The Apostle Islands

The Apostle Islands are amazing. After we purchased Shanti, we moved her to Roys Point Marina, which sits right among these islands. We spent 5 years cruising there, and cannot express enough how truly incredible they are.

The Islands

the apostle islands

Click for a larger map

The Apostle Islands are a group of 22 islands in Lake Superior off the Bayfield Peninsula of Wisconsin. All but one (Madeline Island) are part of a national lakeshore (like a national park) managed by the National Park Service. Only one, Madeline Island, is inhabited year-round, although Rocky Island does have a few summer cabins. The rest are uninhabited, remote, and quite wild. There are no telephones, no internet, and with the exception of one or two small areas, no cell phone service, either.

The scenery

The scenery within the islands is spectacular. While Lake Superior itself is magnificent to see (and sail!), the islands are also stunning. Mostly made of sandstone, they were carved when the glaciers retreated after the last ice age, and have been subject to eons of waves and wind. Everywhere you look are bluffs, outcroppings, dramatic formations, and sea caves. There are beaches of boulders, rocks and sand. And almost all of them are covered in a forest of trees. Wildlife is also abundant, and typical of northern Wisconsin. Besides the common animals like red squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, and deer, there are also bear, foxes, and coyotes, as well as a whole host of waterfowl like loons, cormorants, and ducks.

Our favorite sight, however, had to be the eagles. Seeing them is truly special, considering how close they once were to extinction. Watching them soar and circle is an incredible experience by itself, but seeing them swoop down, grab a fish, and fly off to their nest is equally exciting. They are a wonder to behold.

Our experience

During our 5 years there, we sailed around most of the islands (and some many, many times)! After a while, though, we tended towards 3 main anchorages: Oak Island, Quarry Bay (on Stockton Island), and Raspberry Bay. Raspberry Bay is on the Wisconsin mainland, so not technically within the Apostle Islands, but it’s one of the most popular in the area.

The sailing season on Lake Superior is short – about 4 months long. Because of that, we spent almost every weekend at the boat during the summer and early fall. And once per summer, we also tried to spend one full week there. Our weekend routine was pretty typical. We’d arrive late Friday night and stay at the marina. On Saturday we’d sail around the islands for a while, then find an anchorage, cook some dinner, relax for a while, and call it a day. On Sunday we’d sail (or motor) back, to start the 4 hour journey home.

Wind and Waves

Wind in The Apostle Islands is extremely unpredictable. Because of the shape and distance between islands, the wind can twist and turn and funnel between islands in unexpected ways. From one side of an island to another, the wind can, quite literally blow 180° different. And it can get squeezed between islands, accelerating it well beyond prevailing conditions. It’s not uncommon to have perfectly calm conditions one moment, round an island, and have 20 knot winds a few minutes later. Quite challenging, indeed!

With wind comes waves, and unpredictable winds generate unpredictable waves. We have, several times, been sailing in 2 foot waves, seeing 6 footers in the next channel, only yards ahead, moving 90° from our course. Not much you can do at that point but slog through it! And sometimes, two “streams” of waves, moving in different directions, will collide. This can cause the wave heights to “add” together, causing high, steep waves, but isolated to small areas.


Warm, moist air from the gulf moving north meets cold, dry air from Canada moving south. This is one of the primary weather-making patterns in much of North America. Weather around Lake Superior is further influenced by two additional factors: the immense size of the lake, and it’s cold temperature.

Lake Superior is huge. It’s the largest of the Great Lakes, and in surface area is about the size of Maine. In volume, it could hold the water of all the other Great Lakes, plus 3 more Lake Eries. With its enormous size, it evaporates tons and tons of moisture into the air. When cold fronts meet the warm gulf air and sweep over Lake Superior, the additional moisture can super-duper storms. And when warm air moves over the lake, the cold surface can create fog so thick its simply unbelievable to witness.

Fog & Storms

thick fog

Thick fog

Lake Superior fog can get so thick it can obscure an outstretched hand. And it can set in fast, rolling in in thick banks, reducing visibility to near zero. We’ve seen it many times. In our Electronics posting, you can read about one of our experiences. And during our last trip from Roys Point to Washburn, we could only navigate thanks to radar. Without it, we would have never risked the 12 mile trip.

Lake Superior can also super-size storms to epic proportions. And with nothing to stop the wind, waves can build to 20 feet or more. They are not something to trifle with. Storms on Lake Superior can sink ships. When the National Weather Service forecasts severe weather, or the VHF broadcasts “seek safe harbor”, a prudent sailor will heed the warning. Luckily, The Apostle Islands can shelter a boat if caught in a storm, but only if it’s in the right place. We learned that the hard way.

Our storm from hell

It was a hot summer Sunday, we had taken Monday off, and were planning on anchoring out for the night. NOAA weather radio was predicting storms, and was also saying that “SkyWarn spotter activation” would likely be needed that evening. At that time, we didn’t know what that meant, so decided to go out anyway (mistake #1). We arrived at the anchorage, and being Sunday, we were the only ones there. On the horizon, we saw storm clouds building, but decided to stay anyway (mistake #2). We ate dinner and went to bed. Around 11PM, all hell broke loose.

what the lake looked like that night

What the lake looked like that night

The winds started blowing, and blowing harder. For about an hour, we had sustained wind speeds of 45-60 mph. Waves in the bay built to 6 feet, with a few 7 and 8 footers mixed in. The shrouds started vibrating with an eerie low frequency hum that shook the whole boat. Lightning was flashing multiple times per second, making everything look like one of those strobe light dance floor scenes in a movie. It was truly terrifying. But although shaken, we lived through it, and now treat weather forecasts with the utmost of respect. And we learned one extremely valuable thing: the SPADE anchor is awesome. Through it all, it never moved one inch. We are now firm believers in this incredible piece of ground tackle.

Farewell to The Apostle Islands

We spent 5 years cruising these islands, and they will always hold a special place in our hearts. They’re a national treasure, and we feel fortunate to have spent as much time as we did there. But now it’s time to expand our horizon, and in two months time, we will begin the next chapter in our cruising lives, as we depart on our big adventure. We don’t know what the future holds, or if any place will match our experience there. But we do know our time there was special, and that Lake Superior and The Apostle Islands have prepared us well for the journey to come.

More pics of The Apostle Islands

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