Ageless in the Apostles: Are you ever too old for an island adventure?

Kayakers pack their boats for the adventure

August 2, 2022

At what age should one stop kayak camping in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore? Sixty? Seventy? Even eighty years old? 

For more than 30 years a group of us has been spending a long weekend over the 4th of July holiday kayaking and camping in the Apostle Islands. We are all aging (the median age of the group was 70 this year), but we are still strong paddlers and competent campers. Perhaps it was only the oldest one of us who had been giving the “at what age …” question serious consideration.

Come along with us on this year’s holiday trip. Perhaps you can help answer the question. Maybe your answer will be, “You should have stopped at age 50.”

Our July trip really began in March when our trip leader registered with the National Park Service to obtain a camping permit for a group site. There is high demand for the nine group campsites (for 8 to 21 people) available in the national lakeshore, especially for time periods that include holidays. The Park Service holds a lottery for the group sites each year. Camping permits for individual sites (1 to 7 people, two tents) are easier to obtain – a permit is available not less than 30 days prior to departure. Plan your visit here.

Our group leader drew Group Campsite “B” on Stockton Island. It was a wonderful result – it’s a bit over ten miles from our launch point at the Buffalo Bay Marina in Red Cliff but still a comfortable first day paddle distance in good weather. In past years we also have camped at the group sites on Sand Island and Oak Island. The two Stockton group campsites are somewhat unique — both are wooden platform sites connected to the Quarry Bay dock and the shared latrine by a boardwalk, allowing handicap access for camping.

Loading up at Red Cliff – John Frank photo

Many of our group of eight spent the night before launching at the campground at Little Sand Bay. Spending the pre-launch night together allows us to reconnect with friends we have known for years, but may only see a few times per year, especially after recent Covid protocols.

Some of the group members arrived at Red Cliff around 8:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. Our kayaks were finally all packed and we were in our wetsuits or dry suits ready to start our trip by about 10:30. Each year we question whether we will be able to fit all of our equipment into our kayaks. Each year, after some diligent packing, perhaps a few choice words and some equipment item trading to optimize the use of the limited space in our kayak holds, somehow we find room.

We pushed off and headed to the north end of Basswood Island on our way to Hermit Island and ultimately to Stockton.

Hermit Island Quarry – John Frank photo

There is a small, narrow beach on the south shore of Hermit Island. It serves as a convenient rest and lunch break site, being almost exactly half the distance to Quarry Bay on Stockton Island. Even with the beautiful sunny and relatively calm first day’s paddle, the break on the Hermit Island beach, the conversation, food, and rehydration were welcome. After our break of half to ¾ of an hour, we were back on the water.

Less than a mile northeast of the Hermit Island beach, we paddled past the Hermit Island quarry site – a leftover from the stone quarrying that was part of the economic history of the Apostle Islands in the late 19th century. Brownstone from the Hermit Island quarry as well as from the quarries on Basswood Island, Stockton Island, and the mainland were used in buildings in Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and other Midwestern cities, and more stone was used locally for buildings in Bayfield, Washburn, and Ashland. As we paddled past the Hermit Island quarry, we could see stone blocks still waiting after well over 100 years to be loaded on barges and taken to a far-off building site. Below the surface of the water, we could still see remnants of the dock that was used to load the blocks onto the barges.

When we arrived at our campsite, we set up our tents, sleeping bags and air mattresses/sleeping pads. Some members of the group combined a trip back to the landing beach to collect lake water to run through gravity filters with a short “swim” in Lake Superior. The water seems colder in 2022 than it has been in recent years. In spite of the lively conversation and active reminiscing, the oldest member of our group dozed off hearing only the sweet melodies of tiny forest birds with voices almost too loud for their size. He awoke before dinner.

Our group members take turns preparing breakfast and the evening meal, two of us cooking for all eight. Lunches are on your own. Several paddlers bring a dual or single burner camp stove so that we have ample back-up in case of equipment failure. Although the National Park Service provides a fire pit with the individual and group campsites, we generally use it only as a meeting place for an evening fire if the insects are cooperative.

Stockton Island Amphitheater – Jeff Rennicke photo

On Sunday morning we decided to paddle to Presque Isle Bay, another part of Stockton Island, about six miles round trip. After arriving at the Presque Isle dock, we converted our wetsuits/dry suits to hiking clothes and better footwear and followed the boardwalk path to the new wooden platform amphitheater completed about a year ago. The Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore shepherded funding from a number of grants and donors to help construct the new meeting place for evening ranger talks serving the 19 individual (1-7 people) campsites (including one accessible campsite) strung out along the sandy shoreline of Presque Isle Bay.

Group photo at Stockton Island group campsite B – Victoria Samolyk photo

We hiked the .4 mile on the Julian Bay trail to the beautiful “singing sand” beach on the other side of the tombolo. On the trail we admired a number of pink lady slippers absorbing sunshine in the otherwise damp, boreal forest. Several members of the group continued walking along the Julian Bay beach to peer over the sand dunes at the lagoon with its unique blend of plants. Apparently there were no Piping Plovers nesting at Julian Bay this year – lower water levels on Lake Superior may have allowed them to return to their preferred nesting areas on Long Island. The rest of the group returned to the dock and started lunch. 

After lunch it was back into the paddle gear for the 50-minute return paddle to our Quarry Bay campsite. Some of us again took a dip in the big lake to wash off another day’s sweat and grime. If the water had warmed after another day of summer, we couldn’t tell.

Monday was the 4th of July. It rained. There was lightning. Then it rained with more lightning. It was a good day to read, snooze, and take short walks between the fits of thunder and the showers. 

Later in the day the gaps between the showers and thunder became longer and we ventured out to see painted turtles digging holes and laying their eggs in the sand above the marshy area near the beach. After each turtle left her nest, she covered the eggs with sand and, aided by the continued rain drops, the nest all but disappeared.

Turtle on Nest – Victoria Samolyk photo

So, Even if you are aging and you have thunderstorms all day, you can still have a good time celebrating Independence Day. Perhaps symbolically, our nation is in the middle of an all-day, metaphorical thunderstorm. But there still are positive things about our country to remember and be thankful for. One of those positive concepts that our nation got right was the establishment of our national park system, including Wisconsin’s own Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Even if you waive only a small flag, keep a positive attitude. The storm will pass. On this Independence Day, our enthusiasm for camping and country was dampened but not extinguished.

A rainy Independence Day celebration – John Frank photo

On Tuesday, July 5 we packed up our kayaks for the return trip to Red Cliff. Packing was completed more quickly (there was less food, and we had more packing experience than a few days ago), but still, the packing time took more than an hour. We paddled the same route back, stopping to check out the sea stack at the north end of Hermit Island.

Sea stack at north end of Hermit Island – John Frank photo

At the lunch break beach on  Hermit Island the oldest member of our group was able to get out of his kayak, but welcomed a helping hand to straighten up and stand up on his wobbly legs. The “at what age…” question again wedged its way into his mind.

As one ages, it becomes easier to identify the changes, including positive ones, that have occurred over the last 30 years. In the early 1990’s a Park Service employee at the headquarters front desk requested us to refrain from paddling too close to the shore line of a couple of the islands in an attempt to avoid disturbing a few rare eagle nests. You needed the fingers of only one hand to count the number of eagle nests in all of the Apostle Islands at that time. On our 2022 trip, we observed four nests on the three islands we passed. And on our paddle from Stockton Island back to Red Cliff, one eagle on Hermit Island allowed us to paddle by closely under its watchful stare.

Hermit Island eagle – Victoria Samolyk photo

Perhaps he/she wanted to say thank you for discontinuing the use of pesticides that nearly drove the eagles to extinction thirty years ago. Perhaps he/she, as a symbol of our country, wanted to offer us hope for the future on this Independence Day weekend and remind us that each of us can make a difference. Perhaps he/she simply wanted to say, “Keep paddling, old man, you haven’t quite reached that age yet.”

John C. Frank

John C. Frank is a longtime lover of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and is the author of Apostle Islands Water Trips – An Explorers Guide, 2nd Edition. You can buy a signed copy on our website, with proceeds benefiting Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the park.

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