Benjamin Alva Polley
The Lake Is Boss: Returning a Little Wiser from an Apostle Islands Paddle
Taking a break on York Island beside our kayaks of Okoume, an African hardwood.
“I hope you guys don’t plan on going out today; we’re having dangerous winds causing 4- to 6-foot whitecaps,” the park employee warned. “You guys aren’t going out today, are you?”
We’d heard this disclaimer before. Here it’s tales of dangerous waves. In Glacier National Park, you watch a video to instill fear of grizzlies. We knew our limits and how to be careful.
“No, of course not! We plan on going out tomorrow … if weather permits,” I replied, not lying because that was our plan.
The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore lured us here. Many islands were reverting to the wild after human impact, but for us, the mystery came from that impact. We’d heard stories of logging, quarries, fishing camps and rumors of pirates’ booty. I gazed at the distant islands, anticipating adventure.
The next day was calmer, or so it seemed. Doug and I maneuvered into the cockpits of our kayaks, cinched the spray skirts to the cowling and attached a leash from our personal flotation devices to our paddles. The comforting wetsuit felt tight like a second skin. Leaving Sand Bay, we headed due north, Sand Island a few miles on our left and York Island about the same on our right.
Quickly I understood this was not like any other water we’d paddled. Miles from shore, if you capsize you can’t just swim to safety.
The sky was a torn, faded-blue denim with tattered, threaded contrails of white. The Lake shone a pristine peacock blue-green. The colors pushed off some of my unease, but I noted the white-capped combers crashing against York’s sandstone cliffs.
Following the orange buoys, we skirted the large protruding rocks, and navigating York’s shoals, we beached on the sandy northern shore.
The Apostles are a sanctuary for solitude. York’s three campsites are spread far enough to make us feel we had the island to ourselves. Near the camp, a tiny northern leopard frog led me to autumn-bruised raspberries.
The last mosquitoes hovered as we tuned in NOAA. The Lake was to be calmer yet. “Tomorrow,” smiled Doug, “let’s head to Devils.”
“Well, let’s not be too gung-ho,” I countered. “Why don’t we see what the weather brings.”
“You have to trust me,” snapped Doug. “I have a lot more experience.”
NOAA fell silent, as did I. The mosquitoes hummed happily.
Rugged terrain, fickle weather, bugs and distance keep many kayakers from the outer islands. Devils Island is the farthest north, 18 miles from Bayfield and a goal for skilled paddlers. It has the best sea caves, chambers and arches. An adventurous kayaker can squeeze into tight cracks, thread among arches. Some caves go back hundreds of feet. But the Lake had to be glassy calm; even 1- to 2-foot swells might bash your head on the inner caves. Still, Devils called to us.
That night on York, we drank wine on the beach and watched the zodiac signs lazily circle Polaris, the North Star. The rotating beacon in Devils Island lighthouse beckoned.
Greeting dawn, we ate breakfast, drank coffee and listened to the weather. The forecast had changed: 3- to 5-foot swells by midday or possibly 4- to 6-foot swells and a small craft advisory.
The bay looked calm. Paddling out, it was calm, at first. Soon waves broke and crested over our kayaks.
Sea spray thrashed and filtered through the skirt, slowly filling the cockpit. Irregular wind chopped white foam. We had to commit to the open crossing or head back. My brother’s warning email rang in my head: “Be careful. Superior is unforgiving. The Lake is the boss!”
We paddled on, zigzagging across a living sea, bobbing and getting nowhere. Waves coming from one direction soon came from all directions. “Can we even do this?” we both thought. “Should we do this?” was the better question.
Winds swept our kayaks farther out. Strong gusts funneled between the islands. Waves developed an ugly curl.
My whole body tensed, effort eddying in my shoulders. My hands went numb from my stranglehold on the paddle that I could no longer feel.
Benjamin Alva Polley
The Lake Is Boss: Returning a Little Wiser from an Apostle Islands Paddle
Seeking refuge on an unknown shore, we tried to get our bearings to head to Rocky Island.
“Stay together! Don’t get too far away,” I shouted. Tossed by waves, the kayaks smacked the water. Oddly, loons and cormorants bobbed calmly before us; just another day to them.
I tried not to overreact to rollers swelling up, then plunging me into the trough. The Lake was teaching me a rhythm – dig in front of rollers and on the crest. I almost capsized when I dug the paddle in front of a breaking wave. The kayak cradled my hips, countering swells.
Wind arrested our progress. Doug was as focused as I; neither could look to check the other’s safety. Our shouts couldn’t compete with the Lake’s roar.
Paddling close had perks if we needed a throw rope or help stabilizing the kayak. But being close had its flipside. The Lake tossed our kayaks dangerously near each other.
Doug disappeared behind the rise of a swell. Wind propelled our kayaks one direction while waves forced us in another. We struggled, paddling aggressively as if our lives depended on it. And I believe they did.
Suddenly my bow thrust out of the surging waves as the wind shot my kayak straight at Doug’s head. I was too paralyzed by fear to yell. Doug reached a hand up, deflecting my kayak before he took a blow. What had we gotten ourselves into?
Finally, land in sight, we headed to the island’s horseshoe-shaped bay. Four bald eagles perched in a giant old-growth white pine flew off at our approach. An immature eagle glared from an old birch snag. We surfed onto a bit of sandy shore. Releasing the spray skirt, I jumped out and stumbled in the water. My legs were asleep.
Doug grabbed the map. Our internal compasses were disoriented. This was not Raspberry Island, due east of York. Could it be Oak or perhaps Otter, known for eagle nests?
We waded in water, tripping on slimy maroon sandstone boulders. We headed west, looking for clues, then switched to east. Nothing.
We wanted to spend the night on Rocky Island. We agreed to beeline across open water to the island east of us. “If it has a dock on its southeast side, then it’s Otter Island, and we’ll know where we are,” Doug reasoned.
It was up to us. The Park Service wouldn’t look for us until someone noticed our car days from now. I’ve spent more than a decade on trail crews out West in parks and wilderness, but this sheer remoteness of open water – and no other kayakers – was discouraging. Where were we?
We didn’t want to take unneeded risks, but we didn’t want to be too timid. Back in our kayaks, we were thrown like rag dolls, but the intensity abated. Just 5 miles more of open water to the next island. I kept telling myself that the kayak is built to float, not sink. Nothing was out to get me, except my growing fatigue.
Hours later, we made it to a tiny peninsula – definitely Bear Island! “We made it. Good job!” Doug yelled. We exchanged a weak high-five.
“Yeah, good job,” I replied. The day’s wear showed on Doug’s face.
After a rest, we skirted Bear’s east shore. The leeward side shielded us. This easy paddling boosted our confidence before the final stretch to Rocky Island.
After a 15-mile day, we arrived at Rocky’s east dock. There were no other kayakers and only a few large boats. A flock of raucous gulls pinwheeled above and behind one fishing boat, diving for unwanted fish parts that fishermen tossed into the air and sea.
After sunset, the weather deteriorated. Clouds obscured the night sky. Waves grew. Wind rustled the leaves of maple, aspen and birch. Giant white pines and firs raked the air with needle-clad branches.
The rise of rollers continued in our heads, throwing my equilibrium. Walking, and sleeping, I felt myself going up and down, up and down.
“I’ve been on bigger waves before,” Doug said, “but never so consistent and for so long. That was the toughest day I’ve ever had.’’
All night, the waves roared and the wind howled.
Next morning we listened again to the forecast. It sounded good: Waves 2 feet or less. Within three days, though, was a chance of thunderstorms and big waves. We didn’t want to get stranded. After breaking camp, we headed away from Devils Island, back to Sand Bay.
We circled to where we began, but we were not the same people who started. Our confidence had expanded, but we also felt grateful to Kitchi Gami for letting us return with our stories.
On the mainland, kayaks atop the Honda, I looked out at the islands and knew why the National Geographic Society lists this as one of the most appealing national parks. Apostle Islands isn’t overused or busy like many well-loved parks. Ours is just one story floating on the breeze above the crashing Lake Superior waves here.
The Lake decides what story you get, because it is, always, the boss.
Benjamin Alva Polley of Missoula, Montana, prefers to go where cell-phone service can’t (like on some of the world’s highest peaks). He has helped on animal studies (even pika) and volunteers each fall at a cabin without water or electricity in Glacier National Park to spot poachers and smugglers. His work has been in Black Heart Magazine, Written River: A Journal of Eco-Poetics, and Montana Headwall and Whitefish Review, on which he recently joined the editorial board.