“For a couple hours I didn’t see another person… and yet, I was not alone”

An isolated beach through the golden leaves and green spruce trees - Neil Howk photo

October 19, 2023

Exploring the many unnamed beaches in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore during the shoulder seasons can be a time for solitude, reflection and discovery. Take a walk on a mainland beach with former National Park Service ranger Neil Howk. Click on the photos to enlarge them if you want a closer look. 

Earlier this week I bushwhacked out to a remote stretch of beach west of Big Sand Bay to take in the scenery, have a nice picnic, and enjoy a little solitude. I was successful on all counts. The day was cool and overcast, and though the clouds were a bit threatening, it never rained. There was a slight breeze, enough to be refreshing but not enough to cut through my jacket. Fall colors were near their peak. The lack of direct sunshine meant the colors were a bit muted, but the scenery was still strikingly beautiful. I found a log amongst the driftwood where I could sit to eat my sandwich, apple, and cookies. For a couple hours I didn’t see another person…

Driftwood piles on a beach in autumn - Neil Howk photo
Two horned larks on the beach - Neil Howk photo

…and yet, I was not alone. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was sharing the beach with a few other area residents and late season visitors. As I strolled along the sand snapping a few photos, a sudden movement caught my attention.

Two sparrow-sized birds darted along the surf zone searching for food along the shore. Horned larks are the only lark native to North America. Though they are present all year in prairies, fields, and open areas south of the Canadian border; we usually only see them in the Apostle Islands during fall migration. Some larks spend their summers living on the tundra in the far north. These two birds were making a brief pit stop looking for a few bugs or seeds along the beach to fuel their journey to the open fields somewhere in the Midwest. I’ve only seen them here a couple times before. It was a pleasant surprise to beachcomb with them, however briefly.

I started noticing other tracks in the sand. I saw that I was following the same path taken by a coyote earlier that day. I brought my food with me, but coyotes might walk up to ten miles a day searching their territory for something to eat.

Coyote tracks in the sand - Neil Howk photo

Coyote tracks in the sand

Further up the beach, my path crossed a different set of tracks. They came out of the woods, crossed the beach, and disappeared at the water’s edge. It seems that an otter had come to take a late season dip in the lake.

Later, I saw a red squirrel darting back and forth from the forest onto the beach. When you spot a red squirrel hurrying about during the fall, it’s probably on a mission to prepare for the upcoming cold months by collecting and storing food for future consumption. Red squirrels don’t hibernate during the winter – in fact, they stay active throughout the season. I could not tell what attracted this one to the beach, but it must have been enticing.

Otter tracks in the sand - Neil Howk photo

Otter tracks

Squirrel tracks in the sand - Neil Howk photo

Squirrel tracks

I also came upon some tracks from a different species of bird. Both crows and ravens live in the Apostle Islands region. Telling them apart can be a bit tricky given the multitude of similarities these two birds share. Both are black and have very similar shapes, though common ravens are much larger than the American crow. The tracks left by these birds are also similar, but possible to differentiate. The raven leaves a larger footprint. Both species walk on the ground, but a raven’s walk is typically accentuated by a couple two-footed hops between steps. Crows walk more traditionally, like other bird species. I could tell from the size and the gait that these tracks were made by a crow.

Crow tracks in the sand - Neil Howk photo

Crow tracks

Close-up of beach grass with swirls in the sand - Neil Howk photo

Though I didn’t see any other people at the beach, there were plenty of signs that others had been there before me. I found the charred remnants from a few beach fires, a deflated balloon, and some plastic bottles.

Most unexpected, however, was the bow of a fiberglass skiff that I found buried in the dune behind the beach. Did it come loose and drift away from a sailboat? Were some fishermen caught in a storm and have their boat swamped and buried in the sand? It was interesting to ponder the series of events that may have led to the skiff’s ultimate demise.

The bow of a fiberglass skiff buried in the sand - Neil Howk photo

I did my best to take only pictures and leave only footprints. I eventually put my lunch bag in my pack, put the balloon in my pocket, and headed back to my car. I was anxious to get home and take a closer look at my photographs, but I felt rejuvenated by the solitude and all my discoveries.

Leave only footprints - Neil Howk photo
Small waves along a curving beach with fall colors behind it - Neil Howk photo
Neil Howk

Neil Howk began working as a park ranger/interpreter for the National Park Service in 1978. He worked at a number of different parks over the years and served as the assistant chief of interpretation at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore from 1993-2016. He now serves as a board member of Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

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