Forty Degrees, Fahrenheit

A wave of ice cold water hit me and I sputtered for air. The back of my yellow kayak slid in and out of focus. I grabbed the stern of the boat and hauled myself over, staying low and trying to catch my breath.

“You good?” A friend called from nearby, but I couldn’t pinpoint their location. “We can head in. You don’t have to keep trying.”

I crawled back into the cockpit of my boat, putting on half of my spray skirt and then grabbing the bilge pump to pump out water.

I shivered, and wiped some snot off my face.

“I want to try again,” I said, not really believing it.

“If you’re sure.”

I didn’t end up rolling my kayak that day. All 5’ 3” of me couldn’t quite manage to turn a 16ft kayak right side up. I left cold, wet, bruised and impossibly sore, but ultimately happy I had given it another shot. That night, I watched from inside as lightning lit up whitecaps on the world’s largest lake.

For most people, kayaking is a vacation activity, in white sand beaches of Florida, or a leisure activity on your local lake. Kayaking is relaxing.That isn’t quite the experience Superior offers.

Lake Superior is the world’s largest lake by surface area. It has a year round average water temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit, has produced waves as tall as 30 feet, and creates its own weather patterns. The word “lake” is almost entirely incorrect—Lake Superior is a sea.

The Lake Superior experience is completely different than inland lakes and tropical beaches—it’s better.

First paddled by the Anishinabek people, then serving as the highway of the fur trade, Lake Superior remains relatively unknown in the realm of tourism, despite its waterfalls, cliffs, hiking, and paddling.

I worked as a kayak guide in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore for the summer, where people come to paddle the intricate halls of the mainland sea caves, visit the remote shores of the 22 islands, and have their own slice of adventure. Sometimes this involves glassy water and weaving through lacy archways—other times it involves teaching people how to surf kayaks, chasing off small island bears, or making up a quick way to fix a boat.

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Farther North lie the towering cliffs and basalt of Minnesota’s North Shore, where water rushes into the big lake over red and purple rocks. The farther North you go, the farther you can walk without seeing another soul.

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Michigan harbors the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, where the cliffs are stained in reds and greens and purples. Every summer, the park gets thousands of backpackers, kayakers and tourists. I visited in Late September and the park was near empty, with water clarity around 30 feet.

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Lake Superior’s landscapes are widely varied, and the land has a rich indigenous and maritime history. The shores are littered with shipwrecks, and the waters can test any seafarer.

For me, this has always been part of the draw. The remoteness, the towering cliffs, empty beaches, and most importantly, the ice cold water.

“Does it ever get old?” A participant on a kayak tour I was guiding asked me. She had sweet brown eyes and freckles.

I looked up at the cliff wall, Devil’s Island sandstone, red and orange layers, streaks of glimmering rock. The sea caves here are stunning, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the sweet purple flowers that hang on to that wall and manage to bloom where nothing else can grow.

“No,” I answered. “No, honestly every day I am surprised by how beautiful something here is. A few days ago it rained like crazy, and we were able to paddle under some waterfalls. That doesn’t happen very often.”

She nodded, satisfied.

The beauty of Lake Superior doesn’t lie inherently in cliffs and cold water. The Lake is both a lake and a sea. The Lake has both tropical-like beaches, and ice cold water. Superior can be calm and inviting one day, and sink ships the next. The Lake can feel completely like my home, and nearly drown me in the same day. The beauty of Lake Superior lies in unpredictability and contradiction, and in being one of the last truly wild spaces.


I wrote this piece a while ago, but didn’t like it. I threw it in a folder labeled “trash” on my computer and forgot about it. I found it recently, and it turns out I don’t hate it as much as I thought I did, so here it is. 

Adventure Guide: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the Bayfield Peninsula

So you’re planning on visiting the Bayfield Peninsula and Apostle Islands? Awesome, I’m totally stoked for you! After spending the summer working as a kayak guide in the Islands and living in Bayfield, I would love to show you around.

I’ve broken up this guide by length of stay as well as included an “adventure rating” so that you can accurately gauge what kind of adventure you are signing up for. The key for the “adventure rating” is at the bottom of this post.

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Cliff detail at the Mainland Sea Caves, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Weekend in Bayfield

A weekend in Bayfield is the perfect way to sample the area. From trails on land and water to restaurants, I’ve got you covered on how to spend your Saturday and Sunday!

Adventure:

  • Hike Houghton Falls Nature Preserve: Beginner. This is an easy two mile hike out to a waterfall, sandstone canyon, and Lake Superior.
  • Paddle Cliffs, Shipwrecks and Caves: Living Adventure offers a lovely half-day tour of the Red Cliff area, including the shipwreck the “Fedora”, stunning cliff line and eagles, and arch, and a view of several of the Apostle Islands. The tour is three hours—perfect if you’ve only got two days in town or are nervous about paddling open water! NOTE: If you’re thinking about taking out your own kayak read this first.
  • Explore: Take a quick trip up to Cornucopia, WI and visit the state’s Northern most post office! Pop in to Elher’s store to get that real Northwoods feel, and then pop into Corny Coffee and Sweets for a coffee. Head over to the beach for a chilly swim or sunbath and walk along the fishing docks. Head over to…
  • Hike Lost Creek Falls: Beginner/Intermediate. About two miles round trip out to the falls and back. Located near Cornucopia, WI.

Eat:

  • Grab some brown sugar cured smoked trout from Bay Fisheries for lunch and have a picnic on the Iron Bridge Trail.
  • Head over to The Copper Crow vodka distillery for THE best mixed drinks and vodka around. Order a Frog Bite, a jalapeño margarita if you’re looking to sweat. The best way to appreciate “the spirit of Superior”.
  • For dinner, try Maggie’s flamingo themed restaurant (order the whitefish livers appetizer, just trust me).
  • If you’re looking for the best fish dinner in town and a more refined dining feel, check out The Copper Trout.
  • For breakfast, visit the Manypenny Bistro. I would recommend “the Crabby Benny”.

Stay:

  • Camp: consider the Little Sand Bay. This spot is right on the Lake and has a beautiful view of the milky way at night. Backup: Buffalo Bay in Red Cliff.
  • Hotel: look at The Bayfield Inn. They’re located right in the heart of Bayfield, walking distance from the Lake and great restaurants.

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Sights and scenes from the half-day tour

Three to Four Days in Bayfield

The perfect amount of time for some hardcore adventuring, four days in Bayfield won’t leave you disappointed!

Adventure:

  • Hike Meyers Beach Sea Caves: At about 1.5 miles out to the first sea cave, this hike has some of the best views and cliff line in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. There are as many as 5 miles of trail to explore, winding up and down over steep ledges and over small streams. The best times to visit are at sunset, when the sandstone cliffs are lit up, after a big rain when the waterfalls are up, or when it’s windy and we have a small craft advisory, so you can watch the big waves roll into the cliffs.
  • Paddle the Mainland Sea Caves: Some of Superior’s most beautiful shoreline is hiding right in Wisconsin! The full day sea caves paddle is not for the faint of heart—you are looking at one of the most unpredictable points on Superior and the weather changes on a dime. Be sure to book a guided tour. NOTE: Don’t take your own boat. You don’t want to be this year’s hypothermic Coast Guard Rescue. Don’t go if you have a shoulder injury. Kayaking and shoulder injuries don’t mix.
  • Explore Madeline Island: Beginner/Intermediate. Whether you want to explore by car, bike, or foot is up to you, but Madeline Island has lots to offer, including cliff jumping and hiking at Big Bay State Park, the sights and sounds at Tom’s Burned Down Café, a museum, and a booming art scene fostered by the Madeline Island Art School. Hop on the ferry and set your watch to island time!
  • Catch a Sunset: Head over to Little Sand Bay and watch the sunset behind Sand Island. Stick around for some of the best stargazing this world has to offer.

Eat:

  • After a long day of adventuring cruise over to Morty’s Pub for a burger, beer, and a round of pool.
  • Check out The Fat Radish for a locally- sourced, organic, delicious breakfast, lunch or dinner!
  • After, head up to the rooftop bar of The Bayfield Inn and have a drink while watching the sun set. Order a Bent Paddle Golden IPA in my honor.

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Keyhole Arch on the full day sea caves tour, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Week in Bayfield

The best way to get a sense of the full area, and a great way to kick off some immersive adventures!

Adventure:

  • Hike Stockton Island: Take a shuttle out to Stockton Island and appreciate the countless hiking trails and pristine beaches in the heart of the Apostles. Backpacking routes are available if you’re up to the challenge!
  • Overnight Paddling: Without a doubt, spending a night or two in the islands is the best way to experience Lake Superior. Start off with a two-day, one-night or a three-day, two-night tour. Tours generally start on Sand Island, and feature sea caves, lighthouses, beaches, a blanket of stars, and great campfire storytelling. Dip your feet into the world of sea kayak touring and learn a few tricks of the trade! If you can only do one thing on this whole list, do this.
  • Apostle Islands Grand Tour: Sit back, relax, and cruise through the islands, enjoying lighthouses and stories, all the way out to Devil’s Island.

Eat:

  • At this point I have almost completely exhausted all food options in Bayfield, but wait! Order a pizza (meat lover’s) from Manypenny Bistro for a night in! Or order your pizza to be delivered to the previously mentioned rooftop bar at the Bayfield Inn or Copper Crow Distillery.
  • Grab a morning coffee and a blueberry Danish from Kickapoo Coffee.
  • Head into Washburn, WI and visit Coco’s Bakery for some state of the art breakfast foods!

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Last light from Oak Island, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

The Bayfield Peninsula and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore are some of the most underrated adventure hotspots, and are near and dear to my heart. If you’re planning an adventure, I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment below or shoot me an email.

Notes:

*None of these are affiliate links; all are honest opinions formed after living and working in the area for three months.

**I CANNOT recommend taking out personal kayaks or kayaking without a guide. If you are not an experienced sea kayaker, then you need a guide. Experienced kayaker and sea kayaker are not the same thing. If you do not have a sea kayak, you should not be on Superior. People die every year doing this. I don’t want that to be you. More questions? Click here.

***The kayaking company linked here is the one I worked for. I can personally vouch that not only do they treat their employees excellently, but they go out of their way to make sure that they are following ethical practices and limiting their environmental impact. Leftover food is rarely thrown away—it is fed to local pigs on a farm. Leave no trace is both followed and taught. Aside from this, they put participants’ safety and comfort FIRST. You will not be put in any unsafe positions, and you will not leave terrified. That is more than a lot of companies can say, and Living Adventure is the best choice you can make when it comes to sea kayaking.

ADVENTURE RATINGS KEY:

Beginner: Perfect for families with younger children, or people looking for a nice starting point before launching into more physically exerting adventures. This rating still assumes a baseline level of physical fitness such as the ability to walk at least three miles, but otherwise assumes beginner level of outdoor experience.

Intermediate: Perfect for people who like spending time outside, and are excited about the idea of immersing selves in nature. Assumes some experience hiking, paddling, camping, or a flexible and positive attitude. Assumes no shoulder injuries and ability to lift at least 50 pounds.

Advanced: Perfect for people who have experience with outdoor recreation, and are prepared to tackle more strenuous hikes and adventures.

Where to next?