ed. note: This blog post was authored by Leg Five crewwoman Emily Hoopes.
The days run together here in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore with the sort of pleasant confusion I imagine the lazy sheet feels when the Windleblo runs wing-on-wing. Perhaps it was that same pleasant confusion that led to the name in the first place. Long ago, they thought there were twelve islands, twelve being a number that would inspire any proper Midwestern Lutheran into the obvious Biblical reference. However, as technology and time tend to unveil, information came to light that there are in fact twenty-two Apostle Islands. Not such an inspiring number, I’m afraid.
Our time amongst the islands was spent well. We hiked successfully, fished unsuccessfully, ate well, and talked about past, present, and future. We checked the weather incessantly, as conditions are apt to turn for the worse on the exposed shores of this giant lake. Lake Superior is the third-largest lake by surface area in the world, and its volume could swallow the rest of the Great Lakes combined. It is huge. With this being my first freshwater experience aboard the Windleblo, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I can tell you I didn’t expect an ocean, but that’s what I feel I got.
Our first anchorage among the islands was at Oak Island. We caught the ear of the volunteer ranger at the dock while we were doing some reconnaissance for the next day’s hike. We were pleasantly confused at her interpretation of the following day’s weather prediction. She flat-out told us we should not hike the full loop into the forest because it would be hot, muggy, buggy, and all-together unpleasant. She said, “I see no good reason to do that.” Well, in classic Hoopes fashion, we completely disregarded her opinion and were the better for it. We hiked all over Oak Island the following day in perfect, breezy, 65 degree weather, stopping for photos of wet moss and epic mushrooms blooming on the sides of trees. We lunched at the overlook and took in the foggy views of what one could imagine to be a horizon peppered with forest-covered islands.
On Stockton Island we were lucky enough to catch the ranger program on “Stockton Carnivores.” The Rangerette brought out boxes of pelts and skulls and we were treated to an hour of critical thinking and identification of mandibles and sagittal crests. We learned about the National Park Service’s confusion when, in 2016, nearly 100 years after the first seemingly unsuccessful reintroduction attempt and 60 years after the second, the American Marten, thought to be lost to the region forever, was finally found running amok under the tree-fall on the Apostle Islands. The Rangerette posed three options on how this could have happened—the American Marten hunkered down in the untouched parts of the forest throughout the logging age, the Marten quietly and discretely proliferated during one of the reintroduction attempts, or the Marten walked across the ice one winter just in time for the Park Service to find a successful cohort living in the forest. I proposed a sleeper-cell of mammal reintroduction enthusiasts secreting Martens to the islands over the last 60 years. The Rangerette couldn’t rule it out.
We took a brisk loop walk around the Tombolo Trail from Stockton Island to Presque Isle. Yes, we walked from island to isle. Stockton Island is a victim of its own brand of confusion. “Presque Isle” is French for “almost an island.” The Isle was a stand-alone landmass until about 2,500 years ago, when lake-levels dropped and the tombolo formed. “Tombolo” is a word borrowed from the Italian to describe a build-up of sediment connecting two islands. Between Stockton Island and Presque Isle the tombolo runs, part beach, part forest and part glorious marshy-meadow with a trail connecting the three, just close enough for dappled sunlight and picturesque views while still running on solid ground.
On the beach, we followed bear tracks in the sand for about 500 yards. The bear was certainly the last creature on the beach before us and I was glad to not have to put my critical thinking about mandibles to the test. We took a second for one last look out over the tombolo before diving back into the forest. The scene was neither French nor Italian, rather, wholly and uniquely, northern Wisconsonian.
On Sand Island we were treated to the two most interesting features we saw on the islands. The morning after we lazily arrived after a nice long downwind sail, we took the dinghy over to explore the sea caves. These caves are what gives the Apostle Islands the befuddling, head-cocking nickname of “The Caribbean of the North.” (The moniker is not due to, I assure you, the temperature of the waters or the party atmosphere.) The sea caves are excavated by the elements on some of the islands’ more exposed shores. They were red sandstone, with matted root and soil structures dripping above. Trees were still growing straight out from the cliffs after the ground under them had given way, not quite yet realizing they were doomed. We slowly explored cavernous excavations with the waves gently whomping the underside of these delicate cutouts. It was phenomenal.
We returned to the boat for just enough time to finally win a game of solitaire and munch down some leftovers. Then we were off again, this time to explore the Sand Island Lighthouse. Built in 1881, it was designed in the Norman Gothic style and constructed of sandstone quarried from the island. It is identical to several other lighthouses on the Great Lakes, including the Passage Island Light at Isle Royale. An NPS volunteer greeted us as we arrived and offered a guided tour. We gladly accepted. She told the story of the wife of the second lighthouse keeper to live on the island in the early 20th century. The keeper married her when she was 16 and immediately brought her from her home in New England to live on the island for eight seasons. No one is quite sure why, but at that point she decided she had had enough. She left the keeper and returned to Boston, never to be seen in these parts again.
We spent quite a bit of time listening to the weather forecast on the VHF radio. The robotic voice would give us the wind speed, rain predictions, and other important weather facts for “the marine interests of Lake Superior.” One aspect of the reports struck me the most—the weather prediction gave us the “sea temperature” and the “sea state.” This is what brought me to understand the final and grandest confusion one feels while sailing the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
Peering out at water that extends over the horizon, Rene Magritte came to mind. Magritte’s classic work, The Treachery of Images, is a painting that depicts a pipe, with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” inscribed underneath. It takes some mind-bending to understand that Magritte is right — it’s not a pipe. It’s a painting of the likeness of a pipe. The less sophisticated mind (which we all have) is bitter at Magritte for implicating that one’s senses of the world are wrong. He basically gets you on a technicality, but he’s not wrong. This is when it finally dawned on me.
Ceci n’est pas un ocean. This is Lake Superior.