams. It was a really windy day and I looked at those tiny little boats and my kids, who didn’t have any experience. I was nervous, so I offered to stay and help. It was a lot of fun, so I started helping out at every class. Eventually, I was learning to sail right alongside my kids.

I was volunteering so much that it made sense for me to get some of the U.S. Sailor certifications so I could help out with subbing and teaching the classes from time to time. Soon enough, I ended up on the Board of Directors. We usually would hire someone in their late twenties to come run the sailing program for the summer, but one year we had a program director back out on us at the last minute. I wasn’t working because I was driving a school bus so I could have my summers off with the kids. So I said, ‘Okay, I can step in and run the program.’

I became the sailing program director that summer and I actually did it for the next six summers, as well. My kids sailed all the way through high school and they became instructors, too. It was an incredible experience, but towards the end, I got tired. It’s not always easy managing teenage instructors. After seven years I decided I had to step down as the sailing program director because I had something else I wanted to do with my summers. I had set a big goal for myself.”

“When I decided to leave the sailing school it was because I wanted to get out of the little boats. I wanted to get my captain’s license and learn how to sail the big boats out on Lake Superior.

I think I was drawn to the idea because of that feeling of power. To be at the helm of a big boat, it’s a powerful feeling. At the same time, it’s scary, too. I knew I would need to sail a lot to get really comfortable with it.

That first summer, I started by just sailing for fun. I got my captain’s license, which qualified me for up to a 23-ton boat–a fairly big boat, up to 40 foot. I was feeling pretty good about it, but even if I was at the helm, I was always out there with other experienced sailors. That gave me a lot of comfort, as there was always someone I could ask for help.

I have a friend who has a 36-foot boat, and the year I turned 50 he gave me a three-day weekend with his boat. I was like, ‘Wow, this is so exciting, I get to take this big boat out to the islands!’ But I hadn’t ever gone out solo as a captain of a big boat and as the time got closer I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is real’. I started to panic.

My husband was my first mate on that trip. He said, ‘Just tell me what to do’. So we took the boat out and the forecast says it’s going to really pick up, and it did, but we learned how to manage the weather and as the trip went on, I got more and more comfortable. We survived, and I came back feeling confident and felt ready to go out solo again.

My friend John owns a charter company. I had told him, ‘I’m getting my captain’s license’ and he said, ‘Okay. When can you start working for me?’ I took him up on the job offer and worked the rest of that summer as a charter captain.

Women captains are in demand because women often like to sail with women. Once in a while when I go to meet a group of people for a charter on the docks, they’ll go, ‘You’re going to be our captain?!’ Kind of like they don’t believe it. Once in a while, I get that, but not too often.

Once I became a charter captain, I worked almost every day for a couple summers. I did lots of overnight trips out near the islands, that’s where I really got my experience. So often if the weather turns bad and you’re out on a trip, you’re not calling things off, you’re just seeking shelter for the boat.

Once I had six 16-year-old boys and their 18-year-old counselor. We were out for three days. The first night in the boat we were anchored in the lee of Stockton Island. The forecast was saying some weather might be coming in from the west. But it was much, much worse than the forecast had predicted. We suddenly found ourselves in 85 mph winds. This is a 38-foot boat, a good-sized, heavy boat, and the wind just laid that boat right down on its side, no sails up, on anchor, and it completely laid that boat down. There were three other boats out there with us and the other worrisome part is that they were all drifting. It was pretty intense. But we all made it, me and the seven teenage boys.

Being out on Superior on a beautiful day, I can’t think of anywhere else in the world I would rather be. She reminds me of who’s in charge and how things are gonna go. And I’m very respectful. The moves and the drama of it are quite amazing.

After 17 years of living here, next to Superior, I’m happy to have found my home.”

-Beth Palma | Washburn, WI

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