Even on a warm and calm day, the power and danger of Lake Superior is palpable. The largest fresh water lake on earth, its enormity can be appreciated from nearly any perspective. Whether flying above it, strolling along a sandy beach, perched high on a shoreline cliff, or crossing in a large ship or ferryboat, it is hard to think of it as just a lake. To the natural senses, everything about this seemingly endless body of water tells you it’s a sea or an ocean. No perspective I’ve had of Lake Superior has been more daunting than that from within a kayak, bobbing across its surface, completely engulfed in its massiveness. Such was the case, as I paddled along with my wife, two kids and two guides, far from shore in search of the famous Lake Superior sea caves.
The Great Sea
The native people of the upper Great Lakes region had an appropriately descriptive name for Lake Superior hundreds of years before any Europeans ever plied her waters. They called her, “Gitchigami,” which from their tongues loosely translates to “The Great Sea” or “Huge Water.” The first Europeans to explore the area called the lake, “lac Superieur” (French for “upper lake”) simply to identify it as the yet-to-be-explored body of water north and west of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. It was the famous 19th century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who popularized the lake and the native name for it (spelling it “Gitchy Gumme”) in his epic 35,000-word poem, The Song of Hiawatha published in 1855. In more modern times, the lake entered the lexicon of popular culture when folk singer Gordon Lightfoot popularized it in his 1976 hit, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
For native people, the lake sustained them with food and fresh water and by providing trade routes between various tribes and villagers living along its incredible 2,700-plus miles of shoreline. For them, it was a workplace, always demanding great respect and often exacting the ultimate toll on those who offered less. As one modern commercial fisherman said, “No matter how big you are or what kind of boat you’ve got … the lake is always the boss.” The reality of this has played out thousands of times. The Great Lakes contain over 6,000 known shipwrecks representing over 30,000 lives lost, with Lake Superior accounting for 550 of those sunken ships. Other than to blame the weather and storms, the lakes are well known for, the exact causes of most sinkings (including the loss of the 729-foot freighter Edmund Fitzgerald) remain mysteries to this day.
Today, the lake continues as a place of difficult and dangerous work for many individuals and industries, while also providing all manner of recreation and exploration for residents and tourists alike. Lake Superior covers approximately 31,700 square miles, making it the largest lake by area. Even if taking depth into account and, thus, measuring by water volume rather than surface area, Lake Superior would still be the third largest lake on earth containing 29,000 cubic miles of water. That’s enough to cover, at one-foot deep, the entire land mass of both North and South America. Countless islands, peninsulas and rocky outcroppings decorate her shoreline. None are boring or without fascinating history, but it is the areas that have been deemed worthy of governmental protections within the National Park System (NPS) that draw the most visitors and offer the easiest access. One such area is known as the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (AINL), located in northwestern Wisconsin on the southwest shores of Lake Superior.
Gateways to the Great Northwest
The grouping of the seven northwestern-most Wisconsin counties is referred to as that state’s “Great Northwest” region. Here, there are several airports that can act as gateways to the Apostle Islands. In fact, the western shores of Lake Superior, both in Wisconsin and Minnesota, have a nice variety of airports that can (and frequently do) support King Air operations. However, most lack one key ingredient to terrestrial tourism – rental cars. One exception is Duluth International (DLH), located at the extreme western tip of Lake Superior at the bottom of the “arrowhead” of Minnesota (the triangular northeastern tip of the state which separates Lake Superior’s northern shore from the Canadian border). Easily the busiest airport in the area, it also offers the greatest amenities for flight crew and passengers alike. Monaco Air is a top-notch FBO with clean, efficient, and modern facilities. Hangar space is available (important in the winter), as are ample parking aprons, pilot lounges and flight planning rooms. A variety of rental car companies offer their vehicles for pick up at either the FBO or the adjacent airline terminal.
The airport itself is impressive, as it is equipped to support Minnesota Air National Guard and Coast Guard units, regional airline operations, and to act as an alternate for major airline operations into Minneapolis/St. Paul (MSP). Its long runways are served by multiple approaches, from modern RNAV approaches with LPV minimums to Category I and II ILS’s, to old-school VOR approaches. Add in a typical number of corporate and charter operations and flight test and training operations associated with Cirrus Aircraft’s primary factory on the field and it can get busy at times. However, even at that, it’s still laid back enough to merit only a standard control tower and Class D airspace (albeit with a dedicated approach control and excellent radar services available). Beyond Duluth, the natural wonders of the area are all within reasonably short driving distances. While a drive into the Arrowhead and along the north shore is popular, what’s to be seen and done up there merits an article of its own. A number of routes could be used to reach the AINL area in northwestern Wisconsin, but the most common would be to simply take Highway 2 almost to Ashland, then head north on State Road 13.
There are two notable alternatives to DLH. The first is Superior, Wisconsin’s Richard I. Bong Airport (SUW), named for the Superior native who went on to become America’s Ace of Aces flying a P-38 Lightning fighter in World War II. SUW has standard services and RNAV (LP) approaches to each of the four runway ends. Rental cars there are through Enterprise. While this airport is adequate in every way, it’s only a few miles closer to AINL than DLH is. Thus, the more realistic alternative to DLH is Ashland’s JFK Memorial Airport (ASX), named for the 35th President of the United States, who visited the city twice. First, while campaigning for president in 1960, he gave a speech at and dined with students from Northland College. He returned to the city by helicopter Marine One in 1963 and delivered a speech to a huge crowd right on the airport. Today, ASX is a well-maintained, full-service airport that hosts King Air sized aircraft regularly. Its main runway (02/20) is 5,197 feet x 100 feet and is equipped with a Localizer approach into 02. Its second runway (13/31) is 3,498 feet 75 feet and is often the preferred runway when winter winds howl out of the northwest. All runways at ASX are equipped with RNAV (LPV) instrument approaches that can be flown to 250-300 feet AGL by properly equipped aircraft. The FBO is an inviting log cabin style building, constructed of local red pine that symbolizes the logging heritage of the Chequamegon Bay area; the Lake Superior bay upon which the city is situated. Tie downs are free for up to two weeks. While ASX is much closer to the Apostle Islands than DLH, the challenge of choosing Ashland to fly into would be arranging ground transportation thereafter. While a courtesy car is available for short visits, a rental car would have to be specially arranged for longer sojourns into the AINL and/or the variety of Wisconsin State Parks in the area.
Finally, Madeline Island has its own little airport known as Maj. Gilbert Field (4R5). It consists of a 3,000-foot 75-foot asphalt runway, but little else. Though tiny, this airport is perfect for a day trip, as much of Madeline Island can be easily explored on foot or by bicycle. Bikes, carts, and other sources of transportation can be rented in the adjacent town of La Pointe during summer tourist season. For detailed information on Madeline Island tourism visit www.madelineisland.com.
Messengers from the Deep
For multiple-day stays, lodging choices are plentiful and there are plenty that should meet your comfort level during these unprecedented times. From standard hotels and motels in the cities of Ashland, Washburn, or Bayfield to all manner of resorts, lodges, cabins, Airbnbs and a wide variety of camping choices scattered across the entire Bayfield Peninsula. Or one could choose from a similar variety of options in or near La Pointe, Wisconsin on Madeline Island. In addition to Maj. Gilbert Field, Madeline is accessible by car/passenger ferry departing Bayfield. In the coldest months of a typical winter, this ferry route is frozen solid and an ice road is maintained along the same route for those brave enough to drive it.
Once in the area, it’s the Apostle Islands and Lakeshores that call to be explored. The perfect starting point is at the Old Bayfield Courthouse. The stylish brownstone building houses the AINL Visitor Center. There are actually 22 islands in the archipelago, 21 of which are part of AINL. Only Madeline Island is not within AINL boundaries, though nearly a quarter of it is made up of the tranquil 2,500-acre Big Bay State Park. Most of the islands have campsites for those wishing to roam a desolate isle, followed by a night of near solitude. Sea kayaking is also a popular way for tourists to explore the closer-in islands, as rental equipment and guides are readily available from several launch locations. Via kayak, one can paddle to an island, beach the craft, hike the trails on a given island, then move on to the next. But the most popular way to experience the islands is through a variety of cruises offered by NPS-authorized concessioner companies. Specific cruises cater to those wishing to explore the island’s lighthouses (there are seven), to learn about shipwrecks and visit their locations, or to just meander between the islands while feasting on the scenery of their picturesque shorelines, sea caves and jagged cliff faces.
It’s important to remember that these islands are not stagnate environments for casual sightseeing. They are vibrant with wildlife (water, land and air) and densely forested. Even the area’s native black bears, who are excellent swimmers, are routinely spotted on the various islands. Although the native old growth forests of towering white pine, hemlock, yellow birth, and sugar maple were decimated by logging decades ago, the island forests have rebounded since logging was halted. The plant life is less diverse now, the trees much smaller than their ancestors, and the timberland mix far less mature than in centuries past. Nonetheless, the islands remain untamed, mostly uninhabited, and at times wholly inhospitable. Choosing the right time and weather to cruise upon Lake Superior and hike or camp on its islands should not be understated.
For those adventuresome enough to make it off the peninsula and onto one or more of the islands, some highlights to consider are:
- Stockton Island: Home of the only non-mainland AINL Visitor Center, a historic brownstone quarry and extensive hiking.
- Sand Island: One of the most popular islands for kayak trips, it supports both a ranger station and a lighthouse.
- Oak and Basswood Islands: Both fairly easily accessible from the peninsula, each with great hiking, overlooks and bird watching.
- Raspberry Island: While small, this island is popular for its lighthouse tour and its short south shore hike.
Any extra time you might have in the area can be easily filled with reasonably short drives to many of the Wisconsin State Parks in the area. These parks can also be substitutions if the weather is unsuitable for being on Lake Superior. High winds or waves, for example, can make kayaking quite dangerous and turn island cruises into uncomfortable, seasick-inducing roller coaster rides. But hiking/biking on mainland trails or water activities on calmer inland lakes, rivers or streams can often remain suitable on such days. The same can be said for the vast numbers of trails crisscrossing the Bayfield Peninsula, almost all within 30 minutes or less from most the popular AINL lodging options. Some parks and trails to consider adding to your to-do list (or alternate to-do list) include:
Any of the Bayfield County trails. There are literally dozens to choose from, ranging from many short/easy hikes of 2 miles or less, to several mid-length/moderate hikes of two to 6 miles, and even a couple long trails of 30 miles or more. Specifics on each trail option can be found at www.travelbayfieldcounty.com.
Copper Falls State Park: Located immediately south of Ashland, off Highway 13, near Mellen, Wisconsin. This park is considered one of the most stunning in the state (no small feat in a state teeming with scenic public lands). Ancient lava flows carved deep gorges and helped created gorgeous waterfalls within the park. The area’s abundant mineral deposits stain the rushing waters ever-changing shades of green, brown and copper. Charming log cabins are reminders of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal work programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which helped to protect such parks and make them more publicly accessible.
Amnicon Falls State Park: While much smaller than Copper Falls, this park also contains a picturesque copper hued waterfall, as well as hiking along the Amnicon River. This park is a great choice for those driving from/to Duluth or Superior, as it is near Highway 2 (the route between Duluth and AINL).
Waterfalls of all size and shape are abundant in the Great Northwest of Wisconsin. In the counties of Douglas, Bayfield, Ashland and Iron alone, over 20 named waterfalls exist. Many are 90-plus feet high, with Big Manitou Falls in Douglas County being the highest at 165 feet. Yet even some of the smaller (15-30 feet) falls are dramatic. Each is ever-changing, of course, and can be quite different to experience from one season to the next.
As a National Lakeshore, there is more to the Apostle Islands than just the islands themselves. Also protected are 12 miles of mainland coastline along the northwest shore of the Bayfield Peninsula. Most of the islands and all of this mainland coast have magnificent sandstone cliffs. Much of this bedrock rises from Lake Superior into steep walls towering up to 50 feet above the waterline. The relentless wind, waves, snow and ice have carved an endless variation of beaches, stone arches and windows, sandstone sea stacks and sea caves. These are the sights AINL is most famous for and not to be missed. In the summer, the most interactive way to experience the sea caves is via sea kayak. Several outfitters offer the appropriate equipment and guides. I recommend Lost Creek Adventures (www.lostcreekadventures.org) in Cornucopia, Wisconsin.
If your flight(s) to the area are outside the most popular summer tourist season, options are still abundant. Many summer hiking trails are popular winter snowshoeing and/or cross-country skiing trails. Snowmobiling is common on the peninsula and well-groomed roads and trails exist in every direction. If you are lucky (and hearty) enough, every few years the winter temperatures are so consistently low they cause the sea caves to become ice caves. The sea mist freezes inside them to create a stunning world of crystalline formations and frozen rooms of wonder. In such years, the ice caves are accessible via hikes across the frozen shorelines with appropriately certified guides.
Located on the western shore of the Bayfield Peninsula, Cornucopia is a quaint little village where you can stop for a coffee and sandwich. It even has a little grass runway airport the locals refer to as “Corny International,” which hosts a great small aircraft fly-in every summer. It’s also near Meyers Point, which is both a popular kayak launching point and the trailhead for Lakeshore Trail, which meanders along the tops of the cliffs and sea caves. From there, with your guide, you can paddle out to the sea caves, many of which you can then maneuver your kayak into or completely through. The tighter the fit, the more memorable the passage. Longer voyages can include stops at tiny Eagle Island for unforgettable bird watching, or the larger Sand Island, where you can visit the Ranger Station and hike to the lighthouse. But it is the views from the water that truly stun the senses. The sea caves are at once beautiful and haunting. The sea stacks and sandstone arches grand in scale. Once in their midst, it is easy to become entranced by the views and forget you are but a floating speck upon the greatest of Great Lakes.
Copyright 2019-20, Matthew McDaniel.
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King Air Magazine.
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