Most Wisconsinites' idea of an island vacation involves the three S's: sun, sand and south.
If you follow your compass needle in the opposite direction, however, an entirely different island adventure awaits.
Just off the Bayfield peninsula in northern Wisconsin lies the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, a collection of 21 picturesque islands and 12 miles of mainland shoreline spread across nearly 70,000 acres in Lake Superior.
Madeline Island, which is not part of the national lakeshore, is the only permanently inhabited Apostle today. The rest of the islands remain mostly wild and offer a unique opportunity for exploration by land and by sea.
While it's easy enough to hop on a boat and plan day trips from the mainland, one of the best ways to see the islands is by kayak.
"Over about 10 or 15 years, kayaking just exploded," said Neil Howk, assistant chief of interpretation and education for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, noting very few people thought to kayak the islands when the park was first established. But as kayaks became safer and more affordable, paddlers became more abundant. "The islands are probably the best place to kayak in the Great Lakes. It's a great place to see, and the islands offer some protection from the winds out on the lake."
Because Lake Superior can be as reliably unpredictable as it is cold, however, the best and safest way to kayak the islands is with a guide.
6 hours from Milwaukee
According to Howk, the busiest time for the Apostles is between the last week in July and the end of August, when the water is warmer, mosquitoes aren't as bad and blueberries are ripe. I decided to head north ahead of that busy time at the end of June, for a four-day kayaking and camping trip.
After a six-hour drive from Milwaukee, our group — four guys and I — arrived at Thompson's West End Park in Washburn amid fog and light drizzle. The air was holding steady in the lower 60s, and the water temperature couldn't have been above 45 degrees.
This was what I was afraid of. Lake Superior was holding true to her chilly reputation — average surface temperatures in July and August rarely top 60 degrees — and my optimistic self had foolishly packed only one piece of warm, waterproof clothing.
Our guides, newlyweds Kyle and Anna Freeberg and Vince Santora from Superior's Deeper Wild, were already unloading kayaks as we pulled up to the water's edge in the campground.
After introductions and the unloading of gear, we donned wetsuits, life jackets and spray skirts and launched into training along the waterfront. Most of our group had kayaked before, but in recreational kayaks — a different beast from the sleek, 16-foot sea kayaks we'd be using for the weekend.
As we practiced getting in and out of our kayaks (including exiting a tipped kayak, which involved being upside down in the water) and paddling around the bay, the sky slowly began to clear, giving way to sunshine and warmer air and calming my clothing fears.
I woke Saturday morning to the sun rising in a nearly cloudless sky over sparkling Chequamegon Bay. Our guides told us the weather looked fantastic for the rest of the weekend. Foolish optimism: 1, Lake Superior: 0.
A 30-minute drive north brought us to Buffalo Bay, the launch point for our Apostles adventure.
Taking on the lake
"Sand is the enemy," Kyle reminded us as we unloaded our gear onto a plastic tarp before packing our kayaks. This was a constant refrain throughout the weekend. Sand can clog rudder lines on kayaks, and wear away at straps, deck lines and other assorted hardware.
Gear, clothing and food safely packed in dry sacks in our kayaks, we were finally ready to take on the lake. Our first day would be an easy introduction to Lake Superior: a five-mile, leisurely three-hour paddle along the shore and across a shipping channel to Oak Island.
A short distance into our paddle, we stopped to inspect the Fedora, a wooden steamer brought down near the shore by a fire in 1901. More than 350 ships have gone down in Lake Superior, making it a popular destination for scuba divers to explore the wrecks. Because the Fedora sits less than 10 feet below the surface, and Lake Superior is the cleanest and clearest of the Great Lakes, it was easy to see the ship through the dark blue water as I eased my kayak along its more than 200-foot length.
We hugged the shoreline as we passed Basswood Island to the east, the calm water allowing us to get close enough to explore one of the Apostles' most distinctive features: its sandstone cliffs and caves.
The same rough wind and water that causes headaches and heartache for boaters also molds beautiful sandstone creations. The water etches tunnels, bridges and caves into the reddish-brown stone, often just big enough for a kayak to fit through. I wish we had been able to explore more of the caves, but the larger and more stunning collection is on the northwestern side of the peninsula (we were on the southeastern side) and on Sand and Devils islands.
Not that I'm complaining about the view on our side, which was beautiful in its own right. Towering balsam firs and white birch clung to the cliffs alongside creeping vines and moss. Birds circled overhead and along the shore, and dark-green island mounds lined the horizon in the distance.
As we reached the end of the peninsula, we "rafted up" (gathered our kayaks into a group) for a break before beginning our crossing to the sandy beach on the southern side of Oak Island.
Keeping food safe
Oak Island, about 4 miles across and 2.5 miles wide, has five individual and two group campsites (there are 64 campsites total in the park). Our site, A, was situated in a partially wooded area on a small cliff overlooking the water. Four picnic tables surrounded a firepit, and a bear locker kept our food safe from Yogi.
Yes, bears are a real problem on the islands, mostly in a dangerous-to-your-food-supply way. The week after my trip, rangers shut down access to Sand Island because of nosy bears that had gone as far as breaking into a cooler in a docked boat.
We diligently locked up our food and any other odor-producing items (toothpaste, shampoo, etc.) when we weren't using them, thus avoiding any direct bear interaction. We did spot tracks around the site and at the beach in the morning, but our precautions paid off and all gear and people were accounted for.
A long history
While the islands now are mostly wild, that wasn't always the case. According to Howk, the earliest evidence of human camps on the islands dates back 5,000 years, even before the Ojibwe arrived in the 14th century. The Ojibwe lived on Madeline Island and used the other Apostles on a more seasonal basis before French fur traders arrived in the 1650s and set up a trading post on Madeline.
The ensuing centuries brought farmers, loggers, quarry workers and fishermen to the islands and pushed the Ojibwe onto reservations on the mainland. Lighthouses were built after the construction of the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie, which made shipping possible between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes.
The first push for establishing the Apostles as a national park came in 1929, Howk said, but "early efforts to create a national park here fell on deaf ears because the government people that came to look at the islands decided they did not meet the quality of a national park." Heavy logging and fires on numerous islands had stripped them of their natural beauty.
Just 40 years later, U.S. senator and former Wisconsin Gov. Gaylord Nelson successfully led the charge to establish the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The national park service began acquiring land on the islands from various city, state and private owners and over time removed or preserved buildings on the islands.
Remnants of some of the islands' past inhabitants can still be seen: an old Ford Model T on Sand Island, a deserted bulldozer on Devils, building foundations on many of the islands. On Oak, we stumbled on an old foundation near our campsite while searching for firewood.
Perhaps the best preserved remnant of the islands' human past are the six lighthouses scattered throughout the park, which this year are undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation. Sunday we headed west from Oak Island to see the lighthouse on Raspberry Island, dubbed "the showplace of the Apostle Islands."
The five-mile paddle took us along Oak Island's southern shore, then a quick open-water crossing to a sandy beach on Raspberry. At just 1.1 miles long and 0.6 miles wide, Raspberry is smaller than Oak, but its restored lighthouse and beautiful views make it a popular stop in the islands.
A 15-minute hike brought us to the lighthouse, situated on the island's southern side overlooking the mainland. From 1863 to 1947 the lighthouse guided ships steaming their way along the Lake Superior highway.
We settled in for lunch and a rousing game of croquet on the lighthouse's lawn before embarking on a tour of its interior with Jim Stowell, a National Park Service ranger who undoubtedly is the best tour guide on the islands. Nevermind he's the only one I had the pleasure of meeting.
Aside from our affable and informative guide, the tour's highlight was climbing to the top of the tower and out onto its deck for a 360-degree view of the island and surrounding Lake Superior.
"Some days, you can see Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. That's a three-stater," Stowell said. We were visiting during a two-stater, providing views of Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Tour completed, we hiked back to the beach for the paddle home to Oak. At the halfway point of our trip, fatigue was beginning to set in for much of our group. The key to good paddling form, our guides repeatedly reminded us, was to maintain a straight paddling arm and using your core instead of your arms to pull the paddle through the water. This was easy enough for me to remember, since my arm strength rivals a cricket's. Still, our tired bodies begged for a break on the return trip and we paused for a respite at a dock near the ranger station on Oak's western end.
Rejuvenated for the final leg of our journey, we took our time paddling back to camp. Nearly 15 miles of paddling in two days granted me the best sleep I've had camping in a while.
On Monday it was time to say goodbye to our Apostle home. The marine forecast the night before had called for calm to 2-foot waves, but despite mostly clear skies good ol' Lake Superior decided to bid us farewell with 2- to-4-footers, which actually made for a more interesting — rather than difficult — trip.
Plus, a northwestern wind at our backs made the paddle a relatively easy one, cutting our trip back to Buffalo Bay down by half an hour.
While Lake Superior was saying goodbye with a beautiful tailwind, the Apostles' wildlife came out to bid adieu as well. Loons bobbed along the rocking surface before diving below and disappearing from sight. A mama merganser quickly herded her brood of ducklings along the shore, two desperately trying to climb on her back for a ride. A pair of bald eagles perched on a fir high above us, one occasionally taking to the air for a food recon mission.
I paddled into Buffalo Bay exhausted but in love. I had only gotten a taste of the Apostles, but I already wanted more. It was everything I could hope for in an island vacation: clean water, sandy beaches, paddling, hiking, wilderness and even a dose of history.
Piña coladas have their appeal, but there's something more satisfying about enjoying a hot chocolate around a campfire after a day of paddling, stars peeking out from an oak canopy. For me, that's a true island adventure.
IF YOU GO
Deeper Wild works primarily with religious groups to run trips in the Apostles, but there are many guide services in and around Bayfield that offer day or multi-day trips. Living Adventure, (866) 779-9503, livingadventure.com, is a good option.
Bayfield is a great launching point for Apostle Island trips, with plenty of lodging and dining options. Call (800) 447-4904 or see bayfield.org for more information.
- Day Out: Backpacking the Ice Age Trail through Lincoln County
- Day Out: Governor Dodge State Park is big on natural attractions
- Day Out: Celebrate National Trails Day with hikes, bike rides
- Day Out: Remote Rock Island is worth the journey north (1)
- Best Summer Ever: Where to go camping in Wisconsin this summer
- Best Summer Ever: 8 beaches to visit this summer in Wisconsin
- Best Summer Ever: 25 things to do outside in Wisconsin in the summer (1)
- Day Out: Woodland Dunes a nature lover’s sanctuary
- Day Out: Small Door County parks shine on the peninsula (1)
- Day Out: Celebrate the National Park Service centennial in Wisconsin