Words and photos by Benjamin Polley
I searched for Doug as he disappeared behind the rise of a wave. Swells came from all directions. The wind took our kayaks one way. Waves forced us in another. We struggled, 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 my kayak straight at Doug's head. I was too paralyzed by fear to yell, “Look out!” Doug reached a hand up, catching my bow before he took 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, again?
Days earlier, we arrived in Bayfield, Wisconsin, a quaint fishing village. Picking up our backcountry permits from the Ranger Station was a typical cautioning National Park Service experience. "Oh, I hope you guys don't plan on going out today because we're having dangerous winds causing four to six foot white caps."
"No, of course not! We plan on going out 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 fish-smelling sea spray into our faces. Staring out at the islands of York and Sand, they seemed far away in this immense inland freshwater sea. As the sun set, the sky grew laden with clouds and the lake looked ominous and deep in its dark slate blue color.
The area had been rewilded and while nature has been allowed to recover from 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 waters in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The next morning, the far off wild islands held my gaze for a moment longer before we prepared to launch. Doug and I maneuvered into the cockpits of the buckskin-colored kayaks. We cinched down the spray skirts to the cowling and attached a leash from our PFDs to our paddles. My wet-suit was tight, like second skin, and strangely comforting. We launched through the shore break, the kayak cradled my hips as I tried to become comfortable with this new extension of myself. 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.
I dared not look back as we left shore, but focused on the rise and swell before me. Once I was a mile out onto the open water, I realized if I capsized my craft I couldn't swim to the safety of the shore like I could on a river. Now, Doug was all over the place, next to me for a minute 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 the sky a torn-up, faded-denim blue. Scattered and tattered threaded contrails of white on blue set the sky apart from the pristine inland peacock-colored sea. The alluring colors pushed away some of my unease about our undertaking. Still, white-capped combers crashed against Sand's and York's sandstone cliff faces, reminding me what forces ruled here.
Guided by orange buoys, we went around the large rocks and shoals of York Island and came into its bay, beaching our boats on its sandy northern shore.
The Apostles are a sanctuary of solitude. There is plenty of space between the three campsites on the island, making us feel like we had the entire place to ourselves. Near the campsite, a tiny northern leopard frog led me to autumn-bruised raspberries hanging heavily from vines lining the edges of the dense northern forest. The Apostle Islands' marine climate hosts 800 plant species.
Strolling along the beach, I noticed a piping plover, endangered on the Great Lakes now, doing its dipping dance near the breaking waves. The sandy beach of York Island, like other shorelines, is prime habitat for their nesting. Seventy breeding pairs are found in the Apostles. The problem facing the plovers is that spotted knapweed can invade the disturbed areas that the waves of Superior constantly create. Spotted knapweed outcompetes native plant species by secreting toxins through its roots in the nearby soil, conquering the entire disturbed plot. Knapweed has no predators here. Each plant produces million of tiny seeds that snag onto animals' fur, people's gear and also is transported by waves. The dune ecotone is gravely susceptible to spotted knapweed.
Meanwhile, the last of the mosquitoes still 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 Devils Island."
I was familiar too with its lure but said, "Well, let's not be too gungho. Why don't we see what the weather brings?"
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 Devils 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 arch. 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. Devils Island was the most northern island, and it lured us in.
That night, we drank wine on the shore and watched as the heavens slowly circled the anchor point of Polaris, the North Star. Six of the 21 islands have lighthouses that were once staffed, but are now computer programmed. The rotating computer driven light in Devils Island lighthouse beckoned me like a sentinel, and I began to bend to Doug's plan. At dawn, we ate breakfast and drank coffee, listening once again to the weather. The forecast had changed: 3-5 foot swells by midday and possibly 4-6 with a small craft advisory. Looking out into the bay, it looked like the original forecast: calm.
Farout at sea between Bear, Raspberry and Otter Islands cruiser ships unzipped the lake like blue jeans.
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!”
We paddled and paddled, zigzagging across a mammoth-sized lake, our kayaks bobbing in the swell, feeling like we were going nowhere. Waves coming from one direction soon came from all directions; wind forced us every which way. 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. My hands went numb from my stranglehold on the paddle. 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 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. The ruffled Superior was tempestuous, and she wasn't even trying.
In this wilderness island archipelago everything looked alike—endless sea or green-forested islands with nothing to distinguish them from the twenty-one other Apostles.
Finally, we had land in sight and headed to the nearest island's horseshoe-shaped bay for safety and to find our bearings. Four bald eagles perched in a giant old white pine flew off with our approach. An immature eagle glared at us from an old birch snag. We surfed into the small sandy shore. I stumbled out of the boat and into the water, my legs were numb asleep. 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 of the islands didn't have labels or names or landmarks that distinguished one from the next. We couldn't be on the next island over, Raspberry, which is due east. To us that wasn't feasible. 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 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.
This wilderness had no assurances. It was up to us. 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 over a decade 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. Nothing was out to get me, except my growing fatigue.
Hours later, we made 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 fashion 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 of fish; trout, walleye, pike and salmon among them.
The Great Lakes native species are threatened by invasives that come in on boats, vehicles, clothes and on native species' feathers, fur and/or skin. I sat there wondering whether the fishermens’ main concern was large or if it was actually microscopic.
There are detrimental effects of the fishing crew tossing fish parts in the lake. Some of the fish are contaminated with Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia, a pathogen that causes hemorrhaging in the eyes, skin, gills, fin bases, skeletal muscles and internal organs that leads to death. It doesn't pose a threat to human health, but has dire consequences for fishing, angling and other economic pursuits.
Waterfowl, fish and other aquatic species ingest and transmit this pathogen by eating these entrails. More than 50 species of fresh and saltwater fish are susceptible to VHS, and it takes a special charcoal water filter to remove it from drinking water. The virus is transported by something as small as a puddle in a boat.
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 Devils for the night. After an 18-mile day, we arrived at the dock along Devils Island's southern shore.
A great burden was lifted off our shoulders and I floated, free from the prison of the kayak and my tired mind.
The weather deteriorated after sunset while clouds obscured the night sky. Waves grew larger 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 of us on the land. As I walked, and later, slept, my equilibrium left me feeling like I was going up and down, up and down. Doug summed it up: "I've been on bigger waves before, but never so consistent and for so long. That was the toughest 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 that were on all the islands. Since black bears are excellent swimmers they can be found across the Apostles. Rumors of wolves, coyotes, moose and deer are also part of the mystery and allure of these islands.
The next morning, the surf was larger 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. Devils 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 kinnikinick 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.
We walked over to the sea cliffs where signs warned of dangerous cliffs. 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 outgoing 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. As my eyes bulged and stomach fluttered I exhaled, "Holy f we're lucky!" 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. If it had given way we would have been one of a thousand romantic sea deaths on Superior over the ages.
After that near mishap we scrammed from the cliff's edge, then strolled over to look at the lighthouse, discovering an old mining cart on tracks. Then we returned down the trail to break camp. That morning we listened to the forecast and it sounded good with two-foot waves or less, but the next three days held a higher chance of thunderstorms and big waves. We didn't want to get stranded out there.
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 had fully 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 as well as our flexibility had improved, we learned not to succumb to fear, or overreact to the unexpected. We felt forever grateful to what the Ojibway call the great lake Kitchi Gami and for life itself for 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 shore and build their own stories, as long as they remember that the lake is always boss.
–Check out other tales of paddling adventure in the C&K TRAVEL JOURNAL