On the Hunt for Beer, Brats & Bears

A summer journey of discovery unfolds amid Wisconsin's Apostle Islands. A feature from our April 2009 issue

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Ground down by Lake Superior¿s waves and scoured by its ice, the eastern shore of Sand Island is an explorer¿s paradise with its sea caves and heavily wooded hiking trails.Marianne Lee

It's 2:30 p.m. when our Apostle Islands adventure starts in earnest. We leave the breakwater at Port Superior Marina aboard Twilight, raise the sails, and begin a 10-mile beat north along the Wisconsin shore to Oak Island, where we'll tuck in behind the sand spit off its southern tip and be out of the northeast wind. Our first tack takes us close in toward Madeline Island's western shore and directly across the path of the ferry that bounces back and forth between the small town of La Pointe and downtown Bayfield, on the mainland.

That hazard to navigation astern, we tack, and I deem it time to sample a Miller High Life, the beverage of choice for the next five days at the insistence of Milwaukee native-turned-New Englander Mike Lee. Or rather, that's the beverage for the boys. The girls on board-my wife, Sue; our sailing pal, Paula Devereaux; and Mike's soon-to-be wife and the ship's photographer, Marianne Groszko-want nothing to do with a can of what made Milwaukee famous and instead choose to toast our departure with "Leinies," freshly bottled by the Leinenkugel Brewing Co., the "Pride of Chippewa Falls." With the morning's rain now well to the east, the mid-July sun burning through, and a fresh breeze on our nose, it's a heck of a way to kick off our search for beer, brats, and bears in the heart of the Midwest.

I wish I could say that I'd always dreamed of sailing on the largest lake in the world (as measured by surface area, I'm reminded) and that the 22 islands that lay ahead of us-21 of which make up The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore-had long held a spell over me with their rugged tree lines, nests of bald eagles, deserted beaches, sandstone cliffs, and spectacular sea caves. But that wouldn't be entirely true. Sure I'd heard of Wisconsin; what cheese lover hasn't? And, well, everyone knows there are Great Lakes up north somewhere. But as to knowing what's in 'em and around 'em, well, that's another story. And that story began about this time last year, when Cindy and Dick Kalow, owners of Superior Charters, offered to let someone at Cruising World use a 2008 Jeanneau 36i to explore what they described as the most lovely and interesting cruising grounds you could find between the three coasts.

"We're going where?" Sue asked when I told her about our destination. "Apostle what? Never heard of it," Paula replied when we asked her along. "Duluth, Minnesota. Where's that?" I said to myself when I looked into airfare from Boston and discovered that Duluth International was the closest airport, being just one state removed and a couple of hours' drive from the marina.

As Midwest natives, Mike and Marianne, of course, knew all about Bayfield and its bustling waterfront, artists, shops, restaurants, and Friday-night fish frys. They'd visited Madeline Island, the only one of the Apostles not in the park and the only one with a town and residents. They discounted the rumors that the lake water would be too cold for swimming and that we'd need to pack winter clothes to survive the summer nights. And locals' pride in the quality of their thunderstorms aside, they assured us that despite what we'd read, chances are we wouldn't be sunk by the wind, hail, lightning, waves, and tornadoes described in the cruising guides.

The five of us met Sunday night at the boat, then drove the next morning to a full-sized grocery store in Washburn, 20 minutes to the south, and stocked up. Should you make the trip, I'd highly recommend putting in at the Time Out diner for their Contender Omelet: four eggs stuffed with hash browns, onions, peppers, and cheese. That'll stick to your ribs for a while.

Back at the boat, we decided Oak Island would make for an easy first-afternoon sail, a secure anchorage for the night, and a good jumping-off point the next morning. As we'd come to find out, anchoring in the Apostles-there are no moorings-is simple. Mind which way the wind's blowing and duck into the lee of a nearby island. The trick is to always have a backup, just in case the wind shifts unexpectedly.

Beating our way up West Channel, we discover that sailing in these narrow waterways between islands is going to take some getting used to. As we close Basswood Island on port tack, we're headed by the wind bending along the shore. Then, a mile or so later on starboard tack, we're near the mainland and find we're headed by the wind filling down the lake. Our boat speed is impressive, but our progress is slow, and as the afternoon fades, the wind goes with it. Off in the distance, we can see a wall of fog lurking on the open lake, and since no one's keen on getting lost in the mist, we motor the remaining few miles to our anchorage and drop the hook in about 12 feet of water. Ashore, we splash into the lake, delighted by its lack of salt. And then as we dry off and explore the point of land, we watch fingers of fog crawl over the mainland hills and creep downward into Raspberry Bay. Back aboard, we grill chicken and cook up a pot of locally grown black wild rice. Night approaches, and the islands to our west and east fade into a cloud of mist as darkness descends.

I'm up early and find Marianne already in the cockpit, her camera in hand. It's going to take a while before morning light makes it over the ridge on Oak Island, the highest of the Apostles. Though the original plan was to go ashore and hike until we found a view, a bear, or both, the lure of the sea caves about five miles west on Sand Island is too enticing. The sounds of the engine and windlass bring the rest of the crew on deck, and by 6 a.m. we're off.

Breakfast is cereal and fruit, eaten under way. Out of the shadow of the island, we watch as the sun dances across the brownish-red sandstone along the mainland shore and we motor through glassy water. All week, we find morning is the time to charge the batteries; afternoons, once the breeze is up, are perfect for sailing. We pass between Raspberry Island, with its white lighthouse perched high upon a bluff, and long and narrow York Island, formed only a century and a half ago when a sandbar, or tombolo, filled the space between two separate mounds of land. By 7 a.m., we feel the warmth of the sun, and slowly, as we approach, we begin to distinguish details in the Swallow Point Cliffs, the wall of sandstone that lies at the midpoint of Sand Island. At first, we see only scattered dark splotches in the brown, red, and yellow horizontal layers, but as the light moves higher and we move closer, we gaze on intricate caves and towers carved out of the rock over the years by wind, ice, and water. We take turns riding into the caves in the dinghy, and Sue and Paula are quick to jump overboard and swim in the 55 F water through narrow openings and twirl around smooth pillars that disappear into the clear, green water below.

By midmorning, we're anchored at a long sand beach just to the south, where several kayaks are pulled up on shore. Their owners strike camp as we look for the trail that winds through the forest along a two-mile-long boardwalk path to the island's northern point and the sandstone lighthouse that's being restored. A ranger tells us tales of the island's past, when after the Civil War it was home to a bustling fishing village, but I find the view more intriguing. I can see Canada 25 miles to the north, Minnesota to the west, and the rolling hills of Michigan far to the east.

Sailing back toward the heart of the Apostles, we stop and climb the long, steep stairway to the Raspberry Island lighthouse and explore the buildings and vegetable gardens there. We'd like a tour, but the keeper is apparently occupied elsewhere, so we retrace our steps down the stairs, descending between rails set in either side on which a cart and supplies can be winched up and down. We sail along the high bluffs on the north shore of Oak Island this time, tempted to stop at Bear Island to look for critters, and along the side of Otter Island. With wind still forecast out of the northeast, we head for the protected lee of South Twin Island, where we anchor in shallows near a rocky beach. It almost seems crowded as we watch four other boats spread out along the same cove.

Tonight, we're dining native, and Mike heads below to soak a load of bratwursts in beer. As we all sample variations of the marinade with cheese and crackers around the cockpit table, he fires up the grill, and soon we're chowing down in style on sausages, wild rice, and salad. These Midwestern delicacies cast a spell on us, and we sit contented in the cockpit and watch the Milky Way appear overhead. By 10, I'm ready for sleep, and still there's a hint of daylight in the far western sky.

Marianne and I are up early again Wednesday and wake the others as the anchor comes up. This morning, high clouds keep us cool as we motor on flat water to explore the caves on Devils Island. Like Sand Island, Devils sits at the edge of the Apostles but farther out in the lake, where the wind has stunted the trees. The terrain here is low and flat, the water deep right up to the cliffs. We hug the shore, maybe 30 yards off, and gaze into the openings carved in the rock. As we round the point, a pair of bald eagles eye us from a tall pine.

I go below to rustle up some breakfast and discover Twilight's Achilles' heel: The 13-gallon holding tank is full, and Lake Superior has strict no-discharge rules. I put it to the crew: Hold it till Friday, or make a dash for Bayfield, 22 miles south. The dash will take us past many of the islands we've not yet seen, and since there's no wind blowing, it's not like we'll miss much sailing, so it's unanimous. We head for town.

By noon, our tank empty and our icebox full, we strike out for Stockton Island, reported to be the most visited in the national park. When the breeze comes up in early afternoon, still out of the northeast, we kill the engine and beat our way up North Channel. Sue and Paula duck the sun and nap below, and Mike and Marianne do most of the sailing. Starboard tacks take us along the forested shores of Basswood Island; port tacks give us a view of stunning summer homes on Madeline. Just as we reach the head of the channel and have the anchorage at Presque Isle Bay in our sights, we're hit square in the face with a freshening midafternoon breeze, so we drop sails and motor for the cove, anxious to get ashore and visit the long sandy beach at Julian Bay. Depending on which local you talk to, it was named among the top 10 best beaches of the Great Lakes, the Unites States, or the world by some publication or another.

It is divine. After stopping at the visitors center, where we see what will end up being the only bear of the trip-the pesky critter was shot and stuffed after visiting campers one too many times-we take the short trail through the woods to the half moon of sand that's wide open to all that Lake Superior can serve up. The surf pounds ashore as we swim, and then Sue and I walk along to where we can climb 30-foot-high dunes overlooking a sprawling inshore marsh.

By dinnertime, a dozen or so sailboats are anchored around us, and the powerboaters who'd tied up the island's concrete pier are long gone. After a spaghetti dinner, we watch the sun sink, painting the clouds off to the west in hues of deep red and purple.

Thursday, our last full day on the lake, we're up with the sun and eager to visit Outer Island, the most remote in the National Lakeshore. Fully exposed to the lake, its eastern and northern shores are scrubbed clean of dirt and vegetation. Along the shore, gigantic square-cornered stone blocks look as though they've been woven together by a mason. When we finally reach the northern point and anchor, the water is so transparent that we can see clearly the boulders and sand patches 20 to 25 feet below.

We pull the dinghy up to the concrete pier and climb the steep stairs up the bluff to the lighthouse and its outbuilding, which houses an industrial-size compressor that powers the foghorn. One step into the grass beside the path sounds the dinner bell for swarms of voracious mosquitoes. We're obviously their first meal in some time. We watch as a smudge of smoke on the horizon turns into a lake steamer headed for Duluth, then retreat to the boat and motor to the island's southern tip. On the way, we pass a fishing boat hauling a gill net and watch as an eagle dives out of nowhere to steal a fishy breakfast. On shore once more, Paula leads the search for an abandoned rail bed that will take us to an inland cranberry bog. Apparently, the northern bugs told their cousins that brunch was on the way. Just yards into the woods, we're covered by swarms that make Mike, Marianne, Sue, and I run frantically for the beach. Paula presses on, though only briefly.

By now, we've seen four of the Apostles' six lighthouses, and we figure, what the heck, why not hunt down the other two? Besides, it'll be easy: They're right smack next to each other on Michigan Island and along our route to Madeline Island, where we plan to spend the night in civilization. All week, we'd been hearing about the two lights. Accounts vary, but the one I like the best holds that the first light built, the shorter of the two, was supposed to be constructed in nearby La Pointe, but someone screwed up and put it on the wrong island. The second one was built several years later because the first was hard to see.

We have a maddening motorsail to what we're now calling Screw-up Point. Mayflies cover the sails and the transom, and in the cockpit, small black flies biting my ankles have me dancing an inelegant Watusi. We reach the lights just as lunch is served, and all agree it's not worth anchoring to pay a visit. By now, we're looking forward to La Pointe and a nice walk into town.

It's late afternoon when we tie up in a slip at the Madeline Island Yacht Club, and the humidity has increased considerably. We walk to the town beach for a swim, then race a minor thunderstorm back to the boat. Before dinner, we visit Tom's Burned Down Cafe, a truly one-of-kind watering hole and music venue housed in a tent in the middle of town.

On Friday morning, we linger in La Pointe. I walk into town in search of a replacement lid for the basket of the percolator, which was lost overboard. I find a coffee shop with outstanding rhubarb muffins, and though they have all sorts of gadgets for sale, no lid. The kid at the counter suggests I'd probably find one at the dump, but it's closed this morning.

Finally, we cast off. We can see Port Superior Marina directly across the bay, but the breeze is blowing, and no one's in a hurry for our trip to end. We reach back and forth until Mike spots dark clouds and rain in the channel north of Bayfield. It was time to head for the barn. Inside the breakwater, we pull to the gas dock and pump out and fuel up. The rain and wind hold off until just the moment I turn Twilight into her slip.

That's when all hell breaks loose, and the fury of a Great Lakes thunderstorm is square upon us. And then, just as quickly, it's gone. Like the eagles, the caves, the brats, the Miller, the Leinies, and, of course, the islands themselves, I wouldn't have missed the squall for the world.

Mark Pillsbury is Cruising World's senior editor.