The lake is the boss. It's pretty simple really. She doesn't care what your plans are, doesn't matter if your bucket list isn't filled, concerned little with how much you've prepared. The lake, mother nature, is the custodian of all that happens here. The cold waters, and her islands worry little of forecasts and plans.
The boss is Lake Superior within the Apostle Islands. This statute would apply anywhere on Gitchigumi, but in particular within this National Lakeshore in the northern most realm of Wisconsin. Under the protection of the US National Park Service, the lakeshore is comprised of 21 islands and shoreline, totaling 70,000 acres. Located in the coldest of the great lakes, it's know for sandstone sea caves, historic lighthouses, natural wildlife habitat and traces of old growth forest.
The Apostles are one of the places most kayakers would have scrawled on a napkin, perhaps with a crude map outlining island hopping and a list of the best campsites next to a penciled in calendar. Those scraps of paper devising the trip may sit idol for years, but they are always there, waiting.
In reality, I didn't have any notes or maps tucked amonst my outdoor gear in the basement, but that drop in my pail was there and the adventure would happen at some point.
Sea kayaking was introduced to me a little over a year ago when I joined some friends in a borrowed boat for a paddle on Lake Arbutus in central Wisconsin. I have a canoe background, but had never really spent any time wetting a double blade from a kayak. The sport appealed to me-there is an quiet escape as the prow slices silently through the water. I tried a couple different boats that day and realized I may as well start checking Craig's List-I'd have my own soon. A week later, a 17 foot Current Designs Caribou had found a home in my garage.
I'd listened to stories of paddling, particularly Apostle Island paddling, from friends Mark and Tom for years. Adventure tales, yarns and sometimes, scary stories. They are both experienced big water paddlers, and in taking me under their wing, learned to be very patient. Slipping a tippy long boat into the water and making it go where you want it safely, does have a learning curve. The design of these particular “Greenland” boats are characterized by feeling tippy but having good secondary stability-great for skilled paddlers, less so for a novice. In any regard, they are fast and efficient, and well suited for tripping-I'd need practice.
With a year of paddling under my belt and another 'yak in the garage (a whitewater model for frigid spring runs), the urge to finally make the Apostles happen was set in motion. With campsite reservations made, the “training” proceeded. Mark and I ventured out a few times on local flowages and the Mississippi and I made a habit of a early morning launches into Arbutus a few times a week to improve my technique and strength. Confidence and anticipation were growing.
Our best laid plan was to head to Little Sand Bay (park headquarters) via Ashland and Bayfield and do a half day paddle to York Island, or first stop. So much for an agenda-the lake didn't care.
The late Monday night storm to hit northern Wisconsin changed all that. Our Tuesday morning drive halted in Mellen - hwy 13 was gone just north of there. A canyon replaced where the road had once been. No fix there soon. We tried some town roads instead and none were passible. Amazing. Checking with a local, it appeared the only way to Ashland was to backtrack and head west to state hi-way 53, a 3 or 4 hour detour!
Eventually, after a few more deversions and a flat tire, we made it to Chequamegon Bay outside of Ashland and Washburn, only to be greeted by a red plume of silt pumping out from Fish Creek and other small tributaries. Hope of saving our day one plans faded as we pulled into Little Sand Bay being pounded by strong winds, high waves and floating brick stained debris. The ranger reported numerous kayakers had to be rescued the previous evening there. On to plan B.
Late night rain pelted the small tent rainfly-”Well, this doesn't sound good,” I thought. Worse, winds buffeted the trees surrounding our campsite just outside of Bayfield, foreshadowing another day of delays.
Thinking maybe we could make a run at the sea caves outside of Meyers Beach, we took a spin to Cornucopia to check conditions, hoping for a favorable wind direction, as predicted. Nope, Rangers had the kayak launch and beach closed- “Small Craft Warning” said the sign on the barricade. Mother Nature is Boss. Descending to the beach, it was obvious why the lake was shut down-whitecaps crested 3 foot crimsom colored waves-water that had an unrestricted run all the way from Two Harbors Minnesota. No paddling here today.
Trying to salvage a day, we decided to get back to Bayfield and paddle the Friendly Valley beach area off the Sioux River which was protected. Any time on the cold (usually clear) water is a good thing, so a few hours in the swells was perfect to test out gear-wet suits and assorted paddling necessities. Glad I did-my PFD was constricting me and I felt terrible. The extra layers for cold water paddling required some adjustments and eventually everything was dialed in. Wet suits? Oh yeah, the lake demands respect and anyone in the water without one won't last long.
Reservations had us on Oak Island on Day 3, so with calmer conditions in the morning we decide to make an attempt to reach it from park headquarters again. Unfortunately, Little Sand Bay still had waves running high and from the west. No go. So much for the weather predictions again. Mark came up with an viable option however- maybe we could make it from the Bayfield side on the south-hopefully we'd be be protected from the wind in that direction.
A block off downtown Bayfield, we finally unloaded camping and paddling gear for our first island pursuit. As if to welcome us to this continuing adventure, the islands and the lake dropped a thick drippy fog bank on us as we made our first paddle strokes into the water. No matter, we're doing this.
Staying close to the lee shore, the paddle up to Red Cliff was pretty good-within a half hour I had my “sea legs” -that auto pilot feeling where balance and paddling are unconscious. Crossing some quartering wind at Buffalo Bay we were rewarded with beautiful brownstone rock faces which the lake continually carves and gnaws away. At 9 miles, we'd made good time, but it also couldn't be denied that the swell, waves and chop were growing. Mark mentioned that sometimes the Islands will force the wind to wrap around and change direction and that seemed to be ahead of us in the one mile crossing to Oak Island.
Being a good tutor, he kept checking- “How are you doing?” as the boats cut into some of the bigger water I'd ever been in. “Okay” which I mostly meant. With just a ½ mile to go and near the mid channel shipping buoy, the waves were breaking more and more-the lake resolved we needed to turn around-it wasn't worth the risk. She is the boss.
There was no thought to turning tail, it just is what it is. We beat it back to the Red Cliff Bay side and resigning ourselves to the long return trip. Along the way, paused to check out the shipwrecks of the Ottawa, Rambler and Coffinberry, all laid to rest in the late 1800s in a small shallow bay.
Maybe it was a wind shift, or just the lake and islands granting a repreve, but continuing down shore, the gentler swells and calming chop allowed us to make a few brief explorations of the small Red Cliff sea caves. They are remarkable and rugged and provided some photo ops and a break from churning out mile after mile in the boats.
Continuing south, and finally settling into a a good rhythm, I was suddenly about jolted from the cockpit as my boat seemingly barely missed colliding with a enormous structure directly below! As my heart returned to my chest, I realized it was a large shipwreck (the Fedora, lost in 1901) just below the surface. Spinning about, Mark and I followed the wood and iron skeleton along it's length (over 280 feet!) in what was a surreal sight this far off shore. Totally unexpected, but a highlight none the less. The lake does claim it's victims it seems.
Mark joked all week about options-we needed a lot each day of this trip. It seemed that as we paddled back toward Bayfield, Basswood Island, just across the north channel from us, was, well, right there. The gears were turning in my mentors head, and day three's “option B” would be to cross to Basswood-surely no one would be out at those campsites he suggested (we'd only seen one kayaker all week). Well, okay...lets try.
Just as in cycling the wind always seems to be in your face, in paddling, it's a quartering breeze that becomes your nemesis, always turning the boat making things difficult. We worked hard to cross and it was a relief to round the southern tip into calm sheltered water. Marks prediction was correct-no one on any of the 3 campsites here, a gorgeous spot above a small rock face.
As challenging as the rocky take out was, we managed to land and quickly set up camp. Black flies were tolerable and mosquitos kept at bay by the campfire. So camping here wasn't according to plan, but as it worked out, we had a beautiful view of Madeline Island and the city lights of Bayfield 3 miles distant. From our vantage, we'd watch a tour boat cruise by, a few sailboats and the ferries shuttling back and forth to La Pointe.
Our final day in the islands started with a discussion over camp coffee as to what “options” we'd have. No rush, rain the previous night soaked tents and tarps, so we'd need some drying time anyway. We'd toss in a quick hike to one of the 1800's brown stone quarries as well on Basswood-a little insight as to the difficult life people had here a hundred plus years ago (there also is an old farmstead located on the island). Although we looked at circumnavigating Basswood and then heading for port, the milage seemed a bit tall after the long paddles the previous day. Option C or D (I can't recall which) was to head across the east channel to Madeline, then down to La Pointe and finally cross to Bayfield. Seemed doable. But then again, the lake calls the shots.
Stowing gear in the boats and successfully launching off the bouldery landing, we settled into a cruise up the east side, passing by the old quarry dock, barely visible below the icy waters off shore. Sailboats began leaving the harbor, a sign that maybe we'd hit more wind than predicted again. What's good for sailing, isn't necessarily good for paddling. Mark coached to take a east heading, which would put us about halfway up Madeline's west shore. Easier said than done.
If I learned anything from this crossing, it's to trust your boat. The waves rolled in at about two feet, not huge, but about as large as I wanted. Greenland kayaks are designed for this-the Inuits have thousands of years of R & D of both the boats and paddles-they used what worked. As long as I steadfastly watched the next wave quartering in, and had good paddle placement, the boat would roll up and over like it's designed to. As Mark once observed, these are the most sea worthy water craft out here. I hoped so.
The crossing was taxing because we had to paddle on one side 90% of the time-neither of us had skegged boats. Even after reaching shore, the winds ran down along the lakeside and in places, the waves and swells were larger hitting the shallow water. One or two small bays offered rest, but at some point, we both realized we were not paddling to Bayfield-trying to cross the channel again, even further, was not going to happen this day-the lake had determined as much.
Not thinking Superiors water could get more raw, I was wrong-rounding the tip of Madeline, suddenly both of us realized our hands starting to freeze. It seems the boat and ferry traffic here churns and mixes even colder water from below if that's possible. Wallowing in the swells near the break wall, the boats turned and headed into the welcome sand of the beach-my arms and back appreciative of the rest.
Perhaps a bit out of place among the floppy hat, white short, Hawaiian shirt tourists here, we marched up a side street in wet suits to change into “civilian clothes-” a better option for downing a burger and beer at the lakeside bar and grill. A ticket on the Island Queen to reach Bayfield was just $14 with our kayaks. Deal. Seemed a simple resolution at this point, right? Well, the lake is the boss and it was as if she wanted to tease our plans one more time. Instead of big waves hindering our paddling, a consistent edict all week, she calmed the waters, forcing us to second guess our decision. With gear already stowed, we both looked out over the 4 mile crossing most likely thinking the same thing. Dismissing the thought (not easily), we both reached down instead and grabbed a handle on a kayak and started the haul to the ferry dock.
It's known by some the islands in the Apostles shape and mold the weather here to their liking. The 21 dots of land and the deep cold waters of Superior are in their own world and they govern the weather as they wish. Although not unfolding like we'd planned, spending time with boats, water and friends in the Apostles is always rewarding. No matter the long range forecast, or your reservations, the lake is the boss.