What it’s like to kayak the most dangerous Great Lake

Paddlers in Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore live by one simple mantra: “The lake is the boss.”

The steely waters of Lake Superior surround the Apostle Islands, located off the Wisconsin shoreline.

With a reputation for fickle weather, ravaging storms, and an average water temperature of 42 degrees Fahrenheit, Lake Superior is fierce and unforgiving. It’s no wonder that experienced sailors and kayakers consider it the Mount Everest of freshwater boating.

At 31,700 square miles, Lake Superior is the largest lake in the world by surface area, holding three quadrillion gallons of fresh water—enough to cover North and South America a foot deep. Its shoreline is shaped like a wolf’s head and sprawls 2,726 miles across Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario.

If Lake Superior is a boater’s figurative Everest, then its base camp is the Apostle Islands. These 22 wild isles—all of which save one are part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore—offer enough safe havens, with their sandy anchorages and sheltered coves, to make them the ideal destination for experienced boaters to dip their proverbial toe into Lake Superior.

“Most people outside of the Upper Midwest have never heard of the Apostle Islands,” says Tom Irvine, the chairman of the National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation, a non-profit fundraising partner for the five national park sites on Lake Superior. “I’m kind of surprised how many people in the Upper Midwest haven’t heard of them either.”

The islands’ human history is complex and multifaceted, starting with Indigenous groups who fished, hunted, and gathered here thousands of years ago. For the Ojibwe (also known as the Anishinaabe or Chippewa), who followed a vision to the Apostles centuries ago, these islands are sacred.

“Just like Christians, we have a flood story,” says Thomas Peacock, author of Ojibwe: We Look in All Directions and a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “And in that flood story, the first piece of land to reappear is Madeline Island.”

The largest island in the chain, 15,359-acre Madeline is the only Apostle not included in the National Lakeshore, but the sense of sacredness that Peacock expresses is omnipresent everywhere in the archipelago—in the caves carved in sandstone by the powerful forces of wind and waves beating against Devil’s Island; in the delicate sand cherries that grow on an ever-shifting sand spit on Outer Island; and in the yawning jaws of ice that form on the mainland sea caves during the most frigid winters.

To commemorate the National Lakeshore’s 50th anniversary in 2020, Tom Irvine, along with National Geographic photographer David Guttenfelder, a native Midwesterner and kayaker, and Neil Howk, the park’s former assistant head of interpretation, had an ambitious mission to circumnavigate every island by kayak last summer and fall.

It turned out, however, that “Lake Superior and Mother Nature had other plans,” Irvine says.  

“The lake is the boss”

For context, most paddlers (after securing a permit far in advance) will take a week to complete a counterclockwise half-circle around the “Inner Islands.” Starting at the Meyers Road put-in 18 miles west of Bayfield, Wisconsin, they’ll paddle along the shoreline to the mainland sea caves, a connected maze of spectacular sandstone caverns. From there, they will cross three miles of open water to Sand Island to pitch a tent at a beach campsite and hike a few miles to a lighthouse built in 1881.

From Sand, the tour might island-hop to a campsite on the northern end of Oak, where the sun sets over emerald turquoise water. Then they’ll eventually island-hop over to Stockton, home of one of the largest black bear populations in the country, ending the trip near Bayfield, a picture-perfect town of Victorian mansions, fish markets, artisan shops, and a large marina for sailors and power boaters.

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“You plan an itinerary based on where you want to be, then be prepared to make changes because of weather,” says Neil Howk, who has helped kayakers plan trips for three decades. “If you’re planning to be out six days, at least one of those nights you’re not going to end up where you intended to.”

Howk’s advice to kayakers is simple: “The lake is the boss and when the boss says it’s time to stay home, you’d better stay home.”

Some paddlers don’t follow this advice, failing to comprehend the serious consequences of falling into Lake Superior, which is illustrated by the 1-10-1 rule: Without a wet or dry suit, you’ll have one minute to control your breathing, less than 10 minutes for self-rescue, and one hour before you become unconscious due to hypothermia. In 2018 a family of five set out in a 13.5-foot-long sit-atop kayak to paddle four miles from Madeline Island to Michigan Island. The kayak capsized and the only survivor was the mother.

“This is essentially an ocean with no salt and no sharks,” says park superintendent Lynne Dominy, who estimates the number of annual visitors to the 12-mile mainland portion of the National Lakeshore to be 250,000. “But I can’t tell you how many people come with a blowup kayak. People aren’t used to the changing conditions that can turn one-foot waves into five-foot waves in minutes. I’ve been kayaking for 25 years, but that does not make me an expert on Lake Superior.”

Reaching Outer Island

After a few days of being socked in by rain and fog while circumnavigating, then camping on and hiking, the inner islands of Sand and Stockton late last September, Guttenfelder, Howk, and Irvine changed plans. Instead of paddling, they loaded up their kayaks on a powerful Park Service boat, took advantage of an opening in the weather, and cruised to Outer Island, the most remote island in the archipelago, which sits 25 miles off the shoreline of Lake Superior.

Visiting Outer Island was especially important to Irvine, whose great-great-grandfather, John Irvine, once held the presidentially appointed position of lighthouse keeper on this windswept Apostle. In 1905, he saved the lives of five men whose three-masted schooner, Pretoria, wrecked in a September gale that generated winds up to 90 miles per hour.

In early October, when the three men finally arrived at Outer Island, they landed on a 1.5-mile-long spit of sand created by the winds that blow off the lake and erode the rock, resulting in what looks like a long, skinny finger pointing back toward the mainland. This sand spit, and the large lagoon it encloses, is a paradise for many species of migrating birds, including raptors, songbirds, and loons.

“It was pretty epic,” says Irvine of their experience at Outer Island. “Once we got onto the main lake, the waves were really beating us up.” To have done the trip in a kayak, says Irvine, “would have been the paddler’s version of climbing Everest, but we didn’t have the window to make the last push to the summit.”

Past and future threats

As wild as the Apostle Islands are today, they were rejected for protection by the National Park Service in the 1930s because some of them had been denuded by clearcutting. Even into the 1950s, teams of lumberjacks known as “flying Paul Bunyans” arrived in airplanes to selectively cut timber on Outer Island. When the logging finally played out, the islands were left to regenerate into a postmodern wilderness, a place where the forces of nature have almost erased the centuries of human impact. In 1970 President Nixon bestowed the Apostles with National Lakeshore designation.

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Today, the islands’ greatest threat is climate change, which has increased the relentless power of Lake Superior. Its rising water levels and increasingly fierce storms are causing beaches to erode and park-built infrastructure like docks to be in near-constant need of repair.

For Guttenfelder, who normally photographs off-limit hot zones like North Korea, paddling on Lake Superior left its mark.

“When I kayaked into the mainland sea caves, which are just awesome, I felt like I was in a washing machine, getting battered around even in the best of weather,” Guttenfelder says. “I was impressed by the lake’s incredible power.”

Stephanie Pearson is a contributing editor of Outside magazine. She grew up and currently lives in Duluth, Minnesota, on the shore of Lake Superior.

David Guttenfelder is a photojournalist and National Geographic Explorer focusing on geopolitical conflict, conservation, and culture. Follow him on Instagram.

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