Touring The Apostle Island’s Sand Island:
Truly a stunning and scenically spectacular paddle unlike anything I’ve had the good fortune to experience, the trip out to and back from Sand Island (originally named Waabaabikaa-minis in Ojibwe) – part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore – is a unique jewel richly lavishing kayakers to innumerable caves, turrets, arches and portals, each as luscious and lustrous as the next in brick-red sandstone, creamy streaks and green moss. A feast for the eyes as much as the ears – waves going in and out of the tunnels and caves, making that thick-throated gulch! sound like a rocky esophagus, this trip also treats paddlers to a lovely hike across the island through wetlands and swales to the stately lighthouse at its north-facing brow.
Waxed poetry aside, this trip does require an open-water passage from the mainland to the island that is approximately 3.5 miles each way, wholly vulnerable to the vagaries of Lake Superior weather. As such, only experienced paddlers fully outfitted and prepared with a plan should consider this trip if kayaking alone (or even with a partner or group). Alternatively, sign up with any of the reputable outfitters listed below to guide you (and who’ll provide all the gear, swag, and safety savvy).
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 3-5, 2022
Skill Level: Advanced/Expert
Class Difficulty: Great Lakes Paddling
Put-In + Take-Out:
Little Sand Bay Beach, Russell, Wisconsin, Bayfield County
GPS: 46.94686, -90.89032
Time: Put in at 12:15p. Out at 5:30p.
Total Time: 5h 15m
Miles Paddled: 8
Mergansers and gulls
You know that joke about something taking an act of Congress to happen, well that’s true of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, too, and it occurred in 1970 (thus recently celebrating its 50th anniversary – which, like everything in 2020, got overshadowed by Covid). But it also took the tireless work of native son and U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson to make happen. Twenty-one of the twenty-two total islands off the Bayfield Peninsula became part of the Apostles – not including Madeline Island, which is still a part of Wisconsin and the only “settled” island. Not counting itty-bitty Eagle Island (which none but gulls and motor boats go to), Sand Island is the furthest west of the archipelago.
Of the twenty-one islands comprising the Apostle Islands, Sand Island is one of the larger ones (though still considerably smaller than some). It’s also one of the most attractive and accessible islands vis a vis kayaking, making it a fairly popular destination (though not nearly as popular as the Meyers Beach section of sea caves).
While we’re usually big believers in the proverbial wisdom of “the journey is the destination,” in this case you can stuff that in your dry bag and leave it under the hatch cover – for this trip really is all about the destination. And that destination is the caves along the east shore of Sand Island. They’re resplendent, rhapsodic; the weaving in and out is an experience full of fantasy and majesty!
We were on the peninsula for three full days, and in terms of paddling priority, our one goal was to do this trip. If we got lucky with weather, we could do additional trips. It was windy Wednesday and Friday, but Thursday was even-keeled and smooth sailing – the forecast showing a six-mph wind from sunrise to sunset. We opted for Thursday and were treated like royalty. (In hindsight, and to give safety its due, the wind on Wednesday and Friday would have made the lake too wavy for a safe and fun excursion.)
Little Sand Bay is easy to get to – not least because it’s almost the only thing around that part of the peninsula. There’s a Ranger Station and Visitor Center, bathrooms, campsites – the whole shebang. The kayak launch at the beach is well-marked and a cinch. Expect to be greeted by a park ranger or volunteer, who’ll politely ascertain that you have the requisite gear, gumption, and know-how to get to the island and back. Given the inherent risk that this trip poses – not to mention the actuarial casualties of less experienced and ill prepared paddlers – their concern is as cautionary as it is courteous but by no means unwarranted.
From the mainland to the island one has two choices:
1) Make a beeline for the southern shore and then hug the island counter-clockwise to get out of the wind (typically from the west and north); or
2) Head right to the caves – on the east side of the island, which necessitates more open-water crossing but is like skipping the opening act and getting to the concert right on time to see the headliner come on stage.
We opted for choice 2, because why not strike for gold right away? Still, expect it to take an hour or so to get to the island. Along the way the views are compelling – Eagle (re: seagull) Island to the west (left), York, Raspberry, Bear, Otter, Oak, and even Devil’s Islands* to the east (right). At the risk of sounding naïve, it’s one thing to “know” these islands from the bird’s-eye view vantage point of a two-dimensional map, but actually seeing them off to the distance, their scale especially, puts the whole unique nature of the archipelago into perspective. Between that scale and the utter ginormity of Gichigami (aka Lake Superior), it’s easy to feel really, really small – in the best and most awestruck manner possible!
* Respectfully and respectively, those are Migiziwi-minis, Miskwaabimizhiikaag-minis, Miskominikaani-minis, Makwa-minis, Anweshin-nigig-minis, Mitigominikaani-minis, and Maji-manidoo-minis.
As the foreground focuses into view you’ll discern a modestly rocky shoreline in front of you. As you get closer you’ll notice that massive slabs of rock are beneath you, too. Anywhere else, you’d simply want to stay here and marvel. But this is just the sizzling beginning! Keep following the rock wall on your left as you paddle counter-clockwise around the symphonic architecture of brick-red sandstone conducted by a Stravinsky-like score of percussive waves crashing and splashing, patiently and spontaneously eroded by a cyclical infinity of frozen ice and thawed relief. The results of this duality are the innumerable caves, crevices, arches, turrets, and spindles, all in dazzling display before you! It’s really like a water-borne warren of tunnels to explore – as long as it’s not wavy and as long as you’re not claustrophobic.
All in all, the stretch of caves is not that long. But you’ll definitely want to take your time here bobbing up and down, having a look-see and peekaboo, and weaving your way through. You’ll be taking a ton of pictures, too… Even if the stretch isn’t technically very long, it will not feel short – I can promise you that. Each time I thought “OK, OK, this has got to be the end of it,” I’d find another sneaky secret passage, another trap door/ rabbit hole to explore. Seriously, it gets to a point where your giddiness starts to feel a little greedy, as the whole cumulative experience is gorgeous and grandiose.
But wait, there’s more!
After the rocks peter there is a delightful little oasis called Justice Bay with a very inviting sandy stretch to breach your boats on, use your legs again, pee discreetly, picnic, etc. There’s also a staircase that leads to a boardwalk that is part of an extensive trail that connects the lighthouse to the ranger station and campsites. From Justice Bay the lighthouse is one mile away, and it’s a very pretty, easy walk. Among such perks as wild blueberries and thimble berries, you’ll walk past stands of virgin white pine – some trees 200 years and older. The lighthouse is picture-perfect, too. If you have the time and inclination, see if you can get a tour with the lighthouse keeper. You can of course paddle out to the lighthouse, but there’s really no good place to dock and get out, as the shoreline is rugged and rocky.
How much time you want to take getting back to the mainland is up to you. Again, you gotta factor in at least an hour paddling across the open water. But are you really just gonna breeze past all those cliffs and caves and crags? Decisions, decisions… One thing I will say is the view of the mainland is quite beguiling, with bluish folds of rugged hills piled up like wooded waves. They may not be mountains, but they’re very pretty and impressive mounds all the same. The whole Bayfield Peninsula has a northcountry feel to it, a place of precious little development, a lot of open space, and an ethos of simplicity and slow pace. Indeed, consider this: there’s not a single traffic light in all of Bayfield County. Not one! I go through 27 just to get to work, one way, five days a week.
What we liked:
A trip like this is unforgettable – as any destination-paddle should be. It’s other-worldly, too. I’ve been fortunate enough to paddle on Lake Superior a half-dozen times now – always in favorable conditions. And while each trip has been unique, special, and memorable, this one is something else! Better? No – they’re all distinct. But this trip is extra-extraordinary (if such a thing is possible). The amount of caves, tunnels, and turrets is just dizzying! It really is like a playground to explore. As mentioned above, the actual stretch of the caves geographically is short lived, but while you’re there your sense of time and space is gorgeously warped. Besides, what’s the rush? You’re on the biggest fresh-water lake on the entire planet – a body of water with so much water it could submerge the entire western hemisphere with one foot of water. (Yes – think about that for a moment! Look at a map: see that little blob that is Lake Superior and now scan the whole stretch of northern Canada to southern Patagonia; this lake has enough water in it to drench all of Northern and Southern America! And you’re on it in a little plastic kayak. Amazing.)
It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with this website or even a casual stranger perusing our table of contents that we don’t do a whole lot of sea kayaking or light touring trips. This is not a preferential or intentional choice; it’s essentially a circumstantial matter having to do with living nowhere close to such bodies of water. I mention this for two reasons, practicable and philosophical:
1) As long as you have the right gear, gumption, and knowledge, you don’t have to be a dedicated sea kayaker to paddle this trip. As poor Hamlet stated, “the readiness is all.”
2) Let’s be honest – recreational paddling can be downright lazy sometimes. If you’re not getting in and out of your boat a dozen times on account of shallow water or obstructions, if you’re not weaving around fixed obstacles like boulders or trees, and if you’re not running Class II+ rapids, then paddling pretty much takes for granted sitting on your butt for hours at a time just floating and going with the flow. Paddling 3+ miles across open water to get to an island is entirely different. It feels like going out for a run – you gotta dig in and want it. It’s a work out. It’s wonderful! It’s an opportunity to be mindful of your paddling stroke and where your hands are positioned. It’s using those core muscles. It’s timing your rhythms to the pulse of the world around you – the wave patterns and the whimsical wind. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s reminiscent of long-distance swimming. You really do get into a circulatory Zen. It’s a very cool experience. And as Barry once aptly pointed out when paddling to an island on a Great Lake, “having a destination…brings about a feeling of purpose.” You’re on a mission, an expedition. Sometimes the destination is the journey.
Also, we did get a tour of the lighthouse, courtesy of the keeper. In addition to some of the boilerplate stuff one can expect, she herself grew up on the island – well before the Apostles became part of the National Lakeshore – and shared her own personal history. Here’s another fun fact: some people still live on Sand Island (not to mention a couple other Apostle Islands) – yes, despite the fact that the federal government now owns the land. It’s a long and intricate story, but here is a great article that sorts it all out.
What we didn’t like:
Honestly, nothing. Sure, the open passage to the island could have been shorter – but it’s not. To get to the island requires some steam and stamina, but oh my lord, is it worth it!
If we did this trip again:
Other than camping on the island and/or circumnavigating it, we’d do everything exactly as we did. Europeans first settled on Sand Island over a hundred years ago. Scandinavians mostly, who mostly farmed, fished, and felled trees, remains of that history are intact here and there on and along the island. Given its size and the exposure to Lake Superior’s capricious weather, you’d need a full day fortified with high calories and protein to paddle around the whole island – up to and including being prepared to have to camp overnight, if conditions forbid heading back to the mainland. But such a trip would be quite the feat!
Canoe + Kayak Camping Wisconsin: The Apostle Islands
General: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Camp: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Map: National Parks Service
Outfitter: Living Adventure
Outfitter: Lost Creek Adventures
Wikipedia: Apostle Islands