Sunday, August 19, 2012

An Adaptive Adventure in the Apostles

Earlier this month, I returned to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore for my fourth kayaking trip in this beautiful freshwater archipelago. Although I have always tempered my enthusiasm for outdoor adventure with respect for the powerful natural forces of water, weather, and wildness, this time I was guiding an excursion organized by CanoeSport Outfitters of Iowa and felt the press even more keenly.  Knowing that my decisions over the next five days directly affected the experience of five other paddlers in our party*, I wanted to make responsible choices that fulfilled our wish for an adventurous trip while ensuring that everyone remained safe.  Adapting to changing conditions is an important part of responsible adventuring, one that we faced several times during our trip.

August 6 - We launched from Little Sand Bay into bright sunshine, brisk wind, and burly waves, remnants of yesterday's big blow.  Paddling diagonally across three miles of pushy wind and waves from the southwest for nearly an hour, we suddenly entered the windless, waveless environment of the lee shore of Sand Island.  Contrasting sharply with the bumpy bay we had traversed, amiably calm conditions here let us relax and explore a set of small sea caves before landing on a protected sand beach and setting up camp.  Reembarking in our kayaks, we paddled up East Bay to the big sea caves at Swallow Point and wove through their interconnected rooms, gliding on gentle, smooth-backed waves that variously gurgled, thudded, and burst with watery percussion as they encountered rocky recesses deep within the caves.


Eventually disengaging from Swallow Point, we paddled north along another protected shore to the northern tip of the island, marked with a scenic lighthouse standing on a low rocky peninsula. As we approached the point, we grew more exposed to wind and waves that had strengthened on the windward western side of the island while we had enjoyed quiet water on its lee eastern side.  Pushed by the strong southwest wind, waves wrapped around the peninsula and marched southeastward to confront us as we approached the point.  We slowed as our kayaks began pitching in increasingly steep rollers, stopped just shy of the most exposed tip of land, and peered across a bouncing boundary of agitated water into a zone of wild, white-capped waves.  Driven by an unrestrained wind, surf crashed onto the rocky shore, sending high sprays of white water into the roaring air.


My original plan, written as a trip prospectus emailed to group members several weeks earlier, had boldly stated "Day 1 - Start from Little Sand Bay, paddle to Sand Island, set up camp, then circumnavigate Sand Island."  Now faced with rough conditions, I made our first adaptation: "Let's skip the circumnavigation and just stay on this side of the island." We paddled back to camp and later hiked to the lighthouse, where we enjoyed watching the waves from a safe and scenic spot.

August 7 - After an overnight thunderstorm, morning bloomed with a gentle breeze and calm sea.  We broke camp and paddled east to York Island, rested on its southern sandspit, paddled farther east to Raspberry Island, and rested on its southern sandspit.  Here we crossed trails with Dave Olson and friends on their way home from Ironwood Island. As we lunched on the beach,  Dave (a.k.a. "Gitchie Gumee Guy", author of the Superior-centric The Lake is The Boss blog) shared stories of his many experiences on the big lake, demonstrated his Greenland rolling skills, and even gave Shireen an impromptu lesson for the "balance brace." 

Diane Michaud Lowry


Leaving Raspberry, we paddled still farther east to Oak Island, where we camped on its sandy north beach. The morning breeze diminished into afternoon langour; rolling waves subsided into a placid pastel plain. Evening illuminated lichen-speckled driftwood at the edge of our camp at the edge of a becalmed bay beneath a sunset-tinged sky.

Diane Michaud Lowry

It had been an idyllic day, one whose itinerary happily conformed exactly with my weeks-old prospectus. Tomorrow's plan was to circumnavigate Oak Island and camp here for a second night. That, however, was about to change...

August 8 - In the morning, I stepped onto the beach, scanned the sky, and listened to the weather radio.  Today's forecast was benign, but the prediction for tomorrow sounded dire: small craft advisory, 25-knot wind, and waves up to 7 feet!  Rotating in place, I scanned the sky again.  Clear sky still prevailed northward, but deep blue nimbostratus clouds already darkened the southern sky.  The weather was changing and we once again needed to adapt.  My original plan had called for us to stay on Oak Island tonight, but now it seemed foolhardy to remain.  An alternative plan immediately surfaced in my mind: we should use today's good weather to make tracks back to Little Sand Bay, ensuring that we will be in a safe place when the storm arrives. 

When I broke the news to the group, everyone agreed we should paddle to Little Sand Bay, so we broke camp and repacked our kayaks.  Before starting the long westward paddle, however, I wanted to show everyone a nearby sea cave, so led them east and south around the northeast corner of our island.  Finding the cave, we paddled into its big front entrance, explored its roomy interior, and discovered a tiny "secret exit" through a narrow tunnel with an inconspicuous outlet.


Over my years of traveling in wild places, I have come to consciously recognize the places that represent the apogee - the point of farthest excursion - in the orbits of my journeys.  As the most remote place I will encounter, the place where everything before or afterward is closer to home, a place at the frontier of my personal explorations, it is always a moment of reflection for me.  Now bobbing in the waves outside of the cave, I recognized this place as the the apogee of this revised trip.  I looked around, appreciating the red cliffs adorned with pine, hemlock, and lichen, the vast blue lake surrounding scattered green islands, and the cadre of colorful kayakers accompanying me.  A good place.

Finishing with the cave, we reversed course and started our 12-mile return to Little Sand Bay. To avoid a monotonous paddle across a very long stretch of open water (with its "treadmill effect" of continual paddling with no subjective perception of forward progress), I led us down the northwest side of Oak Island and crossed to Raspberry Point on the mainland shore; from there, we crossed Raspberry Bay to the southeast edge of the Point Detour peninsula and traced its arc northwest, west, and southwest toward Little Sand Bay.   The trip around Point Detour provided us with several miles of close contact with interesting cliffs and small sea caves with intimate views of dramatic rock outcrops both above water and below.

Diane Michaud Lowry
Diane Michaud Lowry

We arrived at Little Sand Bay in mid-afternoon under an overcast sky. The weather radio was steadfast in its prediction of strong wind and waves due to arrive after midnight.  I felt good about our decision to retreat, a feeling bolstered by discovering that the campground - a major staging area for kayak expeditions into the Apostles - was jammed with kayakers who had also decided to get off the lake ahead of the storm, including several other professionally guided tours.

Diane Michaud Lowry

August 9 - Waves pushed by strong winds showed up this morning. Geographically protected from the full force of the northeast wind, Little Sand Bay was receiving only 3-to-4 footers instead of the 5-to-7 footers predicted for more exposed aspects on the other side of Point Detour. We spent much of the morning sitting on the beach and dock watching the waves roll in.  At times, the wind shifted slightly south of its main northeast axis and the waves would vanish; at other times, the wind shifted slightly north, refilling the bay with big, tumbling waves. 

Diane Michaud Lowry
Sightseeing at a finer scale, we also spent time identifying lichens on big boulders filling the breakwater cribs of the dock, finding pixie-cups, powderhorns, firedots, sunbursts, and rock bushy lichens.

We spent much of the afternoon in the pleasantly storm-sheltered haven of Bayfield visiting restaurants, bookstores, gear shops, and ice cream parlors.  On our way back to camp, we drove down winding backroads on the Red Cliff Reservation to a dead end overlooking the northwest tip of Point Detour.  Braving renewed wind and rain, we descended a steep wooden staircase here to ledges of sandstone overlooking the lake. Whitecaps rioted in the strait between the mainland and York Island, vividly portraying the rough water we had avoided by paddling directly to Little Sand Bay yesterday, jettisoning our original plan to camp on York Island last night.


August 10 - Today was the last day of our trip.  All day yesterday and whenever we awoke last night, we had hoped that the windy weather would break this morning and allow us to visit the Melikwe Bay sea caves, the biggest, most spectacular sea caves in the Apostles. In anticipation of a "go" weather condition, we had already loaded our kayaks onto cartops for the short drive to the launch site at Meyers Beach and now gathered around the breakfast table to listen to the weather radio.  

Diane Michaud Lowry (both)

The weather radio delivered its news: a 20-knot wind from the northeast with the small craft advisory still in effect. Contrarily, in plain view of the campground, Little Sand Bay was calm, sunny, and inviting.  Although I knew intellectually that the National Weather Service, armed with satellites and scientists, should be trusted above an isolated personal observation from a protected locality, the visual appeal of benign local conditions acted as an emotional wrench twisting my judgment in the wrong direction. Intellect and emotion struggled within me for a moment, but I grimaced and delivered the verdict: "With a report like that, I cannot in good conscience take us out to the sea caves."  

-from poster in Park Service kiosk at Little Sand Bay

Everyone nodded in understanding despite disappointment at having to forego the sea caves.  Instead of convoying to Meyers Beach together, we said our goodbyes, split up, and headed for home.  

*Our group at Sand Island sea cave: Jim Grier, Don Wall,
John Pearson, Travis Smith, Diane Lowry, and Shireen Cave.
Photo by Diane Michaud Lowry and Jim Grier

A few days after my return home to Iowa, Jim emailed me about his last day in the Apostles (after we had split up), providing welcome closure to a tiny, persistent guilt whispering in my mind that I might have over-cautiously canceled our outing to the Melikwe Bay sea caves:

"On Friday [August 10], I took the ferry to Madeline Island and it was beautiful. I went to Bay Point and the waves out of the northeast were crashing at about 4-5 feet.  On the way over on the ferry I spoke to a lady who was on a kayak tour to Melikwe Bay sea caves on Thursday and the group had to return because of the rough water. Then I couldn't resist stopping at Meyers Beach on the way home at about 2pm in the afternoon and learned that a group in the morning tried to make the sea caves but had to return because of the wind and being so rough. So it was a very good decision not to attempt Meyers on Thursday or Friday."

It felt good to have made the right decision... and to have had an adaptive adventure in the Apostles!