Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

 A kayaker paddling around Pottawatomie Point. © Tim Sweet

Vehicles are not allowed on the 912-acre island, but sea kayaks do the job. This kayaker is checking out Pottawatomie Point.
© Tim Sweet

February 2014

Going full circle

Living the dream of sea kayaking the waters around Rock Island.

Story and photos by Tim Sweet

For years I have dreamed of paddling a sea kayak around Rock Island, a state park located two ferry boat rides off the northern tip of Wisconsinís Door Peninsula. I fell in love with this isolated jewel of the Grand Traverse Islands chain the first time I saw the monolithic Thordarson Boathouse and camped overnight along the secluded shore on one of the backpacking sites.

Since 2004, Iíve volunteered as a tour guide at the Pottawatomie Lighthouse. In exchange for leading daily tours of the historic light station from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. docents get the privilege of living for a week in the 1858 restored lighthouse and have time to fully enjoy the surrounding natural beauty of the island. Last June during my stay at the lighthouse, some of my free time was spent paddling the surrounding waters.

I have been on previous kayaking trips through the sea caves of the Apostle Islands, on a five–day expedition along the rugged shorelines of Isle Royale National Park, and I paddled the infamous Deathís Door Passage a few years ago during the Washington Island Canoe and Kayak Event.

In 2012, my wife and I purchased two 14–foot recreational sea kayaks and took several weekend trips along waterways in our neck of the woods during September and October. Over the winter we purchased wet suits and other gear for kayaking in the cold waters of Lake Michigan.

I awoke at 4:20 one morning when a robin and an indigo bunting boldly proclaimed the start of a new day. Brightening skies prompted me to look outside our bedroom window of the lighthouse and notice there was no wind, the water was flat and calm, and fog banks were floating in and out of the area. An hour later, intermittent dense fog mixed with sunshine and blue skies while the wind remained nonexistent. Weather conditions were near perfect to cruise around the circumference of the 912–acre island. I told my slumbering wife where I was going, and by 5:50 a.m. I was on the water.

As I rounded the northeastern most part of Rock Island, I came upon numerous sea caves and pillars of rock that had been sculpted by the relentless pounding of wind–driven waves. A sea stack, consisting of a vertical column of dolomite limestone – held perilously in place by the root of a clinging white cedar — stood like a lonely sentinel watching over the east shore.

The fog mysteriously rolled back in and thickened along the southeast shore. Small swells broke over the rocky shoals extending out into the lake. I briefly lost sight of land while negotiating shallow water and avoiding exposed boulders, but quickly stroked around the obstacles in order to maintain visual contact with the ghostly outline of the tree–lined coast.

Thordarson Boathouse © Tim Sweet
Thordarson Boathouse.
© Tim Sweet

Much of Rock Islandís south shore is made up of a crescent–shaped sand beach. I passed an elaborate castle built by some campers. Gradually the beach transitions back to limestone bluffs. Then, the cliffs meet up with a cobblestone beach, which becomes a rocky serpentine spit connecting Rock Island to Washington Island. Last winterís low lake level kept the spit completely exposed. During my spring paddle, though, the water rebounded enough so that the middle of the spit was again submerged under several inches of water allowing my boat to hop onto a swiftly moving current which floated me over to the west side of the island.

Here, the welcoming smell of a camperís fire drifted my way as the fog shrouded Thordarson Boathouse slowly began to materialize along the horizon.

From there, I continued up the parkís west shore. Gulls vigilantly patrolled the cobblestones in search of their next meal. I saw several bald eagles, common mergansers and double–crested cormorants along the entire perimeter of the island.

After rounding the Landís End lighthouse bluff on Pottawatomie Point, just a few more strokes of the paddle brought me full circle to the start of the journey. My first–ever solo circumnavigation of one of the most beautiful islands in all of Wisconsin was successfully completed!(Okay, so it was only six miles around and took just two hours, but it seemed like a real accomplishment to me.)

When I got back to the lighthouse, my wife was still snoozing in bed. I guess she wasnít too worried about me. The trip around the island was a highlight of my week at the lighthouse in this special corner of Godís country.

Tim Sweet visited Door Countyís Rock Island State Park for the first time in 1989 and immediately fell in love with the place as soon as he saw the Thordarson Boathouse up close. That first visit left quite an impression on him. In 1994, Sweet helped charter The Friends of Rock Island — a non–profit group that has partnered with the Department of Natural Resources for the last 20 years. The Friends worked with the state to restore the historic Pottawatomie Lighthouse on the island — the site of Wisconsinís oldest light station dating back to 1836. While serving as a resident live–in docent at the lighthouse with his wife last year, Sweet got to fulfill a longtime dream of paddling a sea kayak around the island.