The Apostle Islands School: A rite of passage for Chequamegon Bay youth

By Erica Peterson

For me, the history of the Apostle Islands School reads like a logbook—full of sketches, personal reflections, images, challenges, and surprising outcomes. It’s stuffed with lesson plans, menus, Ojibwe words, and most importantly, the life changing comments and stories from over five thousand students who spent three special days in the heart of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. 

The Apostle Islands are among the most beautiful places in the world. Lake Superior is a master at carving a landscape, painting a skyscape, adding adventure to any experience, and instilling a “beyond words” peace of mind and soul. Fifty years ago, the Apostle Islands were recognized as a national treasure and designated a National Lakeshore. Nearby the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute and Northland College have long regarded the Apostle Islands as a valuable resource for research and teaching. 

The Apostles are part of my soul as much as outdoor education. It’s been important to me that my experiences be available to all, and especially to children. Because access is difficult and costly, few children from the region have ever visited the park even though the Apostle Islands have had, and continue to have, a great impact on the Bay Area’s development and economy. 

In 1986, a vision emerged—providing Northland College students an opportunity to use the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore as an outdoor classroom for area sixth graders from the Chequamegon Bay region; the goal to instill in youth a sense of wonder and place. Working together, we birthed the Apostle Islands School, a three-day, two-night immersive backcountry camping experience. 

Thirty-six years and counting, despite challenges, proves its relevance. I see Apostle Islands School as a legacy program, an annual rite of passage for many area school children and an opportunity to jump start a college student’s career. 

As an instructor in the early years, my favorite activity was the treasure hunt. The students were given a scrolled map with clues to natural highlights like the Emerald Pool, Persian Rug, and Pool of Life. The “X marks the spot” destination was two crisscrossing fault lines found on Stockton Island’s Anderson Point. Allowed to explore, socially chatter, discover, think, and absorb, the children, at first intent on the X, quickly became introspective, turned to the wildness surrounding them, and discovered the “treasure.” Their inquisitiveness and quiet concentration assured me that this group was leaving the island changed, that this experience had been epic, and that a spark had been ignited that would repeat itself in their future. 

Erica Peterson leads a group of Islands School students

Environmental writer David Orr suggests that the real value of a program is in its potential to “build a constituency for the future.” On day three we’d form a circle, fixate on a memorable snapshot, and start an imaginary slideshow. When it was our turn, we’d hold up our hands to form a picture frame while describing our “take home” memory. I heard the students describe the lake “talking to me,” looking down the throat of a pitcher plant, waking up in their tent to bird noises, the lightning storm, making the sand sing. 

I’d hear comrnents like “I cannot believe I got over not using electronics,” and “I learned that I am desperate to learn more.” Change is everywhere and some things become outdated. Other things remain forever relevant, like national parks and Islands School experiences. I see the mainland left behind in the wake of a boat, and all onboard seeking the “treasure” of the Apostle Islands. 


Erica Peterson was the program director of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute when the Apostle Islands Outdoor Education School was started. She now resides in Bayfield, Wisconsin, where she is involved with the non-profit Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. 

Article reprinted from Northland College Magazine with permission.

File photograph: Islands School students gather at the Stockton Island amphitheater.

Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is proud to be a continuing funder of The Apostle Islands School, in partnership with Northland College and area schools. While the pandemic has forced a pause in this program, the hope is that the Islands School will return to normal operation in the years to come. If you would like to support this initiative, we invite you to join us and make a donation. We thank you for your support as your dollars will directly benefit the many area school children who might not otherwise ever experience the national park across their bay.