Kayaking the Apostle Islands

“People from here don’t say they’re from northern Wisconsin. They say they’re from the southern shore of Lake Superior,” explained Jamiah, my young kayak guide.

Once you’re there, the need for the distinction becomes obvious. “Northern Wisconsin” does not capture what it’s like to live on the shores of the world’s largest lake. “The lake is the boss,” they say, and indeed, Lake Superior is a sort of distant, spiritual force that bends people to its will.

Considered an inland sea, its behavior is erratic and changeable, shifting hour by hour. Because of its size and chilly temperatures, the lake creates its own weather systems, and many ships have been caught up in a surprise squall. Over 350 ships have wrecked on the lake. (You can dive there and see them.)

It was during a violent weather system that I arrived at my campground in Bayfield, Wisconsin, in advance of a two-night kayak trip to one of the twenty-one islands that make up the Apostle Islands National Seashore.

After an intensely stormy night, I packed up my flooded campsite in the pouring rain, and headed to Living Adventure’s headquarters, convinced I’d arrive just to hear the trip was cancelled. The forecast was grim—70 percent chance of thunderstorms the entire weekend.

The guides greeted me with optimism. “We’re going to try and make this happen,” they reassured me. “We should get a window this afternoon.” I nodded skeptically.

But the rain did abate, and soon we hopped into kayaks for a crash course. We practiced wet exits, a nice way to say tipping over and then getting “rescued” from the 37-degree water. (Wet suits are essential here. They’re also they’re extremely unflattering. Note the lack of a wet suit photo in this post.)

Then we were off. With kayaks stuffed full of tents, food, and gear, we made the 3.5-mile open-water crossing to Sand Island in two- to four-foot waves and dense fog. Visibility was about one hundred feet, and I fully expected a ghost ship to emerge from the haze.

We base camped on Sand Island, doing very little kayaking and a lot of hanging around waiting for the weather to clear. Instead of sea caves, we saw mostly fog.

We squeezed in an hour or so on the water around 5 p.m. on the second day, but Sunday greeted us with thunderstorms, so we used our first window to head straight back to the mainland. Instead of twenty miles of kayaking, we did about eight.

So I stayed another day. And in typical Lake Superior fashion, the weather shifted and Monday found the water glasslike and calm. A perfect sunny day for a six-mile trip up and down the shore of the mainland, where the biggest and longest stretch of sea caves exist. We popped in and out of the caves, some so tiny we had to bend over forward and use our hands against the walls to eke through.

I wanted this trip for a physical challenge—paddling for days over open waters, hopping from one island to the next. The challenge I got instead was an exercise in patience, learning that the lake is the boss. And despite, or maybe because of these challenges, I can’t wait to go back.

If you go:

Bayfield, WI, is 85 miles from Duluth and 450 miles from Chicago.

Outfitters: There are a few in the area. I went with Living Adventure and highly recommend them. The guides are knowledgeable, with safety at the forefront, and friendly. Their facilities are really nice, their equipment is great, and the people there bend over backwards to make sure you have a great experience. They have day trips and varying lengths of overnight trips.

Campgrounds: Dalrymple is a rustic campground run by the city. The sites are right on the lake, and you might find free firewood (if rain hasn’t drenched it). Vault toilets, water, and electric hookups available. The small sites mean mostly tents or small RVs, so it’s quiet.

Apostle Islands Area Campground is inland, but the sites are well maintained, and you can take a hot shower (5 minutes for $1.50). The bathroom even has soap in it! Some big RVs, but very quiet regardless.

Food: If you can, try to score some wine bread at The Candy Shoppe in downtown Bayfield. It’s like a coffee cake on crack. It sells out fast, though, so get there early or order ahead.

Also check out Big Water Coffee Roasters in downtown. They roast their own beans, and the coffee is really amazing considering the remote location.

Shopping: Apostle Islands Booksellers has the greatest collection of books in their tiny little store. I wanted to buy just about everything I saw on the shelves.


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