Kayaking the Apostle Islands Sea Caves in Lake Superior

Emerging from one of the smaller Apostle Islands sea caves.

Even though we don’t have to wear wetsuits today, just an apron-type splash guard and life vest, the minute I don both, I begin to sweat. How in the world will I last all day in this garb – while working out pretty hard, no less? Both items are a necessity, however, whenever you’re about to spend the day on Lake Superior. The largest and deepest of the Great Lakes, it’s known for being foggy and frigid. Even in June, its temperature is typically only around 40. Superior is also a bit feared for its rough seas and sudden squalls. Winds can roar up to 30 or 40 knots, causing the roiling sea to hurl 12-foot waves at any soul unfortunate enough to be in her path.

Normally, summertime temps in Red Cliff, Wisconsin., where I’m gearing up, don’t climb much past the upper 70s. Couple such barely-warm air with a chilly, blustery sea, and even dressed warmly, you feel pretty comfortable paddling around the lake. Just my luck that my August trip is coinciding with a bizarre heat wave of +90-degree temperatures and high humidity, the latter of which is virtually unknown in this clime. Yet as the sweat rolls down my face, a thrill rushes through me as I realize I’m about to begin a long-awaited adventure: kayaking through Lake Superior’s famed sea caves.

In Your Bucket Because …

  • The Apostle Islands is one of only four National Lakeshores
  • Its sea caves are considered the most spectacular on the Great Lakes
  • Good for water buffs, families with kids 12 and older and +100 lbs.

A Day on the Lake

Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is considered a world-class spot for sea kayaking, mainly due to its geology. Ancient red sandstone cliffs dramatically rise up from the lakeshore, despite repeated assaults by waves and the seasons’ continual freezing and thawing spells. These fierce attacks haven’t toppled the cliffs, but rather eroded their soft sandstone, resulting in fanciful shapes and a string of sea caves considered the most spectacular in all the Great Lakes.

Visitors love to paddle through these caves and glide into the cliffs’ caverns, under its arches and into its vaulted chambers. You can go on your own, but if you’re not an experienced sea kayaker, it’s best to sign on with a local tour operator who not only knows the sea caves well, but also mighty Lake Superior.

A popular trip offered by tour operator Living Adventures is a full-day excursion to the caves. Your day starts with paddling instruction geared toward novices, plus info on the specifics of sea kayaking. Guests are typically put in tandem kayaks, which are more stable than singles, then head out to paddle two or three miles along the caves and cliffs to Driftwood Beach.

Once at the beach, everyone climbs out to stretch their legs and enjoy a gourmet lunch provided by the operators. Across the water lie two of the Apostles: Sand and Eagle Islands, both of which are rookeries for cormorant and herring gulls, so you may wish to bring along binoculars. Eventually, it’s time to head back.

Gliding through the Apostle Islands sea caves.

Despite the heat, I hardly notice my protective garb once we’re out on the lake. First, I’m too busy getting the hang of the kayak, and then I’m too caught up in the marvel of exploring the caves on such an intimate level. After lunch, paddling back like old pros, my husband and I expertly tuck our kayak through the narrowest of caves, feeling like we’re one with our surroundings. Then, as the sun begins sliding toward the horizon, I grab my camera and begin snapping just as the sun’s rays hit the cliffs, lighting them on fire.

Practicalities

  • July and August are the best months for kayaking, since the water is the warmest.
  • Living Adventures offers a wide variety of kayak trips, from a seven-day lighthouse tour to a half-day shipwreck tour to the popular sea caves trip. They also rent sea kayaks. www.livingadventures.com
  • You can launch your own kayak free at two spots within the national lakeshore’s mainland unit. Use the Meyers Beach launch if you want to tour the mainland sea caves, which is where most people go.
  • After a hard day of paddling, rest your head at the Old Rittenhouse Inn in nearby Bayfield, considered Wisconsin’s first B&B. Prime digs, great food. www.rittenhouseinn.com

 

About

Melanie is always looking for her next adventure, whether it's hiking 1,000 kilometers on a Spanish pilgrimage trail or warming her hands over a space heater with Muslim guards at the Dome of the Rock. Melanie has written for publications such as Cooking Light, National Geographic Traveler, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Robb Report and Runner's World, and recently created two travel apps. In 2011, she won a gold Lowell Thomas Award for best environmental tourism article.

Copyright 2012, Melanie Radzicki McManus. All rights reserved.

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