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Summer’s Last Chance to Camp and Kayak at Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands

A few weeks ago, around Labor Day, I was itching to get out of the office, away from the computer, away from automobile fumes that make me sick on the drive home and away from all the comforts of civilized living. I had also recently been inspired to take a trek to the Apostle Island National Lakeshore after I saw a stunning photograph from the area over the summer. When I looked further into it and realized the Apostle Islands were only 12 hours away by car, I couldn’t think of any reason not to go.

Over Labor Day weekend I drove up with friends to the Upper Manistee River Campground near Grayling, Michigan. I love camping with friends. I can’t exactly say that I left the “comforts” of home considering we ate like kings the whole weekend.

Cajun shrimp and vegetable kebabs cooking over our campfire.

On Monday afternoon, my friends headed back to southeastern Michigan or Chicago and I drove north with campsite/hike recommendations and handwritten driving directions in hand. In all honesty, it was a sad experience to have to leave everybody and continue the outdoor adventure on my own. Normally, I have no problem being by myself, but an entire weekend of fun group activity – canoeing, shared meals, incredible laughter and delicious food cooked by other people really made me think twice about continuing to Apostle Islands alone.

From Grayling to Bayfield, Wisconsin, the foot of the Apostle Islands, was still an eight-and-a-half hour drive. I had a week of free time. I could stretch this eight-hour drive over the course of a few days. Why not camp and hike at the Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore in between? My friend recommended the 12 Mile Beach campground and the North Country Trail there. North I went with a short detour to stop for a microbrew in Traverse City and ride north through the “Tunnel of Trees,” otherwise M-119.

Sunset over Lake Superior.

Along a hike on another trail, near Beaver Creek, giant sandstone rocks protruded from the hills along the path.

The dunes at Pictured Rocks look stunningly similar to one found at Sleeping Bear Dunes in the lower peninsula.

I’m no morning person. In fact, I’m one of the worst sleepy-heads you’ll ever encounter. But camping momentarily changed that in me. I woke up naturally every morning around seven or eight a.m. Granted I was going to sleep every night shortly after sunset. With friends, it would be different. We would stay up late drinking, talking, finishing our scraps of food. I loved that too, but there is a time a place and while I was alone, I would put my eyes to rest when I willed it. And I loved it.

Although, traveling along would prove to be disadvantageous. When I arrived in Bayfield, Wisconsin, at the information center for the Apostle Islands, a National Park Service (NPS) employee told me all the things I didn’t want to hear about kayaking to the islands.

The Apostle Islands is a series of 21 islands and the shoreline leading to them at the very northernmost tip of Wisconsin. They are managed by the NPS. Coming there, I knew that the closest island to shore is three miles away. I knew that I would have to rent a sea-kayak and lug it myself to a let-in point. I was convinced that I’d have a grand adventure sleeping on islands inhabited by bears (I had my bear spray and bear bag), explore sea caves that the islands are known for and spend a few good days releasing my inner wild child.

View from shore onto Sand Island, one of the closest islands to shore. Notice the choppy water.

When the NPS employee heard I wanted to kayak out by myself, she raised her eyebrows and started quizzing me on my experience with kayaking, especially sea-kayaking. I said I’ve been kayaking plenty of times, doing a few solo and multi-day trips.

Click picture to enlarge.

“Can you make a wet exit?,” she asked.

“Well, no. I’ve never had to.”

“Do you have a marine radio and a wetsuit?”

“No and no.”

“Do you have another person going with you?”

“No.”

“I strongly encourage you not to go.”

More or less, that was the conversation. She went on to tell me the horror stories of both experienced and inexperienced people who attempted the same route I wanted to and ended up drowning, dying of hypothermia, or by getting smacked by the waves against the famous sea-cave wall there when they couldn’t get back into their kayak in deep water. Since 2005, five people have died at the Apostle Islands in every summer month. Most recently, in September of 2011, there was a man who had a sail attachment on his sea-kayak. He had a wetsuit, but he wasn’t wearing it. Halfway to Sand Island, his kayak flipped and he died of hypothermia shortly after. Needless to say, I wasn’t going to attempt this just yet. I would have to take a sea-kayaking safety and instruction course first, then come back with more people, a wetsuit, marine radio and so much more.

So I decided to explore the area, go hiking instead, and still kayak out to the most accessible sea-cave wall with an organized group tour.

On a trail from Little Sand Bay I saw the kayaking group I would be going out to see sea caves with the next day.

A lone group of kayakers inspects the inside of a cave created by the crashing waves of the Superior against soft sandstone cliffs. The cave top was visible from the trail.

My rustic and remote campsite north of Bayfield, as far north as you could go on mainland Wisconsin.

Then on my last day in Wisconsin, I had an appointment with Living Adventure, the kayaking outfitter that would lead a full-day (six hour) trip along the most prominent and accessible sea cave. In the end, I don’t know if the $106 was worth the trip, granted it got cut short because of bad weather, but for a group of people to putz out to the water and back, it was a bit steep.

The sea cave, which is actually an open wall with parts that are cavernous.

So what’s the difference between sea-kayaking and kayaking on a river or nearby lake? There are a few differences. Sea-kayaks are built for a different purpose – they must be able to withstand sea conditions. Typically, they are built to be longer, heavier and more streamlined for cutting through high waves. The opening where the kayaker sits is smaller and typically is covered with a skirt to minimize water intake, which could be detrimental. There are two separate compartments, one for the kayaker and one for gear so that any water taken in does not ruin gear. Sea-kayaks have rudders with foot-pedal steering and occasionally, you will see sea-kayaks with compasses mounted to the front.

The sea cave wall in better detail.

Proof that I was there.

I had a date to be in Chicago that night. As soon as our guides brought us back to the main office, I was at the gas station filling up on coffee for the eight hour ride I had ahead of me. Eight hours later, I was relieved and amazed to have driven from the northern-most tip in Wisconsin, a rural, dainty wilderness area to the bottom of Lake Michigan where Chicago was teeming with activity and bright lights, with not one wild animal in sight.

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