Superior's divine isles: Exploring the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Lake Superior’s waves were picking up as I rounded the remote northern tip of Madeline Island in a borrowed recreational kayak. I had been paddling solo for two hours on a hot, brilliant July day, and my arms and face were burning.
Four miles across an open channel, Stockton Island filled my view. The largest mass within the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, it looked like a vast floating forest, a real-world never-never land. Just as enticing was the mirage-like Michigan Island 3 miles to my right, with its gleaming white 1929 lighthouse towering over high red cliffs.
Alone on the endless azure lake, I might have been an original 17th-century French explorer. The distant isles stoked my desire for conquest and physical achievement. Could I make it across to one of them today?
The answer was no. Tossed by a 3-foot swell, my kayak slammed down onto a submerged boulder. For a few precarious moments, I could have tipped into the clear, cold lake. I was out of my depth — and my open cockpit was filling with water. I paddled furiously to the safety of shore.
For the first time, and not the last, I learned the meaning of the Apostle Islands’ enduring mantra: “The lake is the boss.”
That was more than a decade ago. Since that misadventurous fling, I’ve set about developing a long-term relationship with the Apostles. So named by the biblically inclined French, who must have counted 12, the Apostles are a jumble of 22 islands flung across 720 square miles that make up the northernmost fragments of Wisconsin.
Forged by the waves of glacial lakes after the Ice Age, the Apostles are among the last truly remote places in the Midwest, precisely because they are so hard to reach. Most of the islands share some key features — artful rock formations and sea caves, deep woods, historic lighthouses, black bears — but each has its own natural character and sense of mystery. Now I head to the Apostles once or twice a year, with the patient goal of eventually visiting all 22.
The ancestral home to Ojibwe people, the islands were logged bare in the early 20th century, perhaps to build my Craftsman house and yours. Over the decades, forests have again taken hold. In 1970, Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson (who also founded Earth Day that year) spearheaded the creation of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore within the National Park System. It spans 21 wild islands, excluding human-inhabited Madeline, plus 12 miles of mainland shoreline, and is one of three protected national lakeshores on the Great Lakes. In 2004, the interiors of 18 of the islands were federally designated as the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness, banning motorized vehicles and ensuring that a total of 69,000 acres would remain in a uniquely primitive state.
So far, I’ve walked on 10 Apostles, and circumnavigated at least 14. I’ve joined sea-kayaking tours, crossing from island to island for days at a time. I’ve paddled into the famous sandstone sea caves. I’ve waded in the cold but invigorating waters of Stockton’s Julian Bay — which is like a rustic Caribbean beach transplanted to the North Woods. I even learned to sail just so I could experience the outermost Apostles on the crew of a 39-foot rental, with Gitchi-Gami’s erratic winds and waves as our guide. And I’ve seen historic shipwrecks and lighthouses. So many lighthouses.
But my companions and I generally encounter few others. The Apostles remain an isolated wilderness, a mere vacation backdrop for some. Most visitors to the area stroll the quaint mainland village of Bayfield or maybe take the car ferry to Madeline Island’s scrappy town of La Pointe — and then turn around.
They are missing out.
There are many ways to get to know the Apostles — cruise boats, sailing, kayaking, camping — and all of them worth the effort.
Perfect day on Stockton
To rough it in the national lakeshore, you generally depart not from Madeline, but from Bayfield, population 473. Reserve a campsite online, pick up your permit at the National Park Service headquarters in town and head to the docks to board a midmorning “camping shuttle” with Apostle Islands Cruises.
One camping destination is Oak Island, which rises some 480 feet over Lake Superior, the highest point in the region. But I always choose Stockton.
The one-hour cruise takes you deep into the archipelago — beyond Madeline, Basswood and Hermit islands — and deposits you at the dock on Stockton’s Presque Isle Bay, home to one of the only ranger stations inside the park. Here, you have the option of hiking around for two hours and boarding the boat back to Bayfield, or staying for at least one night. Two hours is barely enough; for quality time on the 10,054-acre, 7½-mile-long Stockton, you’ll need to camp.
Last summer, my companion and I set up camp at one of 19 secluded, first-come-first-served sites on a cliff above Presque Isle Bay. While searching for firewood in the nearby forest, we almost spoiled our appetites by indulging in the wild blueberries that are all over the island in late summer (sorry, bears).
Stockton Island’s main draw is the tombolo — geology speak for a sandbar-like isthmus that once joined two islands. Stockton’s 1-mile-long, half-mile-wide tombolo strip is magnificent, hosting an ecosystem of pine forest, bogs, dunes and sandy beach that stands apart from most of the Apostles’ rocky shoreline. Wikipedia’s “tombolo” page used to show just an aerial photo of Stockton.
After lunch, we set off for the perfect day on Stockton. The 3-mile Tombolo Trail straddles the border between the piney Stockton mainland and the sandy, blueberry-filled peninsula. We traipsed over wood-plank footbridges crossing a pristine wetland and an unnamed creek. Finally, we broke out of the woods and onto the crown jewel of Stockton, if not the Apostles themselves: Julian Bay beach.
Sometimes a few couples and families are strolling the milelong wild beach, while yachts from Bayfield or Upper Michigan are anchored in the bay. Sometimes you have the place to yourself. People call Julian Bay the “singing sands” beach because the compact grains make a squeaky sound between your toes. True story. My partner says that the sand looks and feels like brown sugar, but I like to call it Goldschlager beach because of the way the sun refracts in the crystal-clear water, redolent of the campy, gold-flaked Swiss liqueur. While people sun themselves, I inevitably strip down for a swim. On a hot day, the broad bay’s shallow Superior waters and waves are not-too-cold and rejuvenating.
Stockton’s other claim to fame is its black bears — once reputedly the highest density in the country. In reality, the bear population fluctuates on all of the islands, and to this day the only bear I’ve ever briefly seen was on civilized Madeline. Stockton’s relatively small, inbred bears don’t like us much and are rarely encountered in hot spots such as the Stockton tombolo. But inside the ranger station on Stockton, you’ll find the taxidermy of Skar, a juvenile who was put down after he raided one too many campsites in 2002 and nonlethal tactics failed. Seventeen years later, Skar is a reminder that stowing your food and scented items in your site’s bear locker is imperative.
The afternoon wraps up with a hike around Presque Isle Point, the small former island (presque is French for “almost”) connected to Stockton by the tombolo. Presque is a more quintessential Apostles islandscape: Broad rocky ledges provide views in all directions, and the trail is flanked by towering pines that the lumberjacks might have missed.
We return to camp for dinner, apply bug spray liberally and watch the sun set over the bay. Sailboats are silently moored in the rose-gold twilight.
One summer, with a growing desire to get up close and personal with the Apostles, I booked a three-day kayaking tour with the now-defunct Living Adventure outfitter near Bayfield. That’s when I learned I’d been fortunate to turn back in my borrowed kayak a few years earlier. I’d had neither the equipment nor the training for crossing that dangerous North Channel.
A good tour begins with the required basic safety course. First I was issued the essentials: a wetsuit, a 16-foot sea kayak, an extra paddle, a hand pump and a spray skirt to keep your cockpit watertight. My group went over the basic strokes — sea kayakers emphasize their core muscles and a forward stroke to conserve energy. Then the fun part: I learned how to capsize my own kayak, rescue myself and get back in my boat. I have yet to tip a sea kayak unintentionally. But learning the tricks to save myself was empowering.
Our tour departed from Little Sand Bay — six of us, including a middle-aged couple from Omaha; a mother and daughter from Minnesota; and Ben, our skilled, knowledgeable guide. Record rains and flooding had pelted the area days earlier, clouding the normally crystalline Superior water. As we paddled the 2 miles to Sand Island, we shed layers to enjoy the sun; by the end of the trip, we would learn to cover up with hats, sunblock and bug spray.
Many sea kayak tours head straight to the dramatic mainland sea caves, which famously become “ice caves” some winters. But we set a course for the equally spectacular caves on Sand. You can draw an almost-straight line between the mainland caves, Sand Island’s and the ones at Devils Island, 11 miles to the northeast. Together, they make up the Devils Island Formation. The powerful lake has carved these delicate red sandstone cliffs into arches, caverns and the occasional “secret” tunnel. After many photos, we paddled around to the north side of Sand for the first night’s camp.
The next morning we explored Sand Island’s 1880 lighthouse, and set off to the next islands — York, with its own small tombolo and beach, and then Raspberry. Crossing from isle to isle is a leap of faith, and the paddler must map out the shortest transits possible for safety. The wind and weather can change without warning, and certain wind directions, particularly northeast, are more hazardous for boaters here. The lake is the boss. Halfway between Sand and York, we were pelted with a sudden cold rain, but in our wetsuits, it felt refreshing.
The buddy system is also essential. Summer lake temperatures in the open water are in the 50s, which will induce hypothermia quickly without a wetsuit. Frequently a disorienting fog might hang over half of the islands, while it’s sunny elsewhere. Ben told a story, possibly apocryphal, of a female kayaker who got lost in the fog and paddled for days, eventually turning up on the North Shore.
At Raspberry Island’s pristine 1857 lighthouse, a semiretired ranger might appear and give an animated tour and lecture about what life was like in isolation in the 19th century. My favorite part of the stories are the lightkeepers’ brides, who arrive expecting romance and adventure, only to find extreme loneliness, endless winter and a ton of gardening. The tale usually ends with the young woman spiriting away with the coal delivery guy.
Our tour of the inner-ring Apostles stopped for Night 2 on steep Oak Island, and the next day we meandered back to Bayfield. When it was over, I was exhausted and inspired.
The immersive trip, with nothing but my own power to propel me, was a deep dive into the uniqueness and the fragility of the Apostles. For good reason, the Park Service limits the number of camping permits issued; it helps keeps the islands unspoiled.
But it was on that overnight on Sand Island that I made my favorite Apostles memory, partly because recent flooding left our campsite’s designated tent pads far too muddy to use. We made and extinguished our fire inland but carefully pitched our tents on the sandy beach.
I leapt inside my two-person tent quickly to keep the mosquitoes out. Then I unzipped the privacy screen and took in the view. The sun was up well after 9 p.m., and I realized this day was the summer solstice. Some 20 miles into the amber northwest, I could faintly make out the highlands of Minnesota’s North Shore.
I drifted off to sleep on the beach of a wild island in the world’s largest lake, as waves lapped the shore and an almost-midnight sun set over my distant home state. It was just another singular experience of the Apostles.