The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is an archipelago of 22 islands off the Bayfield Peninsula in Wisconsin. David and I have wanted to check out these islands for quite some time. Seeing the Apostle Islands was another “bucket list” item. Since we were only 1.5 hours from Bayfield, we made a day trip there.
The Jesuit missionaries who were the first to map this area named them the Apostle Islands. Father Pierre Francois Carlevoix was the first to refer to the largest islands as the Apostle Islands even though he had never visited them. The earliest time that that name appeared on a map was in 1744. The Jesuits, however, were not the first to visit these islands. The Obijwe, a Native American tribe who lived in the Great Lakes region for thousands of years, had their own names of each island. The Voyageurs, the French fur traders who arrived in the mid-1600s, had different names for them. Nevertheless, Carlevoix’s designation took hold despite the fact that there are 22 islands, and not 12 islands, in this area of Lake Superior.
David booked us on a 3.5 hour boat tour with Apostle Island Cruises, a National Park Service (NPS) concessionaire. The 55-mile scenic tour afforded us a closer look at this chain of islands. Another great feature was that the captain provided commentary about what we were seeing while on the cruise.
David and I made it just in time for the 10:00 AM Grand Tour. We and 100 other folks loaded onto a catamaran-style boat, the Archipelago, and headed out onto the lake. The weather was nearly perfect for our excursion. The winds were calm so the water was like glass, it was sunny, and the temperatures were not too hot or too cold. On the open-air upper deck, it did get cold when we were underway because the lake water has not warmed up yet. We came prepared with our warm jackets, hats, and layers so we kept warm. Below deck it is enclosed and was much warmer.
The Apostle Islands have diverse ecology and wildlife. There were lots of birds and we saw some that were nesting in the cliffs. Bears are also found on all of the islands. According to the NPS, “one of the greatest concentration of black bears in North America is found on Stockton Island.” They are commonly seen on Sand and Oak islands but can also be spotted elsewhere.
These small pieces of land are covered with forests of birch, pine, and hemlock. Logging began in 1850 as more goods were shipped back east. Logging was popular here as it was easy to float the trees to saw mills. Most of the hemlock and white pine were stripped from the islands. Today you are not allowed to remove trees from these islands.
Another resource found here was sandstone. Quarrying was prevalent after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Many people chose to rebuild their homes out of stone. Sandstone was extracted from several of the islands. Our tour boat stopped and we saw some of the large stones that had been left along the shoreline.
Fishing has always been essential for human survival on the lake. The Native American tribes tried to protect the fragile ecology. In the 1830s, commercial fishing began and large fish camps were established on various islands. We saw a fish camp on our tour. Commercial fishing declined 60 years later after the fish population had been reduced due to over fishing. Today the NPS is working to grow the fish population and manage this precious resource.
The forces of nature – its wind, waves, and ice – have worked together to shape this archipelago and the sandstone cliffs surrounding the islands and the lake. Near Bayfield, the steep sandstone cliffs are 50 ft. tall and the waves and ice have battered and carved them out. The islands have also endured years of molding. We witnessed the result of this process as we wove our way through the waterways.
We saw sea stacks that are formed when the rock is eroded away leaving a lone rock formation.
Sea caves, arches, and windows are spectacular, particularly along Devil’s Island. These geological features result from freezing and thawing of rock which weakens the structure. Ultimately, the rock gives way leaving openings and carved out areas in the sandstone. Our guide told us that some of the caves are 50 ft. deep. Many people love to kayak into the caves and in and around the arches.
Another interesting fact that our guide shared was that the water between the islands freezes solid in winter. Often people will drive their trucks out onto the ice. He went on to recount the following story: A man wanted to move a house over to one of the islands but he did not want to pay to have it moved. He had the bright idea to tow it across the frozen ice. His only mistake was that the waited until March to attempt it. He had almost made it to the island, when the ice began to crack and his entire house plunged into the frigid waters. His house and his truck were total losses. To add insult to injury, he had to pay to have them removed from the waterway. Maybe he should have paid someone to move it for him.
There are seven lighthouses on the Apostle Islands. While we glimpsed a number of them, we did get an upclose view of two of them: the Raspberry Island Lighthouse and the Devil’s Island Lighthouse.
The Raspberry Island Lighthouse was lit in 1862 and it is the only wood framed lighthouse left on Lake Superior. In 1947, an automated light replaced the fifth order Fresnel lens. The NPS took possession of it and during tourist season a National Park ranger is there to greet visitors. When David and I stopped by the NPS Visitor Center in Bayfield, we talked to the ranger who was on duty and found out that he lives on Raspberry Island during the summer months. He just happened to be in the Bayfield office that day. We had a great time chatting with him.
The Devil’s Island Light Station is owned by the NPS. Built in 1901, the original building had a third order Fresnel lens and a foghorn. The current one has a radio beacon to alert navigators.
During the Apostle Islands Lighthouse celebration, the ferry service will take you to all the lighthouses.
We had a great boat tour through the Apostle Islands. Once we returned to Bayfield, we walked around this cute town. Even though it is the smallest city in Wisconsin, it has restaurants, shops, and hotels that cater to tourists. It also has a small park overlooking the marina and harbor.
We are glad that we took the time to go to Bayfield and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. While we don’t know how the Jesuits were counting, we can see why they would see something spiritual in these islands on Lake Superior.
If you go visit this area, the largest island, Madeline Island, is not part of the National Lakeshore. There is an auto/passenger ferry that travels to it frequently and leaves from Bayfield. We had locals recommend taking the trip to visit the island.
Also, the sea caves are best viewed by kayak. From the Meyers Beach Kayak Launch, you can paddle to some of the caves. There is also a trailhead there so you can walk to see the caves from above.
To find out more, the Visitor Center is in an amazing vintage building that worth the stop.