Paddling the Surprisingly Treacherous Seacaves of Wisconsin’s Apostles

I searched for Doug as he disappeared behind the rise of a wave. Swells came from all directions as the wind took our kayaks one way, but the maniacal inland sea forced us another. We flailed, paddling aggressively as if our lives depended on it because they did. The bow of my boat thrust out of the surging waves as a gust hit, shooting it directly at Doug’s cranium. Fear paralyzed me from yelling, ‘Lookout! Doug reached a hand up, catching my bow before taking the blow. His experience on the water was pushing the terrestrial-loving outdoorsman in me right to my limits, and I couldn’t help but wonder: What the hell have we gotten ourselves into?
Days earlier, we arrived in Bayfield, Wisconsin, a quaint fishing village. Picking up our backcountry permits from the ranger station was a typical National Park Service experience. “Oh, I hope you guys don’t plan on going out today because we have dangerous winds causing four to six-foot white caps.” The employee tries to persuade you from your itinerary with fear-filled stories of the lake. Similarly, when in Glacier National Park, you watch a video that scares you with images of grizzlies.

Fear dared me to not look back as we left shore and I focused on the rise and swell before me.

“No, we plan on leaving tomorrow if weather permits,” I replied.
Permit in hand, Doug and I plopped ourselves on the beach the night before we were to set out. White-capped waves sent fishy-smelling sea spray into our faces. Staring out at the islands of York and Sand, two of the twenty-one Apostle Islands, they seemed far away in this immense inland freshwater sea. The area had been rewilded, while nature has been allowed to cover earlier human impact, the sense of people who had been here before lent an air of mystery to the place. Many of the islands had been logged, others were quarried, a few had fishing camps and rumors of still-buried pirate booty. The 21 islands were named after the pirates who haunted these islands in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The sky grew laden with clouds as the sunset, and the lake looked ominous and deep in its dark slate-blue color. 

In the morning, we put in. Leaving Sand Bay, we headed due north with Sand Island on our left a few miles out and York Island on our right about the same distance. 
Fear dared me to not look back as we left shore and I focused on the rise and swell before me. Once I was out there on the open water miles from the beach, I realized if I capsized my craft, I couldn’t swim to the safety of the shore like I could on a river. Lake Superior is so cold that hypothermia sets in within minutes. Now, Doug was all over the place — next to me one moment, and then speeding away, the waves blocking my view of him. My faith in him as a partner didn’t waver, but his erratic paddling caused me to call out, “Hey! Let’s stay closer together.”
The farther we kayaked out, the more the clouds cleared away, leaving a torn-up, faded-denim blue sky. Scattered and tattered threaded contrails of white on blue set the sky apart from the pristine inland peacock-colored sea. The colors pushed away some of my unease about our undertaking. White-capped combers still crashed against Sand’s and York’s sandstone cliff faces, reminding me what forces ruled here.
Guided by orange buoys, we went around York Island’s large rocks and shoals and reached its bay, beaching our boats on its sandy northern shore. 

Exploring a sea cave. Photo: Tim Wilson/Flickr

The Apostles are a sanctuary of solitude. There is plenty of space between the three campsites on this island, making us feel like we had an entire island to ourselves. Near the campsite, a tiny northern leopard frog led me to autumn-bruised raspberries hanging heavily from vines lining the dense, northern forest edges. 

I noticed a piping plover, endangered on the Great Lakes, strolling along the beach, now doing its dipping dance near the breaking waves. The sandy beach of York Island, like other shorelines, is prime habitat for their nesting.  

Meanwhile, the remaining mosquitoes hung on in the dark recesses under the cedar trees waiting to mine our blood as we turned on NOAA again, our third friend on this expedition. Tomorrow the lake was to be calmer yet. Doug smiled and said, “Tomorrow, let’s head to Devil’s Island.”
I was familiar with its lure but said, “Well, let’s not be too gung-ho. Let’s see what the weather says in the morning?”
Doug curtly interjected, “You have to trust me. I have a lot more experience.” NOAA fell silent, as did I, and the mosquitoes hummed in reply to Doug’s surety.
Sea caverns of Devil’s Island are the largest of the Apostle Island chain. They form chambers and arches with fantastic shapes. An adventurous sea kayaker could squeeze a kayak into the tightest cracks and crevices, threading through every angled turn. Some caves go back hundreds of feet and beyond. But the lake had to be glassy, and even one- to two-foot swells were too rough for one to explore the inner caves. Historically, only the most intrepid kayakers and sailors explored the outer islands due to their inaccessibility, rugged nature, fickle weather, dense forests, and bugs. 

That night, we drank wine on the shore and watched as the heavens slowly circled the anchor point of Polaris. Six of the 21 islands have lighthouses once staffed but are now computer programmed. The rotating computer-driven light in Devil’s Island lighthouse beckoned like a sentinel, and I began to bend to Doug’s plan. We ate breakfast and drank coffee at dawn, listening once again to the weather. The forecast had changed: 3–5-foot swells by mid-day and possibly 4-6 with a small craft advisory. Looking out at the bay, it looked like the original forecast — calm. Far-out at sea between Bear, Raspberry, and Otter Islands, a speed boat unzipped the lake like blue jeans.
As we headed out of the bay the calm didn’t last long. Soon, waves broke and crested over the boat. Spray thrashed and filtered through the spray skirt, slowly filling the cockpit. The wind became irregular and kicked up chop with white foam. We had to decide whether or not to commit to the 5-mile crossing or head back. My brother’s warning from an email earlier in the week rang true, Be careful. Superior is unforgiving. The lake is the boss!

The author on a calm day, or rather a calm moment. The lake’s moods change in a blink. Photo courtesy of the author.

We paddled and paddled, zigzagging across a mammoth-sized lake, our kayaks bobbing in the swell, feeling like we weren’t moving. Waves surged from one direction soon came from every which way; wind threw us around. Self-doubt crept in, and we both thought, can we even do this? Is this a death wish? Winds swept our kayaks farther out into the crossing. Strong gusts of wind funneled between the islands. Waves developed an ugly curl, and I prayed to whatever gods there may be.
My whole body became tense with stress eddying in my neck and shoulders as my stranglehold on the paddle caused my hands to go numb. I was beginning not to feel the shaft at all. The small craft advisory was real.
“Let’s stay together. Don’t get too far away,” I shouted as confused waves tossed our boats. The kayaks rode the waves and smacked down hard on the surface. Loons and cormorants mysteriously appeared in the breaking waves in front of us, as if what felt like wrenching violence to me was nothing to them—it was just another day.
The lake was teaching me the rhythm of paddling. I had to paddle far in front of its rollers and again on the crest. A few times, I nearly capsized because I dug the paddle in front of the breaking waves. Overreacting practically tipped me over.
Wind impeded our progress further. Doug was as focused as I was, and neither one of us could glance back to check on the other’s safety. We could only hear each other when we were a boat length or two away. 

Finally, we had land in sight and headed to the nearest island’s horseshoe-shaped bay for safety and to find our bearings. We surfed into the small sandy shore. My legs were numb from sitting so long, and I stumbled out of the boat and into the water. Doug grabbed the map as we both looked around. We didn’t know where we were. Our internal compasses were off, and our minds couldn’t find certainty. We had battled the waves for what felt like hours. “We must be further than we think,” Doug said. 
Many islands don’t have labels or names, or landmarks that distinguished one from the next. We couldn’t be on the next island, Raspberry, which is due east. We had to be on Oak, or was it, Otter, especially with the eagle nesting closure listed on the map for its northern edge just opening yesterday? We waded through the water, tripping over slimy, maroon-colored sandstone boulders. Then we headed west looking for some sense of familiarity but found nothing and then headed east. The sense of madness grew. 
Finally, we both agreed, “Let’s beeline across the open water to the island north of us, and if it has a peninsula on its southeast side, then it is Bear Island, and we’ll know where we are,” Doug said.
The park service wouldn’t come looking for us until someone noticed our car was still in the parking lot five days from now. I’ve spent a decade-and-a-half working on backcountry trail crews in national parks and wilderness areas in the West, but the sheer remoteness of open water and lack of other kayakers was discouraging. 
Back in our kayaks, we headed out again, we were thrown around like rag dolls in a washing machine, but the degree of intensity abated. The goal was five more miles of crossing open water to the next island. I kept telling myself, the kayak is built to float, not sink. I was learning to trust my kayak, the lake, and myself. No devils were out to get me except my growing fatigue.
Hours later, we braved it to Bear Island with its tiny peninsula. We exchanged a weak high five, drank water, and made water – the simple pleasures of having feet on land.
“Yeah, good job,” I said over my shoulder. I could see the day’s wear on Doug’s face. “I’m worked,” I said.
“Nothing like an old fashioned ass-kicking,” Doug joked.
As we sat there on the shore, we watched one fishing boat float by that had a flock of raucous seagulls, pinwheeling above and behind it, diving for unwanted fish parts that workers tossed out into the open air and sea. Lake Superior has over 80 species; trout, walleye, pike, and salmon.
The Great Lakes native species are threatened by invasives on boats, vehicles, clothes, and native species’ feathers, fur, and/or skin. 

After loading up, we skirted Bear Island’s east shore. The island’s leeward side sheltered the boats with its shielding grace. The easy paddling boosted our confidence, and we made the final stretch to Devil’s for the night. After an 18-mile day, we arrived at the dock along Devils Island’s southern shore. A tremendous burden was lifted off our shoulders, and I floated, free from the prison of the kayak and my tired mind.

Devils Island lighthouse and sea caves. Photo: NPS/S. Palmer

The weather deteriorated after sunset while clouds obscured the night sky. Waves grew more extensive and the wind rustled through the maple, aspen, and birch leaves. Giant white pines and firs raked the sky with their needles. The rise and swell of rollers weren’t just with us on the water but inside us on the land. As I walked around and later slept, my equilibrium continued going up and down, up, and down. Doug summed it up: “I’ve been on bigger waves before, but not so consistently or for so long. That was the hardest day I’ve ever had.”
“Nerve wracking, man,” I said.
Waves roared and crashed against the shore as the wind howled. We placed our food in the bear-proof boxes on all the islands. Since black bears are excellent swimmers, they can be found on any island. Rumors of wolves, coyotes, moose, and deer are part of the mystery and allure of these islands.
The following day, the surf was more significant than the day before, and we lounged around, stretching. The lake’s flexibility was molding us, and we weren’t so eager to get anywhere except safely home. Devil’s Island has a mile of hiking trails, and the Apostle Islands have 140 miles of maintained trails. Only 80 percent of the 21 islands are managed as wilderness, but this doesn’t include any of the surrounding waters.
The mile-long stroll led through old-growth white pines and birch trees. A large, black, silver dollar-round garter snake slithered under kinnikinic and bunchberry plants. At the end of the trail stood two old brick Victorian-style houses, which had been the old lighthouse keeper’s residence. 

Our internal compasses were off, and our minds couldn’t find certainty. We had battled the waves for what felt like hours. “We must be further than we think,” Doug said. 

We walked over to the sea cliffs. The surf crashed into the sandstone walls; the sea breathed in and out, revealing numerous chambers and arches. The burnt sienna cliff faces looked like human skulls with empty sockets. Huge caverns opened up with the out-going surf. No way was I going down there on a kayak, I thought.
Moving along the cliff, we watched sea spray smash into caverns and roll back out as it has done for millennia, the wash slowly carving the caves. We skirted the cliff’s edge, then looked back to the precarious place we stood moments ago. My eyes bulged as my stomach fluttered, and I exhaled, “Holy fuck, that could’ve been scary!” The ground we’d been standing on was a mere four-foot-long and four-inch-thick sandstone ledge that jutted out over the edge of a sixty-foot-high abyss above the crashing sea. We would have been one of a thousand romantic sea deaths on Superior over the ages if it had given way.
After breaking camp, we loaded up and went to the foot of Rocky with a tailwind. After a two-hour break, we headed back to Sand Bay.
Although we entirely circled back to where we began, we were not the same people we were when we started. We were leaner from no lunches; our confidence and flexibility had improved, we learned not to succumb to fear or overreact to life’s struggles. We felt forever grateful to what the Ojibway call the great lake Kitchi Gami and for life itself, granting us a safe voyage that allowed us to return to share our stories.
Standing on the shore, our kayaks on the Honda, we looked out at the heads of the 21 pirates. I could see why a panel of experts from the National Geographic Society listed this as one of the most appealing National Parks in the U.S., both for its remoteness and sheer solitude. Apostle Islands National Lakeshore isn’t overused or busy like other well-loved national parks. The crashing waves and disorienting mystery of Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands are there for anyone willing to leave the shore and build their own stories, as long as they remember that the lake is always boss. 



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