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Cruising Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands

The Apostle Islands offer a kind of rugged beauty all their own 

The Apostle Islands offer a kind of rugged beauty all their own 

I didn’t come up with the title to this story on my own. I actually saw it on a T-shirt in downtown Bayfield, Wisconsin. At the time as we were roaming around town after returning our boat to the Superior Yacht Charters base (superiorcharters.com) there following five days exploring the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. It seemed so appropriate I couldn’t resist. It summed up our recent experience so well.

My wife, Gail, and I are from Miami, Florida, so it may mean more to us than some. Except for a couple of weeks in the Rio Dulce, Guatemala, we have not sailed freshwater since moving to the Sunshine State from Dallas in the early 2000s. The freshwater in the Apostle Islands is also nothing like the lakes and rivers of Texas. Over the years, we have sailed over 12,000 saltwater miles up and down the Eastern Seaboard and in the Bahamas. We’ve also done a circumnavigation of the Caribbean. This, though, was a totally different experience.

We’d been invited to sail up north by our friends at Superior Yacht Charters and had put together a trip in August when the water and weather would be the warmest. Flying into Minneapolis, Minnesota, we first drove up to Duluth then over to Iron Mountain, Michigan, and back to Bayfield via Green Bay, Wisconsin. The driving trip was fantastic and worth the extra time. So many places to stop and view the scenery, though we were a little disappointed by the lack of cheese shops until we got close to Green Bay.

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Arriving in Bayfield at the Port Superior Marina, we were amazed at the venue. Located just south of town, the marina is tucked into a beautiful spot among the pines on the edge of the lake. After being greeted by our friends, we were given a tour of the marina and then directed to our home for the next few days, Quiet Star, a Jeanneau 41DS sloop.

Although the rest of the Apostle islands were all out of sight to the north of us, we could easily see the largest of them, Madeline Island, directly in front of us a few miles across the bay. In the winter you can apparently drive there across on an ice road, something that seems nothing less than crazy to southerners like Gail and me. In the summer you have to go by boat or ferry.

The Apostle Islands are believed to have been named by Jesuit priests according to the common practice of giving holy names to new places. Local lore says the Jesuits could only see the 12 nearest islands and not the other nine, which would explain the numerical discrepancy.

Besides Madeline Island, which is not actually part of the park and includes a wide range of amenities and even a small airport, the other 21 islands are all uninhabited. Being part of the U.S. National Park System, the docks, campgrounds and hiking trails are all well maintained. We had been advised to bring hiking boots as well as deck shoes, and we used them on several occasions.

Dramatically eroded sandstone formations can be found throughout the area 

Dramatically eroded sandstone formations can be found throughout the area 

After provisioning in town and getting a good night’s sleep in the marina, we cast off lines and headed out early the next morning. Making our way north along the Wisconsin shore, we passed a number of other boats and marinas. After that came the town of Bayfield itself as we continued on toward the farthest island, Sand Island, after which we planned on spending the rest of our charter slowly working our way back.

The winds were light and sailing along at an easy 4 to 5 knots gave us plenty of time to sightsee along the way. Reaching past Madeline Island to starboard and the mainland on port, we had great views on either side, as well as the aforementioned ferry traffic to look out for. Continuing up the coast took us past Basswood and Oak islands (highest elevation of 479ft). After that, we altered course around the northernmost point of the Bayfield Peninsula until we were heading almost due west, eventually arriving at the anchorage on the far side of Sand Island around 1400. The fact it was only about five hours from the marina to the farthest island will give you an idea of the kinds of distances you have to contend with here. Navigation is all line-of-sight.

We’d been warned to watch this particular anchorage because the winds tend to shift 180 degrees in the night, and so we anchored a little farther out than the other boats already there. After that, we had a quick lunch, put on our hiking shoes, launched the dinghy and headed for shore. The path to the lighthouse there was about two miles through the woods, with plenty of flora, ferns, mushrooms and wildflowers. We saw a snake, some squirrels, but no bears. (We’d been warned to look out for the latter.) Arriving at Sand Island Lighthouse on the island’s northernmost tip, we were treated to an almost private tour by one of the rangers. It was interesting to see that the ranger who gave us the tour was our same age, had volunteered for the job and as part of his assignment was living on the island for the summer. Hmmm…something to maybe investigate.

The Sand Island lighthouse is ruggedly built to withstand the area’s winter gales 

The Sand Island lighthouse is ruggedly built to withstand the area’s winter gales 

On our way back to the boat, we puttered over to Justice Bay where we could have also anchored. As with the other islands comprising the Apostles group, the sandstone rocks lining the shore there are heavily eroded creating a number of interesting features, including caves that are large enough to take a dinghy into. After that it was back to the boat for some dinner and to watch a few thunderstorms skirt by off in the distance.

The next morning we awoke to a near calm and motored north to Devils Island, the northernmost of the Apostles and the one most exposed to the weather of Lake Superior. The rules say you can anchor there but are not allowed to leave your boat unattended, so we just motored in close to shore to have a look. The rocks here include a number of huge flat ledges, where President Calvin Coolidge once hosted a picnic back in 1928. Hard to imagine how they did that.

From Devils Island we turned southeast and made our way past Bear Island toward our next stop, Raspberry Island. Again planning for a wind shift, we anchored close alongside what was at the time a lee shore in about 8ft of water—so close, in, we couldn’t help wondering what the guys at Superior Charters would say if they’d seen us. As expected, though, the winds did, indeed, shift in the night, and spinning us around at the end of our anchor rode into deeper water. We gave ourselves a pat on our back when we awoke and said, “Well done!”

While anchored off Raspberry Island, we splashed the dinghy and took off to explore a little and take a short hike to yet another lighthouse. Along the way, we passed campgrounds and facilities for everything from small families to large groups of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. We also came across a number kayakers, some of who had paddled miles from the mainland in order to get there.

That afternoon Gail beat me in a hot game of cribbage when she came from behind on the last hand. Later that night I woke around midnight and went out on deck to see the sky. What a sight! Where we live in South Florida, you simply cannot see these kinds of stars. It was absolutely gorgeous seeing them this way, seemingly in every direction, reflected off the calm waters of the bay.

The following morning we were off again, setting a course up through the other islands, around the north end of Cat Island and then back south to Stockton Island’s Julian Bay. The winds were still light, but we took the time to unfurl sails and ghost along between the islands.

According to historians, the Ojibwe and other native tribes probably first settled the islands as early as 800 CE. Centuries later, fur traders from France came to the area in the 1650s. More recently a number of families who lived there, surviving by trapping, mining, logging, quarrying, farming and fishing right up through the lat 1800s. The island's forests have long since grown over whatever houses they may have built, with the only real evidence of their having been there being the area’s lighthouses.

Stockton Island is the headquarters for the park, and Julian Bay is encircled by a sandy beach bay that is in many ways reminiscent of the Caribbean—except for the water temperature! We managed to walk in up to about our knees, but that was it. The ranger station includes a small marina, and we talked to a handful of other boaters who were also there enjoying the islands. One of the couples we talked to said they were thinking about taking their boat to Florida.

On the last day of our charter, we motored around some of the other islands and in search of Lookout Rock on the north end of Hermit Island. When we got there we saw a bunch of kids climbing up to the top and jumping off into the frigid water. Oh, to be young again! From there, we worked our way back down the east side of Basswood Island and then south along the coast to the marina to check-in. I think we managed to at least see every one of the islands making up the group, including little North Twin Island off in the distance.

In all we spent five great days aboard, three of them at anchor. Our favorite stop was probably Raspberry Island with its secure anchorage, easy hiking and great lighthouse. We sailed around all of the islands, and although we didn’t stop at every one, we did manage to check out all the major attractions highlighted in the cruising guide. A bit more wind during the day would have been nice. But no matter. No salt, no sharks, no worries! 

The author and Gail take a break on the steps of Raspberry Island Lighthouse 

The author and Gail take a break on the steps of Raspberry Island Lighthouse 

Cruising Tips: Lake Superior & Apostle Islands

As you would expect, the sailing season on Lake Superior is limited to the warm months, with boats being splashed in the spring and hauled out again in the fall. We went in August when the air and the water are the warmest. Water temperatures can reach the 70s in the shallows close to the islands. We actually saw some people swimming, but wading up to our knees was enough for us. The islands are all within sight of each other, and we had a good cruising guide from our charter company which really helped. The anchorages are not marked, and there are no mooring balls. However, there is good holding near the dinghy dock or landing area on each island. Presque Isle Bay and Julian Bay at Stockton Island are the largest and the most Caribbean-like anchorages, with their sandy bottoms and beautiful beaches.

April 2021

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