Apostle Islands and their famous sea caves offer 'some of the best kayaking in the world'
Jun 29, 2018 10:14AM ● Published by Editor
The 21 islands of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore offer much to explore over the course of a multi-day kayaking trip, from intricate sea caves to stunning sunsets. Photo: Chelsey Lewis/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
It feels strange to describe Lake Superior as peaceful.
This is the lake, after all, infamous for squalls that come out of nowhere, shipwrecks like the Edmund Fitzgerald and water temperatures in the middle of summer that struggle to top 50 degrees. The weekend before I visited recently, nasty storms had passed through, flooding roads in Ashland and destroying others in the surrounding counties, leading the governor to declare a state of emergency.
But peaceful is exactly what the lake was on four consecutive days after the storms. My sea kayak glided easily through the glass-calm lake, the only sound the splash as my paddle hit the water. Except for the three other kayakers I was with, there was not another human or sign of humans in sight — just miles of dark-blue water interrupted by narrow green bands of islands.
"How many other places in the world do you get total silence?" said Jamiah Mahoney, a guide with Living Adventure out of Bayfield, in the midst of our four-day trip in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, "the jewels of Lake Superior."
It is a rare and precious thing to find such peace and quiet, but the Apostle Islands are a rare and precious resource, one of Wisconsin's greatest natural treasures.
The national lakeshore covers 21 of the archipelago's 22 islands, plus a 12-mile stretch of mainland. Madeline Island, the only permanently inhabited island, is not part of the national lakeshore.
Jesuit missionaries gave the islands their collective name, although the reason is murky. Mahoney said some people think the Jesuits came, counted a dozen islands from the mainland and bestowed them with their religious name.
Most people come to the islands today to see their famous sea caves. The waves and weather of Lake Superior have carved intricate passageways, arches and caverns into the red-brown sandstone on some of the islands and a stretch of the mainland. In the summer, they're a watery playground for kayakers. In winter, if the lake freezes solid enough, they're a shimmering ice palace for hikers to explore.
Jamiah Mahoney, a guide with Living Adventure, kayaks through a sea cave on Sand Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. (Photo: Chelsey Lewis/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
In 2014, the ice caves opened for the first time in five years and social media took it from there, sparking interest across the globe.
"The year of the caves put us on the map," said Mahoney, 27, who grew up in nearby Herbster and said because of that famous year, non-Wisconsinites now know where he's from when he tells them.
But Mahoney said he prefers the caves in the summer, when you can see the variety of colors and passageways in the caves, hear the waves thundering in them, and maybe even find some solitude.
The mainland sea caves in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore are a playground for kayakers.Chelsey Lewis
The mainland caves are getting close to being overcrowded, though. Because they're the most accessible of the lakeshore's caves, they're frequented by day trippers and less-experienced kayakers. (Devils Island also has dramatic caves, but the distant island is harder to get to.) Outfitters lead multiple trips to the mainland caves every day, and the National Park Service has begun talking to the companies about self-regulating to cut back on the number of paddlers that crowd the area in the summer, Mahoney said.
That's one reason I wanted to get into the islands' less-traveled waters. If you only see the sea caves, you're only seeing a small sliver of what the Apostles are all about.
One thing you don’t grasp until you're paddling three miles across open water is just how big the archipelago is.
That was one thing that struck Steve and Jen Jones, a couple from St. Charles, Illinois, who were visiting the islands for the first time and were also on the Living Adventure trip.
It struck me on my first visit, and every trip since then. I could tell you the national lakeshore includes 21 islands that cover nearly 70,000 acres of land and water across 720 square miles, but it's a difficult number to comprehend until you're in the middle of it.
It's so big "it almost feels claustrophobic," Jen Jones noted after our biggest day of paddling. That counterintuitive feeling comes from being in the middle of the water in a little kayak, with nowhere to go but onward to the next distant island, a sliver of dark green on the horizon.
The islands themselves are big, too. Stockton Island is 7.5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide. Madeline, the largest of the Apostles, is 14 miles long and 3 miles wide.
The only thing that makes Lake Superior a lake instead of a sea is the freshwater, Mahoney told us. The largest freshwater lake by surface area in the world, Lake Superior is about the size of South Carolina. It generates its own weather patterns, making forecasts more than 24 hours out largely obsolete.