Apostle Islands




I knew it was time to head back to the dinghy. My stomach rumbled insistently, and the deepening gray of the overcast sky told me twilight was lurking. Instead, like a child who isn’t ready to be called for supper, I nestled against the modest dune at my back and let my fingers run idly through the fine yellow-pink sand of Julian Bay’s crescent beach.

My dune and the one standing opposite perfectly framed our C&C 29 Jubilee, waiting at anchor and seemingly frozen on a flat expanse of slate-colored water. Although I could hear the waves roaring ashore half a mile away, Stockton Island’s leeward coast was impossibly still. The wind that had whipped Lake Superior the previous night was now just a murmuring breath in the trees, and my only company was an eerie collection of bleached driftwood dotting the beach. It was mesmerizing.

“Hey, are you there? Come look at this!”

It was Richard, returning from his photography expedition. My reverie broken, I joined him at the land-locked lagoon, which stretched between the dunes and the island’s thickly forested interior. He pointed.

It was a bald eagle, perched on a nearby log. I caught a quick glimpse of his bright head and the snowy flare of his tail feathers as he took flight, then he was gone.

It was tempting to stay a bit longer in the hopes of also spotting one of the island’s 20-plus resident black bears, but now nightfall was imminent and supper seemed to be a fine idea. Zipping up my fleece jacket, I followed Richard back through the surreal sculpture garden of dunes and driftwood toward the dinghy.

Soon we were comfortably aboard Jubilee, with the savory smell of traditional Cornish pasties wafting from the oven and friendly lamplight pooling on the cockpit table. Yet I couldn’t wait for morning. We had chartered Jubilee for just three nights, and we were eager to experience as much of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore as possible.

En Route to Julian Bay

The Apostle Islands, an archipelago of 22 islands scattered across 720 square miles of Lake Superior, lie just off Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula. Twenty-one islands and a 12-mile stretch of mainland coast comprise the national lakeshore – a magnificent wilderness of rocky cliffs, sea caves, sandy beaches, verdant temperate and boreal forests, and the clear, cold water of the world’s largest freshwater lake.

Thanks to the islands’ proximity to one another and their numerous protected anchorages, the Apostles have become a premier Great Lakes cruising destination. And, since they are within easy driving distance of the Midwest’s major metro areas, warm summer days and balmy autumn weekends find the streets of Bayfield and Madeline Island teeming with tourists and the waterways decorated with billowing sails.

When we decided to charter a boat from Sailboats Inc.’s Bayfield base, however, we hoped to discover the Apostles’ more primeval side. To that end, we waited for the lull between Labor Day and peak fall color, opting to sail among the islands for three midweek nights in September.

The silence descended almost as soon as we slipped off Jubilee’s docklines in Bayfield. The gully-washing rain and impenetrable fog of the previous night’s storm had moved on, but so had the wind; barely a zephyr stirred the thick air, and the clouds hung low in the sky. It was a motoring day, especially since we’d gotten a late start and wanted to reach Stockton Island before nightfall.

Presque Isle Bay, on the island’s south coast, was our scheduled destination, but the storm had left a substantial surge that turned the anchorage into an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous lee shore. Examining the charts, we decided that the short hop around Presque Isle Point to north-facing Julian Bay would have to be an acceptable alternative.

Giving the shallows plenty of room, we motored smoothly around the point and were greeted by a flat-calm, crescent-shaped bay rimmed with a broad, sandy beach and rolling dunes. Thrilled, I quickly consulted my guidebooks; Bonnie Dahl’s Superior Way calls Julian Bay “one of the most beautiful places in the Apostles,” and my hiker’s guide noted that the bay was celebrated for its “singing sands.”

What luck for a Plan B.

We dropped the hook and clambered into our little dinghy for a quick sojourn ashore before supper. The singing sands, which looked pinkish even in the overcast evening light, welcomed us immediately. Each footfall elicited a flurry of unusual notes beneath our hiking boots.

Camera in hand, Richard hurried off to capture a few images. I gazed at the lone trail of footprints stretching across virgin, wind-rippled sand and at last felt that we’d left civilization behind.

Hiking Stockton Island

The majority of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is wilderness. In fact, 80 percent of it was added to the National Wilderness Preservation System in 2004 under the name Gaylord Nelson Wilderness… it’s Wisconsin’s largest. Yet National Park Service management does allow impressive access to visitors: This is a hiker’s paradise as much as it is a sailor’s. Ferries carry day-hikers and backpackers to public docks throughout the islands, where more than 50 miles of trails link backcountry camps with countless scenic, historic and educational sites.

The best way to really see the Apostles is to hike them, and when we awoke to a warm, sunny day at Julian Bay, we practically inhaled our coffee and cereal in our haste to go ashore and do just that.

The singing sands glowed in the morning light as we dragged the dinghy away from the purling water. I pulled my sweatshirt off immediately; temperatures in Lake Superior country range from the 40s to the 60s at this time of year, and today we were benefiting from a benevolent Mother Nature. Somehow, on that shimmering beach, it felt even warmer.

Where the golden sand met the point’s craggy outcroppings, we climbed up to higher ground and got our first look across what can only be described as terraces – multilevel stretches of rock, the lowest of which held shallow pools of tepid water. I sat down on the warm, flat surface and examined the tiny aquatic life making its home there as well as the several hardy little plants peeping out from narrow fractures, all catching as much sun as possible before the harsh northern winter.

We picked up the Anderson Loop Trail here and followed it around the point to the Presque Isle public dock and visitor’s center, a distance of 1.4 miles. The trail meandered through a sun-dappled forest that was just beginning to show splashes of fall color; occasionally it lurched onto rocky ledges above the water. Several of these boasted blowholes, and the lake announced her formidable presence with a harrumphing bellow somewhere deep beneath our feet.

Finally we reached the visitor’s center which, like the public dock, was empty. Walking inside, I spotted a large glass case containing a stuffed black bear.

This was Skar, named by park rangers for a scar on his hindquarters. Island visitors apparently fed the bear repeatedly over the years, and he became accustomed to people. Then a hungry Skar threatened campers on the island. In the end, the park rangers were forced to shoot him, and now this sad display serves to illustrate the danger in feeding wild animals. It’s bad for the bears as well.

Since a dry-erase board in the center reported a bear sighting nearby as well as at Julian Bay, we hoped to see one – from a distance – as we cut back across the point via the 0.4-mile Julian Bay Trail.

The largest of the Apostles at 10,000 acres, Stockton Island used to be two distinct islands. Over five centuries, falling lake levels resulted in a sandbar, or tombolo, that closed the gap between the two and created Presque Isle Point. This region, rather than matching the main island’s hardwood forest, incorporates a pine forest, savanna, bogs, sand dunes and the lagoon.

Our hike back was a rewarding one, with several breathtaking views across the tombolo’s diverse landscape. We didn’t see any bears, but it made me happy to know they were there.

Rocky Island Ghosts

All too soon we were back at Julian Bay. I quickly rowed out to Jubilee, packed sandwiches, apples and some chocolate, and hurried back to shore so we could have a quick picnic on the sunny rock terraces.

Finally the southwesterly breeze freshened, and it really was time to move on. Setting sail just outside the bay, Jubilee rounded Stockton Island and, reaching smartly along at 6 knots under main and genny, made her way between Cat and Outer islands toward North Twin. Beyond that small island lay vast Lake Superior and the distant Canadian shoreline.

After clearing Cat Island’s northernmost point, however, we rounded up and sailed southward, close-hauled, bound for Rocky Island. I was especially keen to visit this place, for along the shore lay the ruins of a late 19th century fishing camp.

As it was already 6 p.m., that excursion would have to wait until morning. We dropped the hook just south of the NPS dock and realized were utterly alone. It felt like we had the world to ourselves.

If yesterday’s world belonged to a surrealist at Julian Bay, today’s was the exclusive domain of an Impressionist. As Richard grilled bratwurst on the Magma propane grill, the cloudless blue sky gradually morphed into shades of pink and purple, creating unearthly representations of itself on the rippling lake surface.

Such a clear night brought fall-like temperatures, and we quickly moved below to sip on cabernet sauvignon and read in our warm berths. Sleep came all too quickly – as did the shrieking anchor alarm on Richard’s GPS unit. Fortunately it was a false alarm. Before going back to sleep, I peeked through the companionway hatch to see a night sky literally blazing with stars. A million wee reflections winked back at me from the dark water.

From the dock the next morning, we hiked southward along the island’s eastern shore toward the fishing camp. Unlike the bright, cheerful forest of yesterday, this pine-and-cedar wood with its sparse understory was almost preternaturally dim and quiet. It was sobering, and we barely spoke.

Ten minutes into the hike, we came across the camp’s ruins. Not much was left: an old shed, a moldering outhouse, two derelict rowboats and a few logs with notches and nails in them. Most fishing camps operated from the 1890s to the 1950s; this one, operated by the Nies family in the 1940s and ‘50s, joined the others in obsolescence when the sea lamprey and faster motorboats arrived on the scene.

We followed the trail onward to a beach and, ultimately, Rocky Island’s southernmost point. Clouds scudded across a partially overcast sky in the stiff wind, and the lake was rollicking with whitecaps, but we still enjoyed the walk out to the point. Hundreds of large, multicolored stones had washed ashore here, and the beach was a veritable geology exhibit – limestone and coal mingled with slate, quartz, glass, granite and even ancient basalt.

The power of Lake Superior even on a relatively mild day is staggering. Among the driftwood we spotted whole trees that had been flung ashore like so many matchsticks.

Evil Spirit Island to the Raspberries

An unexpected wind shift sent us scurrying back to the dock. It was barely noon, but with a rolling anchorage and a tight sightseeing schedule, we decided to weigh anchor and head for Devils Island, Wisconsin’s northernmost point.

Lake Superior is constantly reshaping the face of the Apostles, and nowhere is this more apparent than along the north shore of Devils Island. Here, billion-year-old red sandstone is continually sculpted into massive, interconnected sea caves and soaring pillars. As additional proof of the lake’s ongoing contemporary-art efforts, the island’s interior is completely riddled with holes.

Avid sea kayakers love this place, yet the native Ojibwe referred to it as “Evil Spirit Island.” It wasn’t a stretch to comprehend why. The sun turned the otherworldly topography reddish-orange, and the surge gurgled ominously into a hidden netherworld. Indeed, a kayaker’s playground on a calm day can become dangerous when the wind shifts.

After clearing Devils Island, we set our course to the southwest and hoisted the sails. The wind was fairly strong – 15 knots gusting to 20 – but Jubilee handled the gusty winds and the rolling sea with grace. Perched happily at the helm, Richard hummed along with Eric Clapton and Santana while I trimmed the sails and fixed a few snacks. Water hissed along the rail, the wake burbled pleasantly behind us, and we were the only yacht in any direction. It was only us, blue water and blue sky.

Finally we tacked and sailed down the east shore of little Raspberry Island. We planned to anchor off Raspberry’s picturesque southeastern sandspit, go ashore and hike to the restored lighthouse. The Devils Island light, lit in 1891, was the last of the six Apostles lighthouses; the Raspberry Island light was third, dating to 1863, and I was eager to take a tour. In addition, much of the island was never logged, and the old-growth forests would make for a fascinating hike.

Unfortunately, this time an expected wind shift did not materialize and we weren’t able to find a good spot to tuck Jubilee in for the night. Sadly, we watched the Raspberry Island lighthouse complex grow smaller behind us as we motored two miles across to Raspberry Bay on the mainland.

Part of the national lakeshore and the Red Cliff Indian Reservation, Raspberry Bay provides protection when Raspberry Island does not – and, despite the disappointment over missing our hike, we found it to be quite beautiful. So, for our last night, we finished the last of our locally brewed South Shore Nut Brown Ale and settled into the cockpit to read. Three other boats eventually joined us, and we all seemed to pause and acknowledge the setting sun as it illuminated the far shore with a rich golden light. Then the anchor lights twinkled on, and the sounds and smells of suppertime drifted across the bay.

Return to the Apostles

The Apostles’ human history reaches back at least 1,000 years. The islands were home to the predecessors of today’s Native Americans as well as to the modern Ojibwe people, and they were a significant waypoint for French explorers, the fur traders and the Jesuits. The real change, however, came in 1855 with the opening of the Soo Locks.

Once the doors to Lake Superior were open to ships from around the world, lighthouses and their keepers became essential for protecting mariners, and fishing camps, logging camps, stone quarries and farms arose throughout the islands to take advantage of their abundant natural resources. A few resorts even found a niche.

While the remains of those original enterprises have long since been reclaimed by the wilderness, the doors to the Apostles are still open. New generations of visitors are discovering the islands each year – only now they are sailors, backpackers and kayakers rather than lumberjacks, fishermen and farmers.

As Richard and I sailed back to Bayfield on our final morning aboard Jubilee, we recognized the impossibility of exploring the Apostles in a few days. Fortunately, this national treasure is extraordinarily accessible – it’s easy to reach, it’s relatively inexpensive, and sailors will uncover something new with each visit. We know we’ll be back.

Best of all, though, is knowing that the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore will remain in its natural state for future generations. Whether it’s for a day, a weekend or a week, everyone deserves to experience a true wilderness that is out of time.

For more information about the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, call the National Park Service’s Bayfield office at 715-779-3397 or visit www.nps.gov/apis.