Sunday, August 14, 2011

Apostles again

I returned to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin for my third kayak-camping expedition here since 2007, this time with nine friends for a four-day outing.  After a false start on the previous afternoon (canceled only one minute after launch due to a sudden, but ultimately inconsequential thunderstorm alert from my NOAA weather radio), we lined up our kayaks in Little Sand Bay on a beautiful morning filled with bright sunshine, cool air (a relief from the >100 degree heat index in Iowa), and happy banter, then paddled to the Swallow Point sea caves on Sand Island (video with soundtrack).


Panorama of Swallow Point sea caves (click to enlarge)

The sea caves were as beautiful and intriguing as ever.  Many of the rooms easily accommodate a kayak, allowing us to enter into a world of surreal sensation: bobbing on a bouncy surface of wavy water, paddling through portals among interconnected, shadowed chambers filled with red and tan sandstone walls and the deep-chested thumps of collision between ancient bedrock and eternal waves.

Paddling away from the sea caves, we crossed brilliant open straits to York Island, Raspberry Island, and Oak Island.  Clear water, sandy lake bottoms, gentle breezes, and unfettered sunshine were among the delightful features we enjoyed this day, augmented by glimpses of wildlife, both large and small: a family of mergansers churning water to escape our unthreatening passage, an out-of-place tree frog on a sea cave pillar, and a daggermoth caterpillar (Acronicta dactylina) devouring an alder leaf next to our lakeside camp.

Plant life crowded the islands with green foliage, bursting with the flowers and fruits of midsummer, including scarlet drupelets of thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) and green, gracefully drooping inflorescences of fringed sedge (Carex crinita) and Wiegand's ryegrass (Elymus wiegandii).

On our Oak Island campsite, I also discovered another fascinating intersection between flora and fauna in the form of the artful mines created by larvae of the Common Aspen Leaf Miner, each created as tunnels in the mesophyll of aspen leaves by a tiny moth larva (Phyllocnistis populiella).

Among my favorite habitats on the islands are sand dune prairies.  The sand dune prairies are dry, open grasslands developed on low, windblown hills behind sandy beaches.  Marram-grass (Ammophila breviligulata) is the dominant ground cover, interspersed with a variety of sand-loving wildflowers.  Among the most abundant and interesting members of sand dune vegetation are reindeer lichens (Cladonia [Cladina] spp.), forming intricately branched, gray-green mounds on sandy spaces between grasses.  I stepped carefully between the fragile clumps of lichen as I picked my way across the prairie on Rocky Island.

Marram-grass forms a distinct band on vegetated dunes;
reindeer lichen is a common companion in this community.

Another favorite habitat is the bog, often developing in wet swales behind beach ridges.  (Technically speaking, these are actually nutrient-poor fens because they receive groundwater seepage.)  Sphagnum moss and ericareous shrubs such as leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata) dominate these plant communities, but one of the most distinctive species is pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea), forming clumps of red-tinged, insect-capturing green tubes.  As i walked through the Rocky Island bog, I saw that recent rains had replenished the water in the pitchers and that numerous gnat-sized insects had become entrapped.

Bog in wet, peat-filled swale behind beach ridge;
pitcher plants were abundant in this community

Kayaking to these special places introduces a unique element of adventure to the visit.  Lacking gills, fins, or wings, terrestrially adapted humans generally paddle the straits between these islands when the lake is benign and the chance of capsizing is low.  We certainly enjoyed the periods of calm water during our trip; indeed, it is the only time when exposed crossings to distant destinations like Devil's Island are seriously considered!

Calm water crossing

On this trip, our island-hopping crossings took us as far east as South Twin Island, some 14 miles from our point of origin at Little Sand Bay.  We had taken two days to meander our way here but had planned to return the whole distance on our final day.  As luck would have it, strong west winds of 20 MPH blew that day, directly obstructing our intended route.  We cautiously ventured from the windless enclave of our protected bay into increasingly intense wind and waves.  We proceeded into the teeth of the wind and bucked the choppy, oncoming waves (up to three feet in height, intimidating when viewed from the perspective of kayakers whose eyes are two feet above the water!).  These are conditions that require both hands on the paddle and both eyes fixed on the sea; finding it impossible to handle my camera, I consequently I have no photos to post of our return passage.  Fortunately, one advantage of padding directly into wind and waves is that we were not likely to broach and capsize... unless inattention or lack of skill let us lose control of our bouncing boats. 

Rough water

Our bodies and minds focused on the tasks of staying upright and moving forward, we slowly but steadily progressed through the churning lake.  Pushing through the waves, we made landfall on the beaches of intervening islands, first at Bear (4 miles), then at Raspberry (3 miles) where I and two fellow paddlers split off from the others to exit the lake a day early.  Facing a 7-mile direct crossing to Little Sand Bay, we instead aimed for a closer point along a cliffy mainland shore by Point Detour where we hoped the bluffs would block the wind.  The wind and waves were stronger than ever as we set off, so we stayed in tight formation in case one of us needed assistance.  Reaching the bluffs, we found a small beach and rested until we felt ready to tackle the final reach.  

The bluffs above the beach had indeed blocked the wind, which reasserted itself as we paddled away from shelter. Despite the muscle-wracking slog that remained, I actually enjoyed this final push, watching the rocky, wave-washed shoreline creep slowly past my laboring kayak, each paddle stroke bringing us perceptibly closer to a destination that we knew was now close.  Suddenly the coastline curved away and we could see the beach at Little Sand Bay.  Now completely unblocked by the bluffs, the wind tried one last time to push us back and tip us over.  Experienced by a day of adversity, we adjusted to this final challenge and angled across the waves toward the waiting shore.  We topped crest after crest and then glided into quiet water behind the breakwater where carefree swimmers were playing on the beach.  I was glad our ordeal with the wind was over, but I am also glad to have experienced it.  Our struggle with the wind has now become another memory of our trip, taking its place next to sea caves, dunes, bogs, and sunsets.