About a month ago, my paddling buddy R. emailed me to invite me along on a kayaking trip to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in northern Wisconsin. This was a leap of faith on R’s part, because the last few years I’d been so busy with comics and other hobbies that I’d put her off on several other invitations. Fortunately for me, the stars aligned this year, and I spent the month of July training up for the trip.
Located in the far western corner of Lake Superior (if you imagine it as a wolf’s head, they’re just below the point of the wolf’s nose), these 22 islands boast some of the most pristine wilderness in the Great Lakes region. And because they’re located in Lake Superior, preparation is paramount. the water there never gets much above 55F (even in mid-August, when we went) which means wetsuits at a bare minimum, and drysuits most of the year. I was fortunate to have a “farmer-jane” style suit I’d bought for a previous trip that I never got to take (see R’s leap of faith, above), and so I didn’t have to buy much new safety gear. I did elect to rent a longer, faster boat than my dear little Tsunami, because we were doing open-water crossings and I didn’t want to fall behind. It turned out to be a good choice, and the Scorpio I brought was speedy and a delight to paddle.
After driving through Chicago traffic and spending the night in Wausau, we arrived in Bayfield around 1pm and picked up our permits, then headed out to the lakeshore to put in. The weather shifted from overcast to bright and sunny, and we were super excited to get on the water. No sooner had we taken the lines off the boats and struggled into our neoprene when an impenetrable bank of fog rolled in and diminished visibility down to ten feet. We were crushed — but then we noticed the signs for the hiking trail and decided to have a walk along the shore, so we tied the boats back up, struggled out of the neoprene, and changed into our hiking clothes. This turned out to be a very wise choice, because we still got to see all the famous sea caves from above, watching other, braver (?) paddlers below weave in and out.
The hike was great, and it was nice to stretch our legs after having been in the car for so long that day, and the day before. We got to see all sorts of neat plants like reindeer lichen, blue bead lily, and thimbleberry bushes, plus the gorgeous natural formations of the sea caves, and this natural land-bridge over a deep crevasse of a sea-cave (we’d paddle that same cave the next day).
After a good 6 miles, we were ready for dinner, so we drove back to Little Sand Bay and made a gourmet dinner on our camp stoves: thai green coconut curry with fresh veg, brown rice, and dark chocolate cook-pudding. One of the perks of kayaking is that you don’t have to carry dehydrated space food, and we ate beautiful satisfying meals every night of the trip.
As we packed our mess kits away, the last of the fog lifted, and we still had time to take a sunset paddle:
Our adventure started in earnest as we returned to Myers Beach, scene of our previous defeat by Lake Superior fog. We put in at around 10am and paddled out to see the sea caves along the mainland.
Here’s R’s sister K and I exploring that crevasse of a sea cave. The cliffs must have been fifty feet high, and the cave narrowed down to a tiny point you could just stick the stern of your kayak into.
The caves were tremendous, and were so spectacular that throughout the course of the morning, we would find ourselves spontaneously shouting “SEA CAVES!” and “WE GET TO BE HERE!” just out of pure joy. There were enormous caves big enough to house small buildings, some so tiny you could only fit a single-person kayak through, some dripping with sheets of the previous day’s rain, some covered in lichen and moss in a dozen colors. We squeezed our boats through stone arches and into caves so low that we tucked our paddles under our arms and pulled ourselves along with our hands on the ceilings, the water lit greenly from below by the sunlight spilling in between the sandstone pillars.
After a good three or four hours playing our favorite game, which is called “I Bet I Can Fit My Boat Through That,” we stopped for lunch, and then completed our first of five open-water crossings out to Sand Island, leapfrogging each other the whole way to pass the time. We then paddled along the beach until we came to the campground, set up camp and ate dinner, then hiked the three-mile trail out to the Sand Island lighthouse. With our campsite on the east side of the island, and the lighthouse on the northernmost point, the hike was exactly the right plan to see the stunning sunset. Up that far north it just lingers on and on, painting the sky in unbelievable colors.
We hiked back by headlamp, moving quickly over the boardwalks to avoid the terrible bugs, and made a pot of ginger tea with a camp stove on the beach to watch the stars come the rest of the way out. More stars than I have ever seen — even growing up as a kid in the country, I’ve never seen such deep sky — the Milky Way a ghostly trail across the heavens, the Pleiades meteor showers gifting us with streaks of light, the ISS tracking its unerring orbit.
Sand Island is home to more sea caves, so we spent the morning exploring them for as long as we could. The Sand Island caves are much smaller than the ones on the mainland, but more intricate, with more little tunnels and secret chambers and tiny sculpted pillars. Plus these caves are much more difficult to reach, so there were far fewer other boats around, allowing us to play and dawdle and really enjoy fooling around in them.
Bald eagles live all over the place up in Lake Superior, but we were startled to come across a single eagle, perched on top of a cliff — not in a tree, just on the cliff — some twenty feet above us. We got into a staring contest with the eagle, fully expecting it to fly away, but it never did. The eagle totally won.
Sadly, we eventually ran out of sea caves, and began our second open-water crossing to York Island, where we stopped for lunch on some beautiful sunny rocks tailor-made for the purpose. One of the things that struck me most about the Apostles was how unbelievably clean the whole place was. The entire trip I never saw garbage of any kind, no visible pollution, just gorgeous unspoiled wilderness. Each of the campsites we stayed at was well-established, with ranger stations and vault toilets and bear-boxes, and even those were shockingly well-kept. It must be because it takes actual work to get out to the islands, and those who are willing to put forth the effort are also those with a healthy respect for the environment. Regardless, it was a real treat to see such beauty in such good care, and York Island was no exception.
Lunch finished, we made a third crossing to Raspberry Island, were we stopped for another quick break by the lighthouse for some gorp and a stretch before continuing on to Oak Island, where we lucked out and got the outlying campsite far away from all the other campers. true, it was a quarter-mile hike to the pit toilet, but the solitude was worth it. We set up camp, ate dinner, waited out a quick burst of wind and a few sprinkles under R’s mammoth tarp, then read books on the beach and watched the sun set in another spectacular display.
It was so difficult to get going on that last day, knowing we’d be heading back to civilization with all its troubles and worries and work, but there were still sights to be seen. We made our final open-water crossing back to the mainland and began working our way back to Little Sand Bay. R. had worried at the outset that since we’d be seeing the best of the sea caves on the first day that we’d find the remainder of the trip boring, but the coast had tons of beautiful rock formations for us to see, as well as loads of little rocks that we could sport and play around, practicing our steering and maneuverability.
The remainder of the day came and went so quickly, but we still saw an abundance of eagles (juvenile and adult) and had a great time playing our way back to reality. As we pulled into the bay, K and I joked about distracting R and making a break for Isle Royale, but alas, reality called. We packed all our kit into our cars, loaded the boats, squelched out of our smelly wetsuits, and drove into Bayfield for a last look at Superior while we ate dinner.
The Apostle Islands are such an amazing place. This felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I hope I get to return someday and see the outer islands as well as the inner ones we did this time. Huge thanks to R for planning the whole thing and keeping me and K safe from both drowning and bears.