Every year, on our way up to the Island, my dad stops at a little store in Gills Rock and buys a pound of smoked whitefish. It is wrapped carefully in white paper and carried up to our borrowed cabin, where my dad will sit at the kitchen table, painstakingly picking out every scale and bone. In between rehearsals, practice sessions and shepherding her offspring from place to place, my mom turns it into ceremonial Washington Island Whitefish Dip—all capitals, no abbreviations. This is eaten on Saltine crackers with the reverence that most people reserve for wine or caviar.
I mention this because over the past two decades (!!), my family’s annual two-week trip to the Island has gone from work-vacation to a kind of extended ritual. As members of the Washington Island Music Festival, my parents—Scott Tisdel (cellist) and Stefanie Jacob (pianist)—have their duties: practicing, rehearsals, several concerts, social events and all the rest. But we have all our old familiar activities too. There’s golf to be played (and a water hazard to hit things into), the Albatross to visit, trails to be biked and a tower to be climbed.
My sister, Emmy, and I visit the library and check out fifty or so books; my dad sets aside one day to bike around the entire Island like a crazy person. I solicit off-island orders for Mann’s Mercantile fudge, and usually return home with enough chocolate-y product to sink the Karfi. We do these things every year, and they never lose their charm! Coming back and visiting the Art and Nature Center, staying out late to watch for meteor showers, all that tradition feels like sinking into a warm bath.
Here’s one of my favorites. My family used to host the annual orchestra party on the second Monday of our visit, and the household was traditionally exiled to Rock Island for a day so that my mom could cook in peace. That place is lovely, but the payoff was even better: we negotiated party-hosting duties in exchange for the Carr-Stoltz cottage near Little Lake, still one of my favorite places anywhere in the world. Even though I only spent two weeks a year there, it feels like I grew up in that spot; I picked blackberries and raspberries with my sister, built mountains on the rocky beach, paddled the long green kayak with my dad north, past the pockmarked cliffs to where we could see the slope of Rock Island ahead.
Sorry. I’m getting mushy. The Music Festival and its environs kind of do that to you. The magic’s in the little things, the little pieces of family lore: learning to skip stones at Carr Cottage, the precise color of the water at Schoolhouse Beach. My dad, after an evening round of practicing, sitting at the kitchen table and picking out a different set of scales. I won’t be back for the Tisdel family’s twentieth appearance, but the Island is in my blood—as much as it can be for a seasonal visitor, at any rate. I don’t think anyone ever truly leaves the place.