The Apostles Islands are located on the South shore of Lake Superior, in Northern Wisconsin and about 1-1/2 hours from the Michigan border. A collection of over twenty islands ranging from tiny to over ten miles long, the park features red sandstone cliffs, numerous sea caves, wilderness settings, and the unpredictability of Lake Superior. From the Petoskey area, we loaded the three boats and gear into one vehicle and drove about 7 hours, through the entire upper Peninsula and into the town of Bayfield, Wisconsin. Bayfield is another one of those beautiful little Great Lakes towns, with a very nautical feel, quaint downtown, long-established marina and a point of access by ferry to Madeleine Island, one of the largest of the Apostle Islands and the only really developed one.
We planned to paddle the Outer Island loop, as described in the Guide to Sea Kayaking on Lakes Superior and Michigan: The Best Day Trips and Tours, a great publication by by Bill Newman, Sarah Ohmann, and Don Dimond. We awoke Sunday morning to a light drizzle and low sixties temps, and just itching to get out on the water. By the time we made our way to the beach, the skies were breaking, forecast was for north to northeast winds and 2'-3' waves. Smiles broke among us.
I brought my Valley Pintail for this trip for a few reasons: I wanted to have something fun to maneuver into and around sea caves, arches and fallen rock; and I wanted to take the boat in which I could be the most confident in rough water. I compromised a bit in storage space, a compromise that was well worth it to me on a weeklong trip. I was warily but excitedly anticipating traveling this area of Superior, exposed to the northwest to northeast, in fall, when the lake becomes a bit more active. No matter how cliche it sounds, Superior really is different than the other Great Lakes, and more like a sea than any of them.
The first day we traveled from Sand Bay to Sand Island, broke for lunch, and then to York Island, riding waves increasing to 3' or so into shore. Approaching the island, we were able to catch some lengthy rides on the growing waves. Camping at York Island wasn't bad for being so close to the mainland. The island has about seven campsites scattered along a picturesque crescent-shaped sand bay with a sunrise view, and a panorama of some of the outer islands. I slept with my tent facing the bay and a gentle breeze flapping the tent fly.
The following morning, we put in for Raspberry Island. Weather forecast was for sun, 1'-3' waves, and 5-15 mph winds. However, the forecast also called for winds increasing and out of the east to southeast the following day. Stopping at Raspberry Island to visit the restored light house, which turned into a well-guided tour of the lighthouse by a very accommodating ranger who knew his stuff and clearly enjoyed his job, sharing the history of the islands and the lighthouse. What a great representative of the park. After thanking him for the tour, we loaded back up to paddle onward, up the east coast of the island and toward Bear Island. We stopped at the island for lunch, watching a few bald eagles soar and frolic, and then paddled the rocks and occasional arch along the east coast before making the north crossing to Devil's Island, a one-mile long island with numerous sea caves, one campsite, and a remote feel we were going to get used to. As we unloaded, we listened to the forecast call for a gale warning the following day, with 25-35 knot winds gusting to 50. Sounded like we might be windbound.
I had developed a case of tendonitis in my wrists, so I opted out of a tour of the sea caves. I hiked the mile through an almost Pacific Northwest-primeval forest to the north end of the island, spotting such out-of-place residents as azaleas and cranberry among the more northern-climate plants. I arrived at the other end and encountered a group of contractors, working on roofing the light keeper's house. They looked up in surprise at my presence, with the approaching storm in mind. Friendly on this distant island, they certainly made known their concern for our welfare at the hands of Superior, until I assured them we had no intention of paddling if conditions actually materialized as predicted.
Spotting a large freighter on the horizon, I had arrived to the cliffs and sea caves on the other side of the island, just in time to see the two kayaks rounding one of the arches, whooping shouts of joy echoing through the caves below. I filmed and marveled as they literally paddled beneath me through the red sandstone cliffs below, through intensely contrasting aquamarine water.
Sometime early Tuesday morning, the winds increased and the gale began blowing. By daybreak, it was instantly apparent we wouldn't be paddling this day. The weather service held firm on the wind prediction, and called for up to 10' waves nearshore, and up to twenty-foot waves offshore. I had gotten my wish to safely witness Superior in all her fury. Surf snaked angrily along the shore, while whitecaps marched forward from a cold steel horizon. The wind howled overhead through the trees, the roots of some visibly straining to hold their footing. We ended up spending the day exploring the island, lighthouse, lifesaving station, the leeward side of the island, and the same caves we saw the day before, this time with surf pounding through arches and holes. The gale continued all day, the wind like a neverending train roaring overhead and offshore.
Wednesday morning, we awoke to gentler winds and a nice, easy 2’-3’ roll on the water. We decided to shorten our loop, planning to paddle to Manitou Island, then Oak, then back to Sand Bay on the mainland. So we paddled to Otter Island, broke for lunch, and continued on to Manitou Island. Manitou apparently has only one campsite – a beachside spot with another great sunset view. After a fairly easy day of paddling – one of our only calm, easy days - we took advantage of the beachside fire ring to build a blaze to be proud of, sat back, and enjoyed the sunset.
Conditions were forecast to pick up the next day, and continue on through Friday. We broke camp quickly, with a severe thunderstorm warning being aired by the NWS, and by the time we hit the water, the skies were darkening. We ended up sheltering at the south end of Manitou Island, where we found a pretty neat historic fishing camp. I have to say, the parks system has done a wonderful job featuring historical elements like this on nearly every island we visited.
The storm blew through, and we were met with an almost instant calm, belying the conditions to come in a few hours. We made the two-mile crossing to Oak Island, paddled the Hole in the Wall sea cave, and landed for a break, spotting a rather ominous and very large path of Black Bear tracks. By the time we launched again, conditions had picked up to a strong and steady wind and 3’-4’ closely stacked waves. Paddling into the wind, we made slow progress and were reaching the bottom of our collective tanks, when we looked landward and saw no less than seven bald eagles soaring on the updrafts of the island. Personally, that inspiration made me forget about my weariness and paddle on to our camp at Oak Island.
By now, the wind had commenced howling once again. We would wait the afternoon, evening, and into the next day for this gale to calm, but it never really did. After spending the following morning and afternoon socked in from the wind, and hiking 5 miles or so to the ranger station and back, we packed and awaited the forecast cancellation of the small craft advisory. Turned out that it never was cancelled, but we were compelled by a forecast of snow and twenty – degree temps to make our final crossing. It ended up being a challenging one, with 4’ beam waves and wind, with waves in a secondary direction coming from clapotis generated from the mainland cliffs. After reaching Raspberry Bay at near dusk, we decided to bail, stow our boats under a launch dock, and hiked the rest of the way to Sand Bay. After fetching the car, we drove into Bayfield to have a much – deserved pint or two and some real, hot food at Morty’s Pub, a great local spot.
Almost very place I’ve paddled in the Great Lakes warrants a return visit, but not too many more than the Apostle Islands. The islands, the red cliffs – actually called Brownstone, from which Brownstone townhouses got their title – the sea caves, and the mighty Superior prove to be a compelling combination. If you’re looking to challenge your abilities, get away from the crowds, and have your own little island to yourself, I highly recommend this island getaway during spring or fall.