I recently meandered to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Lake Superior. The Apostles are a group of islands scattered off the end of the Bayfield Peninsula in Wisconsin. Unlike the name would suggest, there are more than twelve.
No roads or stores exist on the islands. They offer a primitive camping experience – not quite as primitive as the boundary waters, but close to it. Madeline Island, where I also travelled recently, is part of the formation, but it’s not part of the lakeshore because it’s so developed.
My friend and I had reservations to camp for four nights on Stockton Island, the largest in the park. The weather forecast couldn’t get much better – 75 degrees and sunny every day, so I Ieft my hat, gloves, and warm jacket at home even though I knew better.
Our first day was gorgeous – sunny and warm. Setting up a tent in such calm conditions was a novelty. I should back up and mention that although people can reserve a campsite on Stockton, they can’t reserve a specific site. Instead, after the boat drops campers off, a free-for-all sprint is required to beat others and snag your desired site.
Such athletic prowess is not required every day – just the more popular ones for travel, such as Friday. Nineteen sites are scattered along about a mile of shoreline, so the sprint (okay, perhaps it was more like a jog) can get a bit long. I don’t recommend carrying anything heavy during this process!
Another friend told me which sites had the best beaches, and of course, these were the ones farthest from the boat dock. While my camping friend stayed on the dock with our gear, I successfully staved off a woman about my age who was carrying a backpack to bag a site that offered a view and private beach. It’s dog-eat-dog in the wilderness, you know.
The next day was a little windy, but still sunny. We chose to hike to an abandoned brownstone quarry on the island. Once we returned to our campsite, the wind picked up to gale intensity and stayed that way until our last evening. In the ensuing days, to escape the wind we crossed the island to Julian Bay and Anderson Point. Julian Bay boasts a protected, beautiful beach, and Anderson Point features a mossy primeval forest.
Thankfully, the temperatures stayed in the 60s, so although the wind was a nuisance, it was not bone-chilling. But having a hat and warm jacket along would have made for more comfortable camping. Lesson learned? Don’t believe the weather report. As the park people like to say, “The Lake is the Boss.” It (and its weather) will do what it wants. Bring warm clothes, even in August.
Another lesson we learned was to guard your gear on the dock. We had piled ours there in anticipation of the cruise boat back to the mainland. Unbeknownst to us, several families had just arrived and were all camping together. They had a few kayaks left on the dock that they came back to move. But because their group had so many people, they weren’t sure what gear was whose, and they started to grab our packs to float them back to their campsite in their kayaks. Luckily, I happened to be watching. I ran to the end of the dock and let them know they were taking our stuff.
The same thing happened about an hour later when other members of the group made their way to the dock. This time, I was distracted. I was talking to my friend about how I had saved our stuff from being carted away. We walked back toward the dock and looked at the spot where our stuff should be. It wasn’t there!
As we approached, we ran into several people carrying our gear off the dock. Again, we explained that it was our stuff. They were appropriately sheepish and apologetic, and probably secretly thankful they didn’t have anything more to carry.
Despite the would-be gear thieves and gale-force winds, the island worked its magic. I was able to exchange my everyday worries for worries about basic survival, which was somehow refreshing. I read a book, hiked a lot, swam (well, almost) in chilly Lake Superior, breathed in the scent of pines and cedar, stretched out on the beach, attended evening ranger talks, and learned more about a new place and a new person.