BAYFIELD, Wis. – “Doesn’t sound like a vacation to me.”
That’s the response I get frequently when I describe my summer kayak trips to the Apostle Islands.
Pack everything you need for six days of camping into a sea kayak and paddle off to an island. Enjoy the scenery, and then pack up and shove off for another island.
It has been a nearly annual trip for 15 years for me and paddling buddies Frank Church of Appleton and John Behnke of Green Bay. Admittedly, the paddling distances have gotten shorter through the years, and the paddling speed slower.
Our trip to the Apostles in mid-June included slow and silent exploration of the sea caves of Sand Island, barely more than an hour’s paddle from the National Park Service launch point north of Bayfield at Little Sand Bay. It also holds a lighthouse that still aids navigation.
We crossed over to the caves from York, a small, pork chop-shaped island that is host to only three campsites generously spaced out on a sweeping sandy bay. We camped there two nights before paddling on for two more nights at the busier Oak Island.
Fueled by a late breakfast of instant oatmeal and tea, we set out under bright blue skies on a calm and friendly Lake Superior. Cave touring at Sand was a day trip. For this crossing, we were burdened by only the fixings for lunch. The rest of our five days’ worth of gear was weighing down York Island, not us.
Oak has a few sea caves as well, mostly of a size you can peer into. Sand offers caves large enough to envelop a kayak. Some have passages that allow you to paddle in here and emerge over there. The Apostles also offer caves farther out on Devils Island (also home to a lighthouse) and the Squaw Bay caves on the mainland, north of Little Sand Bay off of Myers Road.
The sights are captivating. Inside a cave you may find deep, sloping chambers or a shelf big and flat enough to crawl onto, if you were fool enough to stand up in your boat. The deepest crevices may hold some interesting flotsam washed in from the shipping channels. The first cave we entered still sheltered chunks of ice – on June 21.
Then there is that singular sound. It’s a comical “WHUMP-gurgle.” Waves wash into small, half-submerged indentations in the wall, displacing the air and then trickling back out.
All the while you are in awe of the raw power of Lake Superior, which has carved these caves out of the same brownstone that built enduring buildings in Chicago and other Midwestern cities.
This year we faced a lot of grey skies, headwind and 2-foot chop. We didn’t even get on the water until the second day because of gale-force wind warnings. Instead, we rode out a doozie of a thunderstorm that night in our tents at the campground at Little Sand Bay on the shore of Lake Superior. The tents were wet for pretty much the rest of the trip.
People tell me a vacation is supposed to involve hotels and fine restaurants and travel south, not north. That misses the point.
After you’ve driven for six hours, loaded the gear into the kayaks and paddled for a couple more hours, you set up camp. Then you sit down on the beach and have absolutely nothing to do.
You don’t need to be anywhere. You don’t need to call anyone. You don’t need to please anyone. You couldn’t check your email if you wanted to.
That’s a vacation.
To me, it’s freeing. Your house, your desk, your office may have accumulated an unwieldy amount of life’s stuff, but for these few days you are clutter-free.
Linking up with these two guys meant learning the fine art of minimalist cooking. If you can’t put it on a cracker, it’s probably not on the menu. Don’t bother cooking. Don’t create anything that needs to be cleaned up.
Their idea of breakfast is sardines on crackers. Their idea of lunch is sardines on crackers.
I exaggerate only a little. We do often heat water in the morning for coffee, tea and oatmeal. We bring along a couple of those over-priced freeze-dried meals. The new foil pouch packaging for tuna, salmon or chicken has been a real boon.
Beyond that, pretty much we eat stuff that you can pour hot water on, cut off a chunk of or slap on a cracker. I’ve threatened to go pure John Muir and take only tea and hardtack, but I always relent when I see the possibilities in the health food aisle.
Getting to the islands involves a good deal of exertion. When we get there, as George Costanza would say, it’s all about nothing.
That realization came to me last Friday morning on York Island. We had experienced several lines of storms overnight, complete with thunder and lightening and wind. We were snug in our tents, so it mattered not.
I woke up in time to catch the sunrise over the lake. Rhythmic snoring was still emanating from the other tent.
As I strolled along the water, I came upon a mesh bag that had washed up on the beach. A nylon line connected it to a stick jammed into the sand.
This was John’s refrigerator. He had tossed the bag, filled with 12 cans of Leinenkugels, out into the lake to cool the beer as only Lake Superior can.
The storms had tossed the bag so violently that 30 feet of line had been twisted into a knot smaller than a fist. I started to work on this 3D puzzle. The line must have been twisted more than 1,000 times. Slowly I pulled and unknotted, spinning the bag to untwist the line, the continued crash of the waves providing the soundtrack.
When I finally unwrapped the final twist, nearly an hour had passed. It didn’t matter. I had absolutely nothing better to do. That’s vacation.
I must report there was a tragic ending. The wave action had slammed the Leinies cans into each other and against the stones on the lake bottom enough to puncture the cans. We were left with 12 cans containing equal parts beer and Lake Superior water. Good for … nothing.