By Conor Mihell
We received this letter in from Canoe & Kayak reader Kirk Sloan: "My buddy Kurt and I took a five-day kayaking trip to the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior last Fourth of July weekend … We both did the trip in our Elie Strait 140 XE kayaks — admittedly smaller than the 16-foot-plus touring kayaks that park guidelines recommend. We encountered some interesting conditions, long traverses over deep, cold water and an unbelievable experience. This was our first real time in open water. Our experience is more than competent, having spent years on different Wisconsin rivers, but this was obviously different. Prior to leaving, we took a safety rescue class to learn and practice survival techniques and boat flips in open water.
“A question that comes up in our frequent conversations about the trip is, ‘What would more qualified kayakers think of the trip we took?'”
Sloan asked, we delivered. "The Apostles are a great paddling destination for paddlers of all ability levels," says Joe Kochevar, the general manager of Bayfield, Wis.-based outfitter Living Adventure. "The 'Inner Ring' (Basswood, Hermit, Oak, Raspberry, York, and Sand islands) offer shorter crossings with more protection from the wind and waves of the open lake (with the exception of Sand and York, which only offer protection from southerly approaches). For someone new to the islands, we recommend staying within that Inner Ring your first time out. As your skills and comfort with the area grows, venturing farther out to the islands north of Oak offers some tremendous adventures and spectacular scenery. With that scenery comes an added level of exposure to winds and waves, as you have increased your exposure to winds from all directions.
"Folks in Bayfield like to say 'the lake is the boss.' It's not just another lake up north," adds Kochevar. "All trips should have some built-in 'fudge factor' time, in case plans have to be adjusted due to weather or other considerations. Expect to be wind-bound or to have to adjust your route due to weather, and then be pleasantly surprised when you don't have to. Most of the paddling related accidents in the Apostles can be boiled down to folks trying to stick to an itinerary or plan that is no longer realistic. Point is: Be flexible and have fun!"
For more insider knowledge, we contacted Gail Green (pictured left), a veteran American Canoe Association instructor-trainer, northern Wisconsin local and Living Adventure co-founder.
Day 1: Depart Buffalo Bay Campground and Marina around noon. Beach camp on northeast side of Bear Island.
"You could call this the 'Flora and Fauna' day (plants and wildlife sightings not withstanding) by the mere fact of passing Oak, Otter and Bear islands," says Green. "This day includes seeing two of the highest islands in the Apostles and a mighty view of the Minnesota North Shore as you head up the east side of Bear Island.
"The campsite on Bear is one of my favorites in the national park. We've got enough sand here that when we paddle up to those huge rock slabs on northeast Bear we are very appreciative to miss out on those occasional mishaps when draining the spaghetti noodles and splat! the pasta hits the rocks. Just grab a fork and dig in—plates are overrated."
Day 2: Bear Island to Rocky Island, camp at site number 4
"The remains of some of the last private land holdings—cabins and docks—can still be seen on Rocky," says Green. "When the Apostle Islands were made into a national lakeshore in 1970, remaining residents were given a choice to be bought out at that time or be 'grandfathered' in and remain until the owner passed away.
"Talk about sand! Rocky Island beaches are world class and literally sing of joy. The unique structure of the sand creates a resonating sound further amplified by dragging one's feet as you go."
Day 3: Rocky Island to Cat Island, camp on northeast beach
"The south sand spit on Cat is a favorite spot as it has great views of many other islands," says Green. "The old Cat Island cabin was once a great place to stay. Like many of the first-come, first-served cabins on the Canadian side of Lake Superior, it had a logbook with entries dating back many years. What a great thing it was to get a fire going, settle in and read about the folks who had stayed there before you. Even better was the old biffy in the woods—protected on three sides with the front open for an unobstructed view of the lake…who needs the National Enquirer?!?"
Day 4: Cat Island to Oak Island, camp at site number 6
"Make sure to cruise by the south end of Ironwood Island today," says Green. "There is just something special about this place. Go see for yourself and you'll know what I mean.
"Beautiful little campsites on Oak nestle into gorgeous wooded ravines…it's not a stretch to imagine this being part of the spectacular rises on the Hawaiian Islands, minus a palm tree or two. Keep an eye out for the 'hole-in-the-wall' along this shoreline—a beautiful stone sculpture that is almost a sea stack."
Day 5: Oak Island to Buffalo Bay
"And back around full circle," says Green. "There is a lifetime of routes to be paddled in the Apostle Islands and many, many magical hidden spots to discover."