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Home » Adventures » Great Superior Adventure » Apostle Islands

Late season kayaking in the Apostle Islands

October 14 – 21, 2016


“Apostle Islands” sign at the Bayfield Visitor Center

Less than 24 hours after completing the Superior Hiking Trail I was in Bayfield, Wisconsin obtaining a backcountry permit for a kayak trip around the Apostle Islands, stop #4 of my Great Superior Adventure. The ranger thought my itinerary — venturing from Bayfield to Meyers Beach while hitting most of the islands along the way — was “ambitious” for this late in the season, but eventually sold me the expensive permit. This trip was my third to the Apostles, with a track record of one good and one bad expedition, so we would see which bucket this latest trip would fall into.

With a one-way, solo trip, I had to shuttle myself from one end to the other. My plan was to park my car at the takeout, then ride a rental bike back to my launch site to start my trip. I failed to account for how late in the season it was though, with many places already closed for the year — including the bike shop! Luck was on my side though as Bayfield Bike Route happened to be opened when I showed up unannounced — the only day it was post-season! So my approximately twenty mile ride through a couple apple orchards worked out by a hair’s breadth. My legs (and butt) were not in the shape they once were but still endured. They would have plenty of time off anyway during the next week as I paddled.


Route I Paddled

Route I Paddled

I launched from the beach in Bayfield and Lipstick once again got her keel wet. My trip had some additional risk being so late in the season, triply so since I was headed to the outer islands, traveling solo, and without all the proper gear. I donned a pieced together wetsuit and older spray jacket, where a dry suit would have been more appropriate for these conditions. An unintentional swim could have turned out very bad.

Despite my setup I still kayaked a circuitous route among the islands, passing nearly all of them and covering around 100 miles in total (see map for details). I thoroughly enjoyed my trip — both the opportunity to be on the water again as well as the scenery the islands provided. Towards the end of my SHT hike fall colors had passed their peak, but moving south to the Apostle Islands put a shot in the arm of color change and reinvigorated their beautiful display. I had the park mostly to myself, sighting only a few private boats in the distance and never seeing another kayaker or camper.

Sea Caves

As on my prior trips, the plethora of sea caves scattered amongst the Apostle Islands was the highlight. These magnificent caverns cut into the cliffs in gnarly and improbable ways, forming arches, passageways, and rooms of endless variety. With cooperating weather a kayak can even maneuver into the caves, with the insides providing an even nicer view and unique perspective. A few places contained narrow passages just big enough to sneak my boat through, allowing me to pop out in a different place than I entered. These sea caves were a great natural playground offering endless fun (in the right weather).

Looking out of a sea cave

Looking out of a sea cave

The visual formations were not even the best part of the caves though, as their acoustics provided the real treat. The sound of water lapping against the caves reverberated around the other walls, producing an aural wonder. This natural percussion ensemble was a joy to listen to, with its variety of tone, rhythm, and tempo. Simply floating in the caves and enjoying the musical score written by the waves was captivating. These natural performances were a personal concert unto themselves, and all for free!

Lake conditions must cooperate for such a recital though. Large swells make the caverns impossible to enter, while with a flat lake all is quiet. Small waves less than a foot seemed ideal. Amazingly the lake obliged for most sea caves, and I freely glided around them while enjoying the free show. The caves I visited were at the northern tip of Madeline Island; on Stockton, Devils, and Sand Islands; and along the mainland coast.

Sea Caves

Sea caves on Devils Island
My kayak inside a sea cave
Sea caves on Sand Island


Michigan Island Lighthouse

Michigan Island Lighthouse

Besides the natural beauty I also enjoyed the many lighthouses dispersed amongst the Apostle Islands. By the end of my trip I saw every lighthouse in the island chain, despite not intentionally setting out to do so. Most of the towers were spied only from inside my kayak, but on Michigan and Devils Islands I disembarked for an up close view. Each lighthouse was supported by a complex of buildings which provided living and work quarters back when these stations were manned. These old structures have been restored to excellent condition, and such large outposts with elaborate brickwork seemed out of place in these remote areas. They were everything the inhabitants had through long stretches with no outside contact though. I still cannot image how lighthouse keepers and their families endured in such remote, lonely, and isolated places.

On Oak Island I also went for a stroll, although not to a lighthouse, but to a natural lookout instead. I hiked in from the campsite on the north side of the island to the vista which provided great views of the lake and nearby islands. This spot had quite the different perspective, as for the first time I saw the scenery from on high, rather than from the waterline in my boat as every other day.

Support buildings near the lighthouse on Devils Island


Weather is always the biggest variable for a kayak trip, especially on such unmerciful water as Lake Superior late in the year. Conditions for my week in the Apostle Islands were mixed, although mostly favorable. The sky cooperated, with little precipitation, but the wind threw a couple curveballs. I fought strong headwinds on a few painstakingly slow and arduous days, but also enjoyed occasional flat water or even a nice tailwinds at times. I spent an extra day on an island once, waiting out the wind. The conditions were not unsafe, but the wind would have made for such a long, slow, and frustrating day I decided staying on land was the better part of valor. I intentionally packed ample extra food, so the delay was not an issue other than possible boredom. Each day of my trip was also deliberately planned as relatively short, so later on I pulled a “double” and still left the lake on schedule anyways.

An old wreck on Outer Island

An old wreck on Outer Island

Wind can be frustrating, but waves are where the danger lies. The lake had small whitecaps on some days, but these never proved troublesome. Several times swells grew large enough to completely block the horizon, but were manageable as long as they arrived at regular intervals from a fixed direction. The worst seas occurred near cliffs, where waves reflected off bare rock and created big, unpredictable chop that assaulted me from every angle. Even in this mess I never felt unstable, but was usually nervous. All it would take was one wave to put me in the drink, which would not have been fun, not to mention extremely dangerous. I had to be very careful and mindful in these conditions, and was always enormously relived upon reaching calmer seas.

Whenever the swells were thorny I had the song The Edmond Fitzgerald stuck in my head for some reason, which was probably bad luck, but at least I did not suffer the same fate.

Sunset over Lake Superior
A beach on Cat Island with colorful trees


Overall I had another great trip to the Apostle Islands and thoroughly enjoyed my time there. Even though I have been to the Apostle Islands three times now and visited most spots in the park, I could still definitely come back here again. Although next time maybe when it is warmer…