The Twenty Two Apostles

The first time I saw Lake Superior, I was looking out past the lighthouse from the port city of Duluth, Minnesota this past Labor Day weekend.  I felt what it might be like to stand at the base of Mount Everest before a climb. The world’s largest freshwater body was right there in front of me, but its enormity was still abstract. I couldn’t really feel it. Fortunately, that would soon change.

To experience Superior, also the most pristine of the Great Lakes, is to ride its choppy waters—by sailboat, kayak, ferry or  barge—it doesn’t much matter. And to get to know its character, you’ll want to visit some of the islands that dot its vast interior. The gorgeous Isle Royale is the largest among them (See March-April 2008), but the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, a little-known national park which encompasses 21 varied island landscapes, is an ideal mix of nature, wildlife, history and adventure for the island hopping set. 

My trip began when my travel companions and I arrived in Bayfield, Wisconsin, (where one campy restaurant, Maggie’s, is a floor to ceiling ode to flamingos). From there, we hopped a car-carrying ferry for a short trip to Madeline Island, the largest Apostle and the only one not included in the park. La Pointe, the quirky, relaxed town on Madeline is the sort of place where your sense of time also takes a vacation. The post office down by the ferry dock is painted white, the pizza parlor houses classic arcade games and Tom’s Burned Down Café quite literally prides itself on being a shell of its former self.  From the marina, we boarded the 30-odd foot sailboat that we’d be weaving through the Apostles for the next three days. 

Watching sunset and the Madeline Island ferry from the shore of Madeline Island. Mainland Wisconsin is seen in the background.

Because these uninhabited islands are only accessible by water, they are one of the least-visited treasures in the national park system. Luckily, you don’t have to charter a boat to get there. The park service shuttles campers and day-hikers back and forth and well-trained kayakers often choose to navigate themselves from shore to shore. Sailing the high waters was an adventure I recommend if you can swing it. At one point the winds angled our boat so steeply that I could easily touch the cold water surface while reaching over the side.

The lake’s surface, however, was more like shimmering glass as we anchored in shallow waters offshore of our first stop. Motoring at 4-5 knots through only an intermittent breeze most of the way to Sand Island, I was surprised at how long it took to cover the 30 mile or so distance. We had only traveled the tiniest fraction of Superior’s 350-mile length, and I began to appreciate how much lake was beyond that horizon line. Soon after anchoring, we saw a bald eagle soaring above, maybe hunting for a late afternoon meal. The Apostles provide important nesting habitat for bald eagles, piping plovers and other breeding birds, and are one of the Great Lakes’ most heavily trafficked migratory flyways. These birds, at least, truly do understand the difficulty of crossing Lake Superior—for them, the land provides a welcome rest from wide open waters.

Inside the sea caves at Sand Island.

As for myself, I have a weakness for cool geology, and Sand Island had that in spades. It’s one of the several spots with rust-red sea caves formed as result of wave erosion slowly undercutting the base of the sandstone cliffs. Apostle Island sandstone was quarried in the late 19th-century in order to make brownstone building material. After we explored the vaulted chambers and arches of the sea caves, we went ashore to hike to Sand Island’s historic lighthouse, built in 1881 to help guide ships carrying Apostle Island lumber, fish and stone to western Lake Superior ports. At different times, Native Americans, commercial fisherman, farmers and loggers lived on the Apostle archipelago, and the islands are home to a total of six historic lighthouses. Today, the forests, sculpted shorelines, rocks and caves are all preserved.

Sand Island Lighthouse, built in 1881.

While Sand Island is known for its caves and lighthouse, our second stop, Oak Island, is where we hoped to spot some black bears. Oak and Stockton Island are home to large populations of bears that swim over from the mainland. Though the bear sighting was not meant to be, hiking through Oak’s forest was reward enough. Positioned in the tension zone between the northern limits of the temperate hemlock-white-pine hardwood forests and the southern limits of more boreal terrain, the unique woods of the Apostles were like none I’d ever experienced. We hiked up a ravine and through the forest, and eventually emerged at an overlook on the cliff. Looking out onto Lake Superior, I couldn’t be more happy about what I’d found.

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