I have always dreamed of exploring the Apostle Islands. Located off the shore of the Bayfield Peninsula in Northern Wisconsin, the Apostle Islands are an archipelago of 22 islands each unique and varied formed by ice, wind and waves over millions of years in the heart of Lake Superior. Known for their wild beauty, historic lighthouses, diverse wildlife, boreal forests, wind-blown beaches and stunning sea caves, the Apostle Islands offer endless choices for exploration either by boat, ferry, kayak and once ashore, on foot.
My first visit to the Apostle Islands was 2 years ago with my husband on a weekend trip to Bayfield, Wisconsin. During our visit, we only caught a tiny glimpse of the mysterious Apostle Islands while we took the ferry to Madeline Island, the largest and only inhabited island of the group and not an official part of the 69,372 acre Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. It was that visit that sparked my fascination with the Apostle Islands and my longing to see them by sailboat.
Last year, our neighbors bought a 42-foot sailboat that they keep in Bayfield and they make the trip to the Apostle Islands every weekend in the summer and early fall. We had been invited a few times before but the timing never seemed to work out for us until last weekend. On a whim, my daughter Sophia and I accepted their generous invitation to spend the weekend sailing with them and their two children. I was overjoyed.
Arrival at the Port Superior Marina
We left on Friday afternoon and arrived at the Port Superior Marina just before the sun began to set. Since it was too late to set sail, we spent the first night at the marina and set off for our first island early the next morning. For all my years growing up in Minnesota and near water, I had never slept on a sailboat before nor truly sailed. Ironically, I even spent two summers working at a yacht club on a large Minnesota lake yet never learned to sail. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect and whether my fast-paced type A personality would be able to handle slowing down and just being still. Would I get restless being on a boat? Would I enjoy it? Would I get motion sickness? These were the questions that circled my head as we loaded our duffel bags and groceries into the sailboat cabin. Surprisingly, I was in for an entirely new experience which wound up being much different from what I had imagined and I absolutely loved my time at sail.
After a delightful dinner of fresh grilled whitefish from the marina restaurant and a quick swim for the kids, it was time to bunker down in the cabin. It was 9 PM – also known as the dreadful “mosquito time” – when we had to dash inside the cabin, seal and shut every single window and wait for the hordes of mean mosquitos to go to sleep. While the kids played board games, the adults shared a bottle of wine and discussed our weekend ahead. I was quick to learn that planning where you are going to sail in advance is pretty much impossible in the Apostle Islands because it all depends on the wind direction which is changing constantly. We had a basic idea of which islands we would like to see however a lot of it ended up happening on the fly due to changing wind conditions. Thankfully, the weather was absolutely perfect. It was unseasonably hot with highs in the mid-80s, cloudless and hardly a breath of wind. The good news for me would be that I wouldn’t really have a chance to get seasick as the water was as still as can be. The bad news was that we would have a harder time actually sailing and would have to use the motor at times to reach our destination.
Exploring Raspberry Island
We rose early Saturday morning to the sound of sea gulls and rays of gentle sunlight pouring through the cabin windows. We left the marina around 8:30 am and headed north through the West Channel past Bayfield and Madeline Island. We were entering unexplored territory for me and I could hardly wait to see what it was like. The wind was going to be light so we had to use the motor to get us to our first destination, Raspberry Island, a tiny island located off the tip of the Bayfield Peninsula not far from Raspberry Bay. It is a smaller island known for its lovely beaches, a historically preserved lighthouse, and of course its wild raspberries. We dropped anchor in a lovely bay off the coast of the island and got everything piled into our day bags for our time on shore.
As we took the dingy to shore, I was amazed that the water was so clear, calm and pure that we could see all the way to the bottom. I noticed the swirls and lines of the sand all the way down to the bottom at a good ten feet below. We landed on a stunning, pristine sandy beach and pulled the dingy ashore. If the water had been salt, I’d have felt like we were somewhere in the Caribbean, the lake was so clear and the beach so virgin white. But all it took was a flock of gulls to remind us that we were only four hours away from home in Minneapolis.
We spent the next hour swimming in the lake, building sand castles on the beach and picking wild raspberries along the trail to the lighthouse. We lucked out to arrive just in time for a tour of the lighthouse by the Park Ranger where we learned about what life was like for the caretakers who spent the summer season tending the lighthouse back in the 19th century. After a picnic lunch, it was time to head back to the boat and sail to our next destination which would once again be determined by wind conditions and weather.
Overnight at Stockton Island
We wanted to sail all the way to the remote Devils Island known for its insanely awesome sea caves however the wind conditions in that part of the lake made it unsafe and too dangerous to visit. Thus, we settled for the more protected and popular Stockton Island, one of the largest Islands known for its miles of hiking trails, campsites, beaches and bears. Hikers can visit Stockton Island via ferry service from late June through September for a day trip or overnight camping for the more adventurous souls.
We set sail passing the northern side of Oak Island and caught views of the distant Bear, Otter and Manitou Islands before reaching Presque Isle Bay (one of three bays) located on the south side of lush, forested Stockton Island. Stockton Island is quite large measuring 7.5 miles long by 2.5 miles wide with 14 miles of hiking trails and plenty of campsites. Given the beautiful weekend weather and the high waves and wind on the outer islands, Stockton Island is a safe bet as well for dropping anchor for the night. With three different protected bays facing different directions, in the event of a change in the wind overnight we could always relocate to a more protected bay. Thankfully the evening and night were calm and peaceful so there was no need to worry.
We spent the last rays of light jumping off the boat into the clear, cool water, swimming and kayaking well into sunset. It was amazing how good I felt by that point and how my high energy soul began to unwind and relax. I had come to understand how sailing makes you feel: wild, free and serendipitously at peace. There is no need to check your watch, no internet or cellphone to distract you and only the rise and fall of the waves and the sound of the wind to sing you to sleep each night.
After swimming and kayaking, it was time to cook some dinner. We grilled marinated chicken, baby red potatoes, zucchini and peas on the tiny cooker at the back of the boat. As the sun began to set, the sky turned all shades of pastel and I jumped back into the kayak to take one last paddle around the bay. It was so utterly beautiful and serene, I felt instantly at ease. I could get used to this lifestyle.
That night I felt like I was in another, far away world. There were only a handful of other boats anchored in the bay and the night was still and calm. We watched the glorious sun set under the horizon amazed by how the sun was almost an orangish-pink. The haze from the western fires left a smokey glaze to the sky yet obviously painted it a more surreal color than normal. By 9 pm it was mosquito time and we quickly rushed below the cabin and sealed it off. I slept peacefully beneath a million stars, breathing in such divinely fresh air that my lungs felt like brand new.
Sunday morning the boat was quite as the others lay fast asleep. I rose an hour earlier than the rest and climbed out of my cabin hatch to lay on the hammock. I gently swayed in the breeze and watched the sky wake up. Birds sang and gulls dove from the pastel blue sky. Another beautiful summer day was on the horizon.
We set off after breakfast to Julian Bay, just around the Presque Isle Point on Stockton Island leaving behind the gentle white sands and entered a rougher, more wild shoreline filled with tons of white-gray gulls and a giant lagoon. We took the dingy and kayaks ashore while the girls swam. Just off the beach was a large lagoon home to turtles, birds and lily pads. We didn’t see any bears but did spot a trio of wild turkeys enjoying a mid-morning snack.
I was shocked by the red-iron color of the sand and water of the lagoon as it was very unusual. I was even more surprised by how different this part of the island was compared with just around the corner in Presque Isle Bay. It was hard to believe that this was the same island.
A Quick Visit to Madeline Island
After a late lunch it was time to start sailing back to the marina. We left Stockton Island filled with hope that the wind would glide us there but once again the wind died soon after we raised the sails and we had to use the motor. It was nearing dinner time and so we decided to make one last stop at Madeline Island. I had been there on our last trip and loved it. Unlike the other islands, it is inhabited and has lots of lovely cottages, homes, restaurants and shops not to mention its own park, the Big Bay State Park. We would only have time for a quick swim and dinner at the Beach Bar and Grill.
I enjoyed a fresh salad with grilled whitefish and afterwards felt truly happy and relaxed. I was still in my swimsuit and hadn’t had the inclination to shower in days save my rinse offs in the cool Lake Superior water. So this is what it means to sail. To roam free without an agenda, to feel the warm air kiss your face and to be at peace with nature and oneself.
As we headed back to the marina for a final night’s sleep, the sun gave us another wondrous show of beauty and light. I dreaded going home to the fast-paced, high stress life that most of us lead in modern society. Yet of course the rest of my family was waiting and we couldn’t sail away our worries forever. As I watched the last drip of blood-red sun set below the horizon, I made a promise to myself that I would try harder to appreciate the stillness and little things of life. Although it can be hard to slow down in our day-to-day life, being mindful of the moment and the beauty around us is an important reminder of what life is truly about.
If you go:
If you aren’t fortunate enough to have your own motor or sailboat, you can access some of the Apostle Islands via ferry service, kayak or private charter. The most popular service is run by the Apostle Islands Cruises (www.apostleisland.com) where you can take the Grand Tour, Sea Cave and Lighthouse Tour, Raspberry Island Lighthouse Tour, Michigan Island Lighthouse Tour, and Stockton and Oak Island Hiking Shuttle. To get to Madeline Island, you can take the Madeline Island Ferry (www.madferry.com) which you can also pay extra to bring your car. There are also plenty of private charter boats and kayak outfitters who will gladly take you to there.
For hikes on Stockton Island and camping information, click here.