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I had been putting it off for years, telling my friends, "You know, I really want to try sea kayaking on the Great Lakes," but chores like staining the house before summer's end always seemed to keep me from giving it a try.
This past spring was different. When a flyer from a Bayfield outfitter advertised guided trips, I didn't just read it, dream of paddling through sea caves, then reluctantly pick up a paintbrush. Instead, I called and reserved a spot on a beginner's outing to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore during the first week of August. We'd cover 25-30 miles of paddling over the course of a three-day journey.
The outfitter suggested some pre-trip conditioning including sit-ups, push-ups, swimming and calisthenics to strengthen shoulders, arms and abs. An equipment and clothing list suggested what would provide a greater measure of safety and comfort while paddling. Wool and synthetic clothing that dry quickly and stay warm in wet or cool conditions along with a rain jacket were the fashions of choice. A hat, sunglasses and sunscreen were essentials to wear on the open water. I whittled my original three dry bags full of clothing down to one. The outfitter furnished wet suits, life jackets and spray skirts.
All participants take a required three-hour safety course before embarking on a trip. Our guide gave instruction in paddling techniques, wet exits (how to get out of your kayak if it flips upside down), open water rescues, and weather concerns. I strongly recommend that beginning kayakers get some kind of similar instruction from a reputable outfitter before heading out on Lake Superior or Lake Michigan.
There's safety in numbers and in preparation. The guide also carried a map/chart of the islands and a couple of compasses that we could use to navigate in fog. Fortunately, the weather remained brilliantly clear during the sojourn. A GPS unit would be a helpful navigational tool, but we did not have one. Don't expect cell phone reception in wilderness areas. We had a marine radio with us for contacting the National Park Service rangers or the Coast Guard in event of an emergency. An extra paddle is good insurance in case the unexpected happens. Also leave an itinerary with a trusted family member or friend on shore, and never travel alone. Don't forget to bring your common sense and good judgment when traveling in a small boat on a large, unforgiving body of water.
Six novice paddlers and an experienced guide comprised our group. Two people piloted a tandem kayak; the rest of us were in solo boats. The tandem had room enough to pack in a two-burner stove, cooking pots, utensils, some of the small soft-sided nylon coolers and other gear in its middle hatch. The coolers each contained all the food necessary for one meal and were labeled accordingly. We all shared a filter to purify lake water for drinking. Moderately sized waterproof dry bags worked well for packing clothing and sleeping bags in the fore and aft hatches of both the tandem and solo kayaks. Tents were shared by groups of two paddlers. These were stowed in cargo holds bow and aft along with the other equipment.
You sit in a canoe, but I learned to appreciate that you "wear" a kayak. Young, short, coordinated people have a definite advantage when it comes to getting into and out of such sleek craft. Before I managed to squeeze into the cockpit, I had some help adjusting the foot pegs to match the length of my legs. Some kayaks have a rudder controlled with these pegs as well. The rudder helps maintain a straight course in choppy seas or strong currents. There is additional space in the cockpit that provides limited storage for small items like a camera or snacks that you need easy access to while paddling. The cockpit is made relatively watertight through the use of a spray skirt that fits around your body and stretches across the kayak opening. Each of us also carried a bilge pump bungee-corded to the deck of our kayaks that we could use to remove excess water that may enter the cockpit during launch or seep in through the spray skirt when waves splash over the deck.
Beaches are the preferred choice for embarking and landing. We started our trip from Meyers Beach located near the tip of the Bayfield Peninsula just four miles east of Cornucopia. This stretch of shoreline features the Mainland Sea Caves that begin to appear in the red sandstone cliffs east of the mile-long beach. One can only enter these caves when the lake is calm as it was on the day we visited. We spent about three hours leisurely exploring this four- to five-mile stretch of the national lakeshore taking lots of time to check out the caves. One member of our group was so awed that he said the experience felt like being inside a grand cathedral.
I hear these lovely caverns take on a different kind of inexplicable grandeur in wintertime. Some hardy hikers venture out on the shore of the frozen lake in February after consulting the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Ice Line that provides up-to-date information on the conditions leading to the caves. Icy terrain can make the going difficult. Sturdy winter boots with crampons are a must and layered clothing helps to deal with cold and windy conditions. Depending on snow depth, snowshoes may make the trek easier. Use extreme care whenever traveling on ice, especially around the caves.
After spending a quiet night camped in the woods above the secluded beach near Sand Point, we made the one-mile crossing over to Sand Island. Distances can be deceiving. A mile doesn't seem very far until you become a boat's only means of propulsion through the choppy seas of the world's largest lake.
This 2,949-acre island supported a population of more than 100 people back in 1918. Most were Norwegian immigrants who eked out a living farming and fishing. They even established a post office on the island for a time, but getting the mail in and out during the winter months was so difficult that service was discontinued after only five years.
We set up our second camp along a lovely deserted beach, had lunch, and then paddled another mile or so to the Sand Island Lighthouse. A park service volunteer took us to the top of the 1881 light tower where we could soak in the view of the vast expanse of Lake Superior's sparkling blue waters surrounding the densely wooded island. Old-growth forests remain near the lighthouses on Devils, Outer, Raspberry, and Sand islands due to reserves established long ago by the federal government in order to ensure an adequate supply of firewood for the light keepers.
Along the east side of Sand Island are the wondrous Swallow Point Sea Caves honeycombed into the sedimentary sandstone. Here secret passageways beckon adventurers to explore rock formations shaped by the pounding surf through eons of unrelenting wave action. Large pleasure craft anchored in nearby Justice Bay watched enviously as our kayaks carefully negotiated narrow openings between towering pillars of water-chiseled sandstone. Sitting inside one of the sea caves and looking out at the lake must compare to the feeling and the view Jonah had after being swallowed by a whale.
On the way back to camp I enjoyed the wind in my face, the rhythm of paddling, the rocking waves, and the prospect of whitefish almondine for dinner! I admired the kayak's sleek profile – designed to slice through the waves or skim across calm waters with amazing efficiency.
I discovered that spending three beautiful days exploring Lake Superior's Apostle Islands in sea kayaks with a group of friendly, interesting people sure beat staining the house. However, paddling 30 miles wasn't as easy as I thought it was going to be. I'm convinced that sea kayaks were designed more for people who are less than 40 years of age. My back and neck muscles kept reminding me that I am pretty far over the hill.
But don't let your age hinder you from checking off such a wilderness experience on your life list. If you've always had an itch, an urge, or a hankering to exchange a paintbrush for a paddle, then what's wrong with right now? Who knows what next year will bring. Sign up for a guided trip with an outfitter, get some safety and paddling instruction, and find out for yourself what an adventure you can have on Wisconsin's sweetwater inland seas.
Timothy Sweet writes from Clintonville.