The objective seemed simple enough, head to the land of Gitche Gumee (big water), paddle among the Apostle Islands, and safely experience what they had to offer. On paper I was ready, having spent several years diligently upgrading my kit of skills and equipment in dual pursuit of a joyful passion and preparation for this very adventure. While I had readied myself for the risks of kayaking remotely in cold and rough water, my partner was less prepared and a cause of some concern, yet unknown to me at the time, more prepared as well. Through study and training I was aware of the many contingencies that might befall us, and had accumulated a full complement of gear to show for it, yet as often happens, it was that which I had not considered that defined our experience.
Lake Superior’s 22 Apostle Islands offer many destinations of intrigue, but our focus would be on Devil’s Island, the most exposed landmass on the northern end of the archipelago with over 40 miles of fetch from the prevailing westerlies.
Devil’s Island offers some of the Great Lakes most majestic scenery as centuries of pounding surf and cryofracturing have sculpted its sandstone shoreline into a whimsically absurd wonderland of elegant arches, standing columns and vaulted caverns linked by a labyrinth of secret passageways.
Bayfield serves as the launching pad for the Apostle Islands with local outfitters offering excellent equipment, training and professional guide services to help you get you there. Todd and I however, were heading out on our own and after checking in at the ranger station we drove to a local casino on water’s edge that accommodates boaters of all sorts. After an equipment safety check, I handed Todd two marine flares that I insisted he stow in his PFD. He obliged without comment before making sure his snacks were easily accessible on his deck bag. We had five nights on the water with 45 miles of paddling before us, including 13 miles of open water crossings. Given my experiences in kayak marathons and our roughly 60 pounds of gear apiece, I calculated we should average a touring pace of nearly four miles per hour. Todd listened to my plan and suggested both indifference and doubt toward my calculations saying, “I don’t know, when I’ve paddled here before, I’ve never paid any attention to that. But I do think paddling is just different up here.”
In a final act before putting paddle to water, I pulled out my copy of Ka Hana Pono (The Practice of Pono) by Connie Rios. Pono is an ancient Hawaiian belief system of spirit greatness, self power and the interconnection between all things, all metaphorically compared to the world of paddling. We knew we were lucky to be where we were and we wanted to start with a brief lesson to get our heads in the right place. When you are in pono you are completely right with yourself, your spirit and others; it’s the state of perfect harmony and balance where we all want to be, all the time. Being in pono is being in the canoe, as the Hawaiians describe it. However, like the sea, life is a dynamic, fluid and overpowering force and our reality is that life’s turbulent seas consistently toss us out of our canoe and into dangerous waters. The key is getting back in the boat, back in pono. Our reading was a tool to help us paddle on, both literally and figuratively.
This lesson was I Keia Manawa (EE KAY-ah Mah-NA-vah) meaning, In This Moment. Pono is found only in the moment. You cannot be pono for yesterday, or tomorrow, only for now. Simply learning about pono will not get you there. Only through practice can you achieve pono, and practice can only be done in the moment. Whenever you are out of pono, it's generally because your mind or your emotions are going to the past or future. The antidote is to bring yourself back into the moment, that's where the pono is. For us, it meant tucking away every other concern away and granting full focus to the here and now, being fully present in every stroke of our adventure.
Given a late afternoon departure, we arrived to our campsite on Oak Island at twilight and the next morning set off for Devil’s Island by way of Bear Island’s, eastern and leeward shore. Excited to be adventuring into unknown waters and paddling in calm seas with waves two foot or less, I was making good time. Todd made steady but slower progress and as I doubled back to reconnect, I was unaware that while he trailed behind me, he was in fact leading the way. We advanced along Bear Island’s craggy coastline of outcroppings, overhangs, cliffs and caves, and my mindset shifted while my pace fell and we each took turns lagging behind and leading the way.
Sandstone shades from terra cotta to fire brick red is sandwiched between the crystal clear waters of Lake Superior and a forest flora brimming with spruce, balsam, ferns, weeds, and fallen trees in various stages of surrender, to produce a stunning façade accented by wild flowers, orange lichen, white birch and luminous green moss. Around one bend, a tree laden with bunches of crimson berries, healthy in every respect, yet completely inverted, hung over the cliff face with just tendrils of exposed roots providing a tenuous lifeline to the forest floor. Passing the next outcropping a room-sized, we saw a room-sized, semicircular recess in the cliff face that had the precision of an architectural model. From waterline to the sandstone plate ceiling, horizontal cracks were consistently spaced every few inches with each successive level recessed slightly from the level below it. Paddling into the space it was as if we had entered, stage right, into an empty but perfect amphitheater. We saw several eagles including three on one tree and two other pairs that seemed to communicate with one another as they exchanged sentry posts. Two crossings, 14 miles and eight hours later, we arrived at Devil’s Island. Over those past eight hours, the beauty of the Apostle Islands had baptized me, cleansing me of metrics like speed and time while transporting the both of us to a frame of mind, very much I Keia Manawa, In This Moment.
After dinner, we got back in our boats and paddled along the western shore to the northernmost tip of Wisconsin and the renowned sea caves of Devil’s Island. The island was so named for the thunder and boom that comes from these caves in high seas, which the Ojibwa Indians believed to be the sound of evil spirits that made these caves their home.
A brilliant light emerged out of the midnight sea and moon glow began to light burnt orange caves, revealing windows and passageways between them. As we continued on, caves began to extend up to 80 feet in depth and nearly half as high and the chambers became more complex and whimsical. Water periodically gushed from openings above waterline, towering bulky columns supported massive weights yet tapered down to a needle, and vaulted chambers were linked to one another in a tangle of honeycombed passageways. It was as if nature’s erosional forces held disdain for the laws of physics and structural engineering, leaving an absurd landscape that appeared to be designed and built by Dr. Seuss himself.
All the while, swells pulsed slowly and methodically, echoing the devil’s boom and thunder in the island’s acoustical chambers. Compressed air forced from smaller cavities produced murmurs and belches but the larger openings produced impressive tremors. Some booms commanded immediate respect and caused an involuntary snapping of our heads in their direction. Others were more of a subsonic vibration than a tone. Overlaying these booms was the sound of waves breaking upon ascending rock faces which sounded rather like cymbals being played with a wire brush. Along with their bizarre visual beauty, these caves treated us to one private percussion ensemble after another.
After probing every cave, we paddled back to camp in deep content. Our outing was just two miles round trip as the crow flies, and had taken us two and a half hours without any sensation of time. Since morning, we had spent 10.5 hours on the water yet had it continued on, so would have we. We just ran out of cave. It was an extraordinary night that made our average speed of less than 1.5 mph meaningless.
As it turns out, the blissful euphoria we both felt may have partially had a scientific explanation. Sea caves are known to produce inaudible sound waves known as infrasonic vibrations. At high levels, infrasound can be deadly with the potential to explode matter, flatten buildings or even bring down an airplane. However, at mild levels, infrasound can be pleasantly stimulating, producing a feeling of invigoration or euphoria that lasts for hours. Physiologically, your inner organs vibrate, your heart rate and blood pressure elevate, and you stimulate a release of endorphins.
Twice more we paddled to the sea caves in varying conditions, careful not to expose ourselves to the rebounding waves within that can quickly spell danger. Deep inside one cave, Todd and a bat took turns escorting one another through a low and narrow passageway that took a bend into complete darkness and linked with another tunnel before connecting to a cathedral cavern with an archway out to open water.
I backed into the slot of another cave’s innermost cranny and just before my stern hit rock, a window to another cave appeared. As I paused to take in the portal view of a jagged, coral cliff face silhouetted against the shining sea, a downy, white, single thistle seed pod floated through the window, paused mid-air, and slowly danced its way to me.
Beyond the caves, the island offered other treasures as well. Upon inspection, it’s “nothing special” looking lighthouse gained admiration and respect.
Required to wear aprons to shield any metal that might chink its showpiece, we walked up the final flight of stairs, first to take in a third-order Fresnel lens, and then the view. The lens is a marine jewel resembling a six foot tall beehive of finely crafted glass and brass.
While on the water, a massively long squall line overtook us with a 20 yard thick curtain of vapor and intense winds. Lightening flashed against a backdrop of approaching bright white thunderheads. Pure darkness and clear night skies offered easy viewing of a meteor, falling stars, orbiting satellites, and stretching from horizon to horizon, the Milky Way galaxy. A setting sun set sandstone cliffs ablaze amidst a turbulent sea of dark blue bordering on black. Hiking down an abandoned railroad bed we were suddenly surrounded by a grove of black spruce that looked as though a viral plague and swept through and killed them all at once. Without needles or wind, they stood perfectly still and perfectly dead.
Looking as if they had endured a cotton candy wind storm, every branch and twig was draped in lacey Spanish moss that caught the afternoon sun in splashes of glow and shadow. This graveyard of spruce was dissected by a rail bed cushioned in a mattress of spongy translucent mosses that extended to carpet the forest floor.
Teeming lushness mingled with decaying death, in a mysterious grove of vitality and gloom. Todd remarked, “If Devil’s Island has fairies; this is where they’d live.” And then there was the devil himself, dramatically carved into the sandstone plates of the northeast shoreline.
Na Mahalo Elima, (Nah Mah-HA-low Ay-LEE-mah), The Five Thank You’s, was another of our pono paddling lessons. It is a powerful tool to keep you in your canoe and a fitting close to our story. An absolute law of being is that two thoughts cannot occupy the same space, and where your thoughts lead, your emotions will follow. While external stimuli may be beyond your control, the easiest thing to change in any given moment is your thought. Change your thought and you automatically change your emotion. Thinking of five mahalos can get you back to your canoe, back to pono. Five, because one or two is easy, but thinking of five requires you to really shift your mindset and your heart into gratitude. And gratitude is an automatic activator of pono.
The experiences of our trip made The Five Mahalo’s an easy exercise. Todd and I had common points of gratitude. Firstly, we felt both gratitude and respect to the waters of Lake Superior, as they had shown us great beauty while granting us safe passage. We were thankful for being strong enough in body to explore this wilderness in tiny boats just inches above the water. I was thankful that I had learned to slow my stroke, and often stroke not at all. We were thankful for having been in a place that made practicing In This Moment an effortless exercise. And we were thankful to the Creator for Devil’s Island, a place – despite its name - where it is clear he lives.
If you are looking for adventure or perhaps something to help you find pono, consider heading to Bayfield, Wisconsin and venturing out to the Apostle Islands. While you may perhaps come quickly, I am certain that you will leave slowly. As to come here is to understand that it is a slowness of pace, many lingerings and first and foremost, an attention to the details of these islands that best unlocks their magic. And magic indeed it is getting into your canoe.
Ariel view of Apostle Islands from bayfieldbikeroute.com
Map from reed-realty.net
Labyrinth of secret passageways image from memh via flickriver.com
All other images courtesy of Dacquisto Photography