Wind Over Wisconsin

By Amy Newman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 6, 2003

Gliding from water to sandy shore, we line up our kayaks and jump onto a sand spit jutting out from Wisconsin's York Island. We've just paddled three easy miles over perfectly smooth and still water. There's not even a whisper of a breeze in the 90-degree heat. As I pull off my spray skirt, I notice our guide staring north over the water. "Here it comes," she yells, and points to a dark line in the distance. We all watch helplessly as a wall of wind approaches and hits like a slap in the face. The water kicks up into three-foot swells.

The suddenness conjures mythological images of a Greek god descending from the sky, blowing his vengeful breath across the water. I am momentarily displaced as the sandy beach, rocky coastline and sparkling water do a good impression of an island in the Aegean. But one toe in the frigid water snaps me back to reality. This is Lake Superior, the world's largest freshwater lake that is notorious for lightning-quick storms. Perhaps Poseidon has a Canadian cousin.

But no one here is named Calypso, and we are not stuck on this island longing for home. Quite the reverse. I'm with six other paddlers on a three-day kayaking trip to explore the Apostle Islands, a 22-island archipelago off the northern tip of Wisconsin. I grew up 300 miles south of here and spent many childhood summers on family canoe trips throughout the northern part of the state. Those were idyllic weeks of adventure, but the Midwest was a place I couldn't wait to get away from. Now I see it as a place of surprising beauty.

The Apostles in particular are extraordinary. Scattered off Wisconsin's Bayfield Peninsula like the tail of a comet, the islands have been battered by water, wind and ice since the end of the last Ice Age, more than 12,000 years ago. The result is a spectacular array of natural phenomena. We came to thread our way through a labyrinth of sea caves and to glide along red sandstone cliffs, to hike among 300-year-old hemlocks and white pines, to camp on islands populated with whitetail deer, black bears and great blue herons. We came to visit century-old lighthouses and witness the wreck of a sunken ship, one of 25 documented shipwrecks in the area. The islands are so stunning in their scenery and wildlife that in 1970 Congress designated 21 of them, and a 12-mile stretch of shoreline on the mainland, as the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore -- one of only four national lakeshores in the United States.

"One, two, three, go!" urges our guide, Danielle, as my friend Michelle and I struggle to flip our double kayak. We're doing it on purpose as part of our training before setting out over open water to Sand Island, where we will spend our first night. Lake Superior never really warms up, so an inadvertent flip could turn life-threatening quickly, even with the wetsuits we are wearing. On the fifth attempt, we do it. Painfully cold water shoots up my nose as I search for the toggle and pull off my spray skirt. I struggle to the surface coughing and gasping, but the water is refreshing in the heat.

Soon we're on our way to Sand Island. Danielle keeps our kayaks close together, which gives us a chance to get to know one another: Mary and Bill, who are nurses from Iowa; Kathy, a firefighter from Minneapolis, and her childhood friend Rhonda, who left their kids and husbands at home; and Scott, a student from Madison, Wis. The 31/2-mile crossing from Little Sand Bay takes just over an hour, which leaves plenty of time to explore. As we snake along the rocky shore to the Swallow Point sea caves, we can see massive underwater boulders sharply in focus some 30 feet down through the pale green prism.

As we move east, the island's shore gets thicker and the boulders turn into bluffs forming a rocky wedge. By the time we reach the caves, the cliffs are nearly 50 feet tall and topped with a thick forest of white birch. The layers of red sandstone seem as crumbly as the inside of a Butterfinger, but it's taken thousands of years to sculpt these caves. With the water so calm, we're able to weave through the maze without worry of being smashed against the ceilings. We paddle in and out of cave after cave until we've explored every one we can fit into.

Around the bend is the Sand Island Lighthouse, an 1881 red-brick house perched atop a rocky outcrop. There are eight lighthouses in the Apostle Islands, more than in any national park. At one time, each lighthouse was maintained by a keeper, his family and perhaps one or two assistants during the months the lake was navigable. The lights are now automated, but the houses remain as testaments to the arduous life of those who worked to keep sailors safe. They weren't always successful. It was here in 1905 that the keeper watched helplessly as the ship Sevona went down in a September storm. The next day he found the bodies of some of the crew washed up on a nearby beach.

Shipwreck stories become the theme of the evening as we sit around our campfire that night. Danielle had gotten whitefish fresh off a fishing boat that morning, and although it's true that everything tastes better outdoors, this fish has everyone speechless.

My aching arms and lack of sleep make dawn feel as subtle as an alarm clock. But setting out for York Island across the calm water, I settle into an easy rhythm. We all spread out and get quiet, taking notice of our surroundings. The sky is a solid sheet of blue as we pull the kayaks onto shore. A cormorant skims across the water's surface, but otherwise everything is still and peaceful -- until . . .

We are all surprised by how unrelenting the wind is as we slip our kayaks back into the foamy water. Wave after wave crashes over the bow. I try not to get caught at an angle or I'll flip. When we finally reach our next destination -- Raspberry Island, nearly four miles away -- we're exhausted. We secure our kayaks on the beach and hike three-quarters of a mile through an old-growth forest up to another old lighthouse. Although logging cleared most of the trees in the 1800s, the land surrounding the lighthouses was protected by law, resulting in remnant patches of centuries-old forest. The trail is lined with hemlocks and a lush underbrush that sparkles with yellow wildflowers.

At the lighthouse, we eat lunch, then collapse in the shade of a very old oak for what is an all-too-brief attempt at a nap. We are roused by a park ranger, one of two stationed there during the summer. He offers to give us a tour of the lighthouse, which is being restored to show what it was like when families lived there. The two-story white clapboard house was built in 1862, and the light beacon was operated manually until the 1940s. One by one, we climb the spiral staircase to the landing around the old light. It's the same view the light keeper had 100 years ago.

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