(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: JULY/AUGUST 2006)
I've been visiting the Apostle Islands in northwestern Wisconsin for 20 years, and this scene still surprises me, not only with the beauty of the Gothic sandstone tower, but with an instant sense of how lonely a lighthouse keeper's life must have been. Most of the Apostles still offer that kind of isolation.
The 22 Apostles fan out for almost 30 miles from the town of Bayfield, tempting visitors with 720 square miles of forests, caves, rocky outcrops and endless views. The islands, 21 of them protected as a national lakeshore, call to paddlers ready to take on Lake Superior's big water. But even casual travelers will find many of the islands within reach. Whether visitors go by ferry, sailboat or kayak, they'll find the Apostles are a destination for adventurers of all skill levels.
Humans have ventured into the Apostle Islands for centuries in birch-bark canoes, fishing boats, steam-ships and schooners. It took courage. Superior's imposing waters have caused hundreds of shipwrecks and often build into intimidating waves, even in the relatively sheltered channels throughout the Apostles. Waves can well up quickly, sometimes forcing island adventurers to wait it out until the waters calm.
Modern boaters keep constant tabs on weather radios as they plan daily itineraries. But visiting the Apostles now can be as simple as driving onto the deck of the Island Queen ferry and watching Bayfield's whitewashed buildings slide into the distance during the three-mile passage to Madeline Island.
Madeline is the only island not managed by the National Park Service; it already had year-round residents and a long history as a Victorian summer getaway when Congress created the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in 1970. Today's visitors find resorts, golf and a busy marina clustered near the island's only town, La Pointe. It's the Apostle Islands made easy: Madeline lets you experience the archipelago's unique beauty with the creature comforts of paved roads and good espresso.
But don't get the idea that Madeline is crowded. At its summer peak, the island has about 2,500 residents. Driving off the ferry in La Pointe, I quickly yield to a black Lab lapping up a dropped ice cream cone on Main Street. Five cars wait patiently. La Pointe, only about four blocks long, is best for strolling, anyway. Otherwise, you might miss spots like Tom's Burned Down Cafe (after two fires, the beer joint carries on with half walls and tarps) or Lotta's Lakeside Cafe, lauded in culinary circles for being surprisingly upscale for an island this size. The ever-changing menu features dishes such as nut-encrusted lake trout.
I step into the Madeline Island Historical Museum, which has the wonderful feel of an old attic. Intricate Ojibwa beadwork, logging tools and a 500-year-old dugout canoe fill an aged fur-trading warehouse, moved here from a nearby pier. In a newer section of the museum, I meet staffer Lorraine Norrgard, a film-maker who has documented Ojibwa culture for public television. "The Ojibwa are the second-largest tribe in North America," she explains. "Madeline Island is the political, cultural and spiritual center of their society."
Remarkable beauty, too. Retrieve your car or rent a bike for the 6.89-mile ride northeast to Big Bay. A state park and adjacent town park curve for more than two miles along the deep-bellied bay, washing onto a bronze sand beach. I park on the township side and discover what seems like half of Madeline Island's residents splashing in the surf. But solitude comes quickly when I pad south along the soft sands, then onto a boardwalk that sidles up to an inland lagoon. Once part of Lake Superior, the area is alive with mergansers, rustling grasses and threatened plants such as the linear-leaved sundew. I watch a great blue heron stalk the shallows for a fresh fish dinner, then drive back to La Pointe to enjoy my own.
On a bright July morning, a breeze already is building from the northwest, clanging the halyards of the sailboats tied up at Bayfield's City Dock. "The perfect direction for a cruise out to Stockton," Paul Bratti says brightly as he pulls the sailcovers from his 34-foot sloop, Sarah's Joy. I step aboard, and, within moments, the boat's small motor is purring us past the other slips and toward Stockton Island, about 15 miles out.
Paul's Animaashi Sailing Company offers half-day, full- day and evening captained sailboat trips. Half-day trips, he explains, usually don't allow time to go ashore, but they still are a great way to get out on the water and enjoy island views. The goal of our full-day cruise is a swim in Stockton's sandy bays and a hike on some of its more than 14 miles of trails.
There's the flap and flutter of activity as Paul hoists the mainsail, unfurls the jib and cuts the motor. Sails go taut against the wind, the boat heels toward the starboard rail, and all that's left is the gentle slap of waves against the hull. We cruise up the North Channel between Basswood and Madeline islands toward Stockton, hazy lavender in the distance. "The Apostles are such a special mix of big water and protected water," says Paul, who has sailed all over the world in his career with the Coast Guard. "This is one of the nicest ports of call I've ever seen."
Today, a few pleasure boats ply the channel, but in the 1800s, it was busy with schooners hauling sandstone quarried from Basswood, Hermit and Stockton islands. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, much of the city was rebuilt with Apostle Islands "brownstone," prized as a building material across the Midwest. Hiking trails throughout the islands lead to the quarries and other historic sites-including six working lighthouses built to guide shipping traffic.
Big sandstone slabs are visible on the lake floor as we glide into Stockton Island's Presque Isle Bay. We peer down into Lake Superior, clear as an aquarium even at depths of 10 feet or more. We've barely dropped anchor when Paul's teenage daughter, Lara, and a couple of friends ditch the dinghy and swim to shore. While Superior's surface rarely averages more than 55 degrees, the sun can warm shallower bays to the low 70s.
It's just a short .4-mile hike to Julian Bay, a broad sweep of sand considered one of the Apostles' finest beaches, but I opt for a bit longer route. Along the Anderson Point trail, waves thrum against sandstone ledges where purple asters sprout from fissures in the rock. Spicy-scented cedars stretch over the water, angled like sailboats leaning on the stiffening breeze.
I run across Bill and Judy Rohde of New Brighton, Minnesota, soaking their feet in the shallows and soaking up the view. They also arrived at Stockton by sailboat, and hiked along the almost three-mile Tombolo Trail that parallels Julian Bay. "We're lucky," Bill says, sweeping his hand toward the bay and nearby Michigan Island. "A lot of people with boats just go from marina to marina. Look at where we get to go."
By Sea Kayak
The aroma of freshly brewed camp coffee draws me from the depths of my sleeping bag like a turtle emerging from its shell. I unzip the tent fly and am reminded why I slept so well: My "front porch" view opens south across an expanse of silvery blue water studded with islands and lined by rocky outcrops.
We paddled through that inkblot drawing of blue and green yesterday, the beginning of a three-day "Beaches, Waves and Caves" sea-kayaking excursion with local outfitter Living Adventure. "It wasn't that long ago that people would look at us and say, 'You're going out there in those little boats?'" recalls Dustin Long, the guide for our group of five women.
Sleek kayaks 16 to 18 feet long have become one of the most popular ways to explore the Apostles. Loaded with food and camping gear, they're the ticket to exploring the islands' backcountry. While only those with plenty of experience should tackle Superior's vast waters alone, even beginners safely can take shorter paddles with reputable outfitters.
Besides, guides like Dustin get up early to make coffee and breakfast burritos. They also know the marquee attractions. After departing the mainland yesterday, Dustin led us along weather-torn red rock walls, dissolving like sand castles. We floated over the shipwreck Ottawa-its timber ribs poking from the sand like dinosaur bones-then made the 40-minute crossing to Oak Island and our blufftop campsite.
Today's itinerary promises even more: paddle and hike to a 200-foot-high overlook on the north side of Oak-the highest of the Apostles-then hopscotch west to Raspberry, York and Sand islands, where we'll tour the lovely Gothic lighthouse and camp our second night. As we nudge our boats off the beach and round Oak's southwest corner, I'm enamored by a bald eagle glaring down from high in a hemlock right above me. It isn't until fellow paddler Jodi Charlton yells, "Bear!" that I spot a glossy black fellow less than 100 yards away, foraging on a hillside. Stealthy kayaks make for great wildlife sightings.
They offer a great vantage point, period. This close to the water, you feel more intimate with your surroundings. You can examine the sun shining on the lakebed, creating a tortoiseshell pattern through the chop. Or marvel at the immense bluffs looming above, trees crowning them like giant flowerpots. On open-water crossings, I'm almost hypnotized by the rhythm of paddle strokes pulling my boat forward, the bow porpoising through sparkling waves.
And there's certainly no better way to explore the Apostle Islands' sea caves. In several areas of the lakeshore-including Sand Island's Justice Bay, near our campsite-eons of wind and waves have gnawed through the soft sandstone bluffs, leaving behind a Swiss-cheese shoreline of arches and tunnels just waiting for us to explore.
I backpaddle into a tiny cave where the smooth rock wraps around me, delightfully cool and musty. My kayak bobs like a pool toy as the water sloshes and trickles and pours out across the miles, spilling onto other wild island shores. From high vantage points, the Apostles offer a magnificent view; down here at the water line, they stir your very soul.