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."