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Off Beat: Greener pastures close to home

Trip to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore a reminder of nature's gems in our backyard

posted July 10, 2016 12:00 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Eric Lindquist

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    Contributed photo | Enlarge
    - Kayakers explore the Lake Superior sea caves recently at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore north of Bayfield.
  • el_Island_2_071016-1
    Contributed photo | Enlarge
    - Kayakers explore the Lake Superior sea caves recently at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore north of Bayfield.
  • COL LOGO OffBeat_Lindquist 1col CL.jpg

On this 100th birthday of the National Park Service, I can’t resist reminiscing about unforgettable visits to such American treasures as Yellowstone, Acadia, Everglades, Mount Rainier and Hawaii Volcanoes national parks.

But sometimes we have to remind ourselves not to always long for greener pastures, or in this case more majestic national parks, than those close to home.

In that vein, my wife, daughter and son joined me last week in pursuing a guided kayaking trip of the sea caves that are part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

The adventure fulfilled a longtime goal of mine and was the perfect birthday/​Father’s Day gift from my family.

The 3.5-hour tour began about 15 miles north of Bayfield at Meyers Beach, where we met our friendly Trek & Trail guide, Scott, who doubles as a captain for Madeline Island Ferry Lines when he feels like piloting a larger vessel. He had two-person sea kayaks already deployed on the beach for the six people on the tour.

Natural beauty

After pulling on our wet suits and personal floatation devices and listening to a brief introduction about kayak operation and safety, we pushed our kayak clumsily into the icy water of Lake Superior and were off. 

Almost immediately, my wife and I settled into our unintentional but natural spot at the back of the pack. As my kids and the other couple in the group guided smoothly over the waves, their strokes in perfect harmony, the boat I was entrusted to steer zig-zagged through the water like a deranged water bug.

But eventually we reached our destination at the other end of the bay: the spectacular sea caves created by centuries of sediment deposit, wave action, freezing and thawing.

Accessible only by boat, the red sandstone cliffs have been sculpted into delicate arches, vaulted chambers and secret passages.

Though our strokes weren’t always pretty, the sea caves were and even we beginners were able to navigate our kayak through a number of the artistic openings beneath the cliffs. One passageway we slipped through was so narrow and low to the water that we had to duck and use our hands to push our way along.

All-season destination

It was a far cry from the last time my family visited this sacred place two winters ago. At that time, we dispensed with the kayaks and literally walked on water.

Yes, that means we trudged over the then-frozen lake to see the worldwide phenomenon known as the Apostle Islands ice caves. Instead of colorful layers of rock, we witnessed awe-inspiring ice formations, including pillars of ice where waterfalls had frozen in place and caves coated with thousands of needlelike icicles.

Regardless of the season, the natural beauty of the caves is stunning and well worth checking out.

While the winter visit involved a walk of a few miles over sometimes slippery ice, the three-mile summer trip required what for my wife and I was some fairly strenuous paddling.

The trip to the caves and the exploration portion of the journey weren’t too bad, but I will admit our boat did require several rest breaks and ample grumbling during the long slog back to the beach. (I figure that means we got the most tour for our money because our trek lasted significantly longer than that of the others in our group.) Still, it was a fantastic experience, and at least we never required one of the group rescue operations the guide discussed before we left.

The moral of the story: I’d better get in shape because I definitely want to keep exploring the wonders maintained by our National Park Service.

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