When you think sea kayaking, you think about, well, the sea: fabled destinations like Baja or Alaska. But for avid midwestern paddlers like Keith Wikle, a 37-year-old internet-advertising exec, Lake Superior trumps them all. More an inland sea than a lake, Superior offers wind and waves to match any ocean, and more than a thousand miles of wild shoreline. The jewels of the U.S. side of the lake, he thinks, are the Apostle Islands, in northern Wisconsin. The windswept archipelago features beautiful seascapes (with five working lighthouses) and a rugged coastline of sandstone cliffs, caves, and sandy beaches. "There are huge sea caves that you can paddle into, and you can angle through rocks and arches and sea stacks," he says.
Scattered just off the Wisconsin shore, the Apostles have been a paddling destination since the 1700s, when French explorers arrived there in enormous 36-foot canoes, having journeyed all the way from Montreal. As elsewhere in the Midwest, the only trace they left behind was a place name, and even that is a misnomer: Instead of the 12 islands the French counted (hence Apostles), there are 22, and all but one of them now makes up the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
A few years ago, Wikle and his paddling buddy, Jim Svensson, decided to take two friends, a husband and wife, on an exploration of the entire archipelago. The pair weren't avid paddlers like Wikle and Svensson, who've spent hours together on the water. Wikle is married, with a 14-year-old and an 11-year-old, but he and Svensson (also married with kids) make a point of taking one trip a year.
They'd visited the Apostles several times for shorter trips, but this time their plan was ambitious: They'd explore the outer ring of the group, all the way to Outer Island, then return via the more sheltered inner islands, over the course of six days.
"The cool thing about the trip is that it's doable in smaller segments for newer paddlers," he says. "But it also provides a big challenge for serious kayakers looking to test their skills, fitness, and navigation." They put in at Little Sand Bay and paddled across the three-mile strait to Sand Island, to camp for the night.
Sand Island is the most-visited Apostle – they shared the campground with a noisy summer-camp group that night – but after that, things got more remote, and more tricky. Making their way out along the chain, they hopscotched from island to island, past York and Raspberry to Bear Island, where they camped the second night (getting lost in the dark in the process). The next day, they ventured out to Devil's Island, to check out the enormous sea caves; one, called the Hangar, is "big enough to park a Cessna in," Wikle says.
The weather was sunny and beautiful, but wind is always a factor on Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. On the long crossing to Outer Island, sure enough, the wind picked up, and halfway across, the less experienced kayakers began to fade. Svensson's GPS told them they were losing ground because of the wind, so they made a snap decision to put the weaker paddlers under tow. "If we allowed conditions to build, it could have been even harder to tow," Wikle says. On Superior, things can get bad in a hurry: Wind and waves (as high as 10 feet) can kick up quickly. Some of the Apostles, like Bear Island, have few good places to land, Wikle points out, so it's important to be aware of your bailout options. Also, lake waters stay cold all summer, and a wetsuit is essential.
The crossing got worse before it got better, as they found themselves pushed up against the rocky shore of Outer Island, but they managed to land safely and set up camp – which is where the effort and risk began to seem worth it. Kayaking entails none of the forced deprivation of, say, a backpack trip. A single kayak holds well over 100 pounds of gear, so there was no need to skimp on food (or wine). His group brought fresh vegetables and soft cheese, which stayed fresh thanks to the 50-degree waters. Every night they'd pull their kayaks out and cook an elaborate meal right on the beach as they watched the sun go down. "Being able to camp and cook good food really makes the trip nice," he says. "That's a big advantage to sea kayaking."
More information: Register with Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and get permits. Living Adventure in Bayfield, run by Gail Green and Grant Herman, rents boats and offers safety instruction as well as guided trips. [$749]