Apostle Islands: A Travel Story from Pristine Lake Superior’s Wilderness Islands by Florence Sicoli
Reaching for the Remote Apostles
Charming harbor town is the gateway to spectacular sea caves on pristine Lake Superior wilderness islands
By FLORENCE SICOLI for Third Coast Digest.com
BAYFIELD, WIS. *Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker, who left her isolated rural cabin only once in her life to visitNew York, wrote: “Civilization is an immense ad: Go to hell and be happy.”
Instead, I say skip hell and for true happiness go to the remote Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, the top-ratedU.S.park located inLake Superior– and one of the most beautiful to behold from a boat. Sailing past the islands last June, we were at eye-level with the magnificent shorelines of this forested archipelago of 21 wilderness islands off northwesternWisconsin. We could see how millennia of glacial ice, wind and waves have formed nature’s artistry in the reddish sandstone sea caves and cliffs sculpted into the islands’ shorelines.
In winter, visitors can walk, snowshoe and cross-country ski out onSuperiorto see stunning ice formations in the shorelines. In summer, a boat or ferry ride out of Bayfield is the best way to see the legendary caves and cliffs that are as sublime as they are elusive. And by elusive I mean sometimes downright inaccessible, as I discovered in late June in this charming harbor town.
Oddly, there are 21, not 12, islands in the Apostles lakeshore. The U.S. Park Service suggests this probably stems from the desire of 17th century Jesuit missionaries who named the islands to honor Christ’s Apostles, rather than from an actual count of islands. Made a national park in 1970, the lakeshore encompasses a 1,864-square-kilometre (720-square-mile) area in the lake and on the mainland. The wilderness islands range in size from tiny 1.2-hectare (three-acre) Gull Island to 4,069-hectare (10,054-acre)StocktonIsland.
What’s so special about these uninhabited islands is that all the forces of nature – including mightySuperior– have free rein – without human interference — over growth and change in this virtually pristine spot on the planet. This has created a unique bog-dune ecosystem and old growth and boreal forests that are important habitats for numerous resident and migratory bird species. It’s also home to varied mammals including the endangered grey wolf and the highest concentration of black bears inNorth America. It’s home to more than 800 plant species including the threatened dwarf lake iris. And surrounding waters are rich spawning grounds for varied amphibian and aquatic species as well as being rich fishing grounds for whitefish and trout.
Native Americans, voyagers and settlers once lived and worked on the islands, but mostly they remained untouched. Today the human footprint is even lighter. Last year, only 15,729 backwoods campers actually set foot and tents on the islands and fewer than 160,000 visited the entire lakeshore – most passing through on ferries, sailboats or kayaks with minimal environmental impact, according to the park service.
It’s this very obscurity that has helped keep the Apostles pristine and that impressed a recent National Geographic experts’ panel to rate this lakeshore the topU.S.spot out of 55 national parks inNorth America. The top Canadian spot was Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site off theBritish Columbiacoast.
Walking down Bayfield’s Rittenhouse Avenue to the harbor in late June last year, I saw only whitecaps and the foggy outlines of the closest islands, Basswood and Long, spread like dark green fingers across the lake. So near yet so far. Gale warnings, almost 13-foot waves, rain and fog had kept everyone off the water for three days in this community that pays huge respect to Superior as “the Boss.” Stark reminders are the numerous skeletal ruins of shipwrecks visible out in the lake.
The last day of my visit, the wind and waves calmed enough to sail to a couple of the closest Apostles. Finally four of us set out on the Egret, an 11-metre (37-foot) Tartan, with Captain John Mayers of Dreamcatcher Sailing. The waves were little more than two feet. Northwesterly winds of five to 10 knots filled our sails. The blue-green water crashed loudly against the boat as we cut through the lake.
We set anchor nearBasswoodIsland. Just north of Basswood, a two-storey stack of rocks rises from the lake surface. We left Captain John on the Egret and paddled an inflatable Zodiac dinghy toward the outcropping, called Profile Rock. Clinging to the windswept rock were a red pine, a few straggly birch saplings and a gull’s nest. A seagull guarding the nest squawked threateningly as we paddled closer. Further along the Basswood shoreline, we paddled beside sculpted sandstone cliffs laced with bright red, orange, blue, grey and brown colored streaks. After days of inaccessibility, it felt exhilarating to get up close to the fabled cliffs.
Meantime, experienced kayakers among my travel companions actually paddled into the sea caves just out of Meyers Beach, on the western end of the mainland portion of the lakeshore.
“It was a wild ride … it was the best kayaking trip that I’ve experienced,” said Rob Keppler ofTallahassee,Fla., after touring the caves with Living Adventures Inc.
“We were able to kayak about 100 feet into the bluff, into a circular chamber with the top open to the sky,” Keppler said. “There were adjoining chambers where we kayaked into a large enclosed ‘room’ and then went into another chamber through a passageway that was about 30 feet long.”
While we waited for safe marine conditions, the Bayfield area offered authenticGreat Lakesatmosphere and friendly service at its eclectic restaurants, Victorian inns, romantic B&Bs, shops, marine outfitters, apple and berry orchards, farmers’ markets and art studios. Seen from the harbor, the city echoes the Apostles’ natural integrity with its handsome streetscape rising on a hillside and its charming streets and well-kept buildings free of annoying visual clutter of drive-thrus, strip malls and chain stores.
Unlike poet Niedecker, I like my remote getaways to include good A&E in the evenings. The Bayfield area has many art galleries, famous silversmith and jeweler Donalee Kennedy, museums and performance venues, including the cutting-edge Stage North Theater & Bar in nearby Washburn. For a totally rousing and old-fashioned-theatre experience, we attended two evening performances, including the signature Riding The Wind show, by Big Top Chautauqua, which is a musical troupe akin to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion that performs under a huge blue-and-white striped canvas tent.
Florence Sicoli is a Hamilton-Ontario-based travel writer.
IF YOU GO:
Where to stay: www.bayfield.org offers full accommodation listings. The most famous place in the area is Old Rittenhouse Inn, a remarkably friendly and luxurious Victorian hotel. The area prides itself on being a “green” travel centre, prominently featuring the Pinehurst Inn, with its eco-friendly country elegance. I stayed at the romantic and remote Artesian House, a soaring glass and wood A-shaped B&B nestled in a forest around an artesian well. One morning, innkeeper Al Chechik delighted us for breakfast with what looked like a massive Yorkshire pudding he gracefully plopped from his cast iron skillet onto the serving plate in front of us guests. It was my first taste of a Dutch pancake, popular in Pennsylvania Dutch kitchens. Al called it “a Dutch baby” or “pannekuchen.” We added fresh fruit, honey, nuts and yogurt and feasted well.
Madeline Island: PopulatedMadelineIsland is one of the 22ApostleIslands but is excluded from the national lakeshore. The quaint island is a short ferry-ride from Bayfield and worth visiting for its museum, local heritage and beaches.
Last whaleback on Earth: In nearbySuperior at theS.S.MeteorWhalebackShipMuseum, tour the last existing whaleback, named for its innovative rounded hull.
Don’t miss:In nearbyAshland, see one of the world’s largest concrete structures before it’s demolished. The Canadian National-owned ore dock is eight storeys high, 75 feet wide and 1,800 ft. long.