Fall Spectacular: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Mirror of Time

Though it's dubbed a "lakeshore," at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore the paddling is superb. Top photo taken at a designated campsite on Michigan Island, bottom photo is of the old Michigan Lighthouse. Photos copyright Greg Breining.

Editor's note: Fall can be one of the best times to head to a national park with paddle in hand. The warm, sunny days of an Indian Summer make paddling delightful, campsites are less crowded, and the temperatures are great for both sleeping and paddling. Guest writer Greg Breining offers one paddle, in Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Paddling along a sandy shore, watching ripples of sand and light beneath the kayak, I could imagine for a moment I was in the tropics, not here in northern Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Superior. As we glided along, channels between islands opened and closed; new islands appeared.

“You always get sentimental out here,” Susan said, responding to a wistful remark I had made as our kayaks sliced through the glassy water.

Yes, old memories. I’ve been paddling in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore for so many years, it seems like old stomping grounds. My wife and I have paddled here many times since we met 14 years ago. Together, we have even managed to lose our two teenage daughters on an island overnight. Though I have paddled around Superior, the Apostles remain among my favorite places.

I love these islands for their simple beauty—forested wafers of sandstone floating on the sparkling surface of Superior, with sea caves, arches, and sand beaches. Yet it’s also the interplay of past and present. Some 80 percent of the park is pristine enough to be managed as wilderness, yet travelers like me are constantly reminded of the past as we stumble across old homesteads, quarries, and shipwrecks.

On Manitou Island, named with the Ojibwe word for spirit, sits the Manitou Fish Camp, a collection of shacks used by commercial fishermen Hjalmer and Ted Olson from 1938 until the park took over in 1970. Since Manitou is in the middle of the archipelago, we often stop by on our way to and from some of the outer islands. We poke our heads inside the log cabin. The table is always set. Nets and floats hang in a storage shed. It has always seemed as though Hjalmer and Ted still live and work here and have just set out for a day of fishing.

Among the most striking touchstone to the past are a half-dozen outstanding lighthouses, the greatest number in any single national park, now all on the National Register of Historic Places. They once guided a surprising number of sailing ships and steamships through the islands’ channels.

What a stark contrast with the lake now! One day I climbed to the top of the lighthouse of Devils Island, one of the outermost of the Apostles. The columnar steel light looks like a Jules Verne rocket, with a massive Fresnel lens in the nosecone. “There’s a note in one of the books that says in 1905 the lighthouse keeper looked out and counted 120 boats in an hour,” said the park volunteer who looked after the lighthouse. But on this particular day, as we looked north across the lake to the Sawtooth Mountains of the Minnesota shore, there was hardly a boat to be seen.


With so much traffic in bygone days, accidents were inevitable. On my very first kayak trip among the islands, our group paddled straightaway to the Sand Island Lighthouse, a Gothic sandstone structure built in 1881. Looking northwest toward the setting sun, I imagined the sight in 1905 when the freighter Sevona, running before a gale in the open lake, ran up on the Sand Island Shoal. From his lookout in the turret, lighthouse keeper Emmanuel Luick watched helplessly as the Sevona broke apart barely more than a mile away and seven sailors drowned in the pounding surf.

Two days later we came upon another surprise -- several gulls sitting on the ribs of the Fedora. Rusted bolts stuck barely above the surface, poised to puncture the hull of the careless sea kayaker. On a stormy September night in 1901, the Fedora had steamed southward through the Apostles toward Ashland when a kerosene lantern exploded in the engine room. Flames filled the ship, which continued to run full speed. The captain turned the ship toward shore and ran her aground. The crew escaped in lifeboats, but the Fedora burned to the waterline. We glided back and forth over the submerged timbers, clearly visible in the shallow water.

At dusk, a photographer and I borrowed a small rowboat from a family that lived just up the shore. Rowing to the Fedora, we set a camera and tripod in the shallow water and opened the shutter for a time exposure of the twisted black stern. As we waited several minutes for each exposure, we smoked cigars and contemplated, among other things, the changing fortunes of these islands and the links of the past to the present. As we sat, two paddlers in bright plastic kayaks paddled along shore and weaved among the wreckage in the low light.

Later, as I looked at the photographs, I saw fleeting ghosts of pink and green amid the solid black architecture of the Fedora. I was struck by the transitory nature of the present amid the firm landscape of the past. Yet I was keenly aware of this paradox: It is the present moment, no matter how fleeting, that makes the past. Will my own life seem as ephemeral as the image of the kayaks? That evening in the Apostles reminded me of my relationship to those who have come before, and confirmed the humble thought that we too shall pass.

IF YOU GO

The most popular time to paddle the Apostles is July and August, when water is warmest and the weather is most likely to be calm. Despite the increasing chance of wind, early fall can be a great time, too. Water in the big lake remains fairly warm. With fewer campers, paddlers have a great choice of campsites.

Inexperienced kayakers can go with an outfitter. Trek & Trail (7 Washington Avenue, Bayfield; 800-354-8735; www.trek-trail.com) and Living Adventure (State Route 13, Red Cliff; 866-779-9503; www.livingadventure.com), just north of Bayfield, offer trips through mid-September.

Paddlers can check with the National Park Service (415 Washington Avenue, Bayfield; 715-779-3397; www.nps.gov/apis) for trip information, especially weather advisories. (Better yet, use a marine radio.) Campsites in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore must be reserved and start at $10 a night.

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Greg Breining writes about travel, science, and nature for The New York Times, Audubon, and other publications. His books include Super Volcano: The Ticking Time Bomb Beneath Yellowstone National Park, and Paddle North: Canoeing the Boundary Waters–Quetico Wilderness (due out Nov. 1).