An untrammeled island and the conquest of inner terrain

Part two of two articles

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore has many attractions, and high on the list is its offer of something like “wilderness.”

Cozy anchorage on Eagle Island
MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Cozy anchorage on Eagle Island

The quotes are there because “wilderness” is used to say such different things about the spaces that lie beyond development. For a working definition I like this wording from the Wilderness Act of 1964, in which Congress laid down the law for preserving territory:

where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain … and which generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable

Imprints from a century of man’s work — sandstone quarrying, commercial fishing, farming, lighthouse keeping — are all over this archipelago. After the park was created in 1970, the National Park Service added trammels of its own by designating campsites and fitting them out with tent pads, picnic tables, iron fire rings and bear-proof food lockers.

No complaint here. Camping needs to be controlled in a place so fragile, and the fixtures are a comfort to visitors. Pretty much everybody loves a lighthouse, and plenty of visitors (myself included) enjoy reading the history of the islands in abandoned sheds and sunken ships.

But to see a bit of land that is lightly visited and visibly unaltered by humans is a big draw for Sallie and me. So we have paddled five miles from our campsite on Sand Island to Eagle Island, a rocky 24-acre knob in Lake Superior whose nesting birds are protected by a ban on landings, or even close approaches, from May 15 to September 1 every year.

Eagle’s shoreline is a high rock wall, and landing spots are few. We find a sheltered anchorage in a fissure cutting across a little point and climb to a low rock ledge for lunch. Then we make a hands-and-knees crawl to the top of the island.

Our exploration is brief. Brambles, thistles and other thorny weeds are thick and shoulder high. The view is gorgeous in all directions, but what view in the Apostles is not? Trampling is not trammeling, but to be honest, we feel like intruders.

Time to slide back down to the boats and head home to Sand Island before the waves get too much bigger.

Sallie in the thick of things on Eagle Island
MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Sallie in the thick of things on Eagle Island

Too late.

Rounding the north end of the island and we turn straight into a blustery northeast wind and have to shout between the boats: Big water now. … Stay close. … Gotta get beyond the shoals to raft up. … Point our noses a little left of Sand, the wind will push us back. … Straight into the waves now — let’s not get rolled out here. … We’ve been through way worse than this, right?

Right, I say.

So what, says my gut, clenching now with a two-year-old memory I’ve done my best to leave ashore.

***

It was about this time of day, late afternoon, and about the same kind of wind. We had paddled more than 15 miles already, into conditions that worsened much faster than expected. Both of us were tired. I was starting to feel chilled.

We rafted up to check the distance to our destination and realized we’d been heading toward the wrong island for the last hour or more: South Twin was still three miles away, into waves that were still building.

It is hard to gauge wave heights with precision from a kayak, but when another paddler drops out of sight into a trough, as Sallie was now doing, you can figure something close to three feet. Frequency can be the bigger difficulty and these waves kept coming faster, too, the wind ripping their crests away and hissing past our ears.

We struggled for another half-hour, trying to hold a course, shouting encouragement back and forth over the wind: Looking good … stay strong … big breakers coming … we’ve been through worse than this before … looking good. But things were looking not good at all.

If you read about survival in the outdoors, you learn that it’s about avoiding a fairly short list of simple mistakes, and we had made a string of these: Launched too late in the morning, given the forecast for waves building in the afternoon. Treated the wind forecast as a maximum and the time factors as guarantees. Gone too light on lunch; not enough fuel in the furnace to stay strong and warm. We hadn’t even bothered to pick some bailout points.

Rookie mistakes, and we are not rookies — except when we are.

Worst, it now seemed, we hadn’t put enough practice into rough-water rescues. The chances of capsize were building with the waves. And then what?

I yelled to Sallie that I was out of gas, didn’t have another three miles in me, needed to land within a half-hour max. We were abreast of Ironwood Island, where the map showed a single campsite, but we had already passed it and given the busy season it was probably occupied anyway. We started looking for a bailout.

Bailout site on Ironwood Island
MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Bailout site on Ironwood Island

***

I didn’t set out to write a survival saga here and, anyway, I don’t have the material. In short order we found a tiny beach, but big enough, rigged the emergency tarp, crawled into a little cave, made some soup and waited out the squalls. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun — and affirming, too. We knew what to do and we did it.

Nor do I want to leave any impression that danger is a big draw for us. Sea kayaking is just one of many ways Sallie and I love to travel in the outdoors, and we do it in spite of — not because of — the risks.

My friend Greg Lais, the founder of Wilderness Inquiry, once asked me during a trip off Vancouver Island if I kayaked for the satisfaction of applying its particular skills or the pleasure of going to places I can’t otherwise reach. It’s both.

The need to be in wilderness, or its approximation, from time to time is built into the human genome, I think, and so is the need for something like exploration.

But I’ve never been to an undiscovered part of this planet and I don’t expect to ever go. I’m too old to become an oceanographer.

The places Americans have been wise enough to keep as more-or-less wilderness can give us both the destinations and the journeys we need — even if we can’t say, as I couldn’t say while packing for this trip, just why we’re going, or what exactly we hope to find.

The best kind of journey feels at least a little expeditionary and meanders into to unplanned places. Like a rocky island off the usual trail in Lake Superior. Or a dark corner of the soul where fear has been hiding, until resilience runs it off.

***

As we paddled back toward Sand Island, putting our rough-water skills into play again, Sallie and I relaxed into our boats and began to enjoy the ride, working with the water instead of struggling against it. We were making good time and knew we’d be back to our tent well before dark.

The rollers reached three feet at times but more often were closer to two, and the frequency was moderate: slow enough climb, crest, and descend a bigger wave with three short strokes, then wait for the next. Not so much fun as surfing but not bad.

The waves flattened out a bit as we steered off the wind and into Lighthouse Bay, for smooth landings in light surf.

We got into warm clothes, hung the wet gear on clotheslines, stretched our backs and legs, poured a little bourbon and watched the sun drop like a rock, as it does this time of year. Across the lake the lights of Silver Bay blinked on, almost too distant to see.

This is why we come here,” Sallie said. Or maybe it was me.

Part one: Once more to the Apostles, and to sweet rediscovery

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 10/11/2011 - 12:16 pm.

    The most memorable trips are those with accidents like these (the ones we survive). It is usually because we are novices or stupid despite experience. But some are just accidents.
    I guess the loons and stars and Northern lights and silence make up for it all. And so does the peace that allows one to think, quietly, for a long time.

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