Exploring the Jewels of Lake Superior


An Unsettling Launch

We bounced and bobbed around, like five little specs on the greatest of the Great Lakes. Only 100 paddle strokes behind us and doubt already crept in—what did we get ourselves into?

The five of us had just left Sand Bay, the launching point for our week-long standup paddling expedition in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, located in Bayfield, Wisconsin. The sprawling 720-square-mile area features 12 miles of mainland shoreline and 21 forested islands—the “Jewels of Lake Superior.”

Our first jewel would be Sand Island, but it looked much farther than the map led us to believe. Distance is deceiving in a place as vast as Lake Superior, but it’s not the only danger.

Throughout the years, myriad weather hazards including extreme winds, waves, thunderstorms, fog, and currents have vexed local mariners. While monitoring the daily forecast with a VHF radio is essential, Superior is unpredictable. It forces you to rely on your senses and read the weather conditions unfolding around you. If it looks like trouble is brewing, shore is the place to stay.

A steady sidewind and choppy water was complicating our initial three-mile crossing to Sand Island. While Lake Superior’s signature chill was not a factor due to abnormally high water temperatures, wind and waves certainly would be.

Despite the ominous start, we kept digging until reaching Sand Island’s rugged shoreline. While there was no sand to be found, stunning sandstone cliffs, spectacular sea caves, and the ragged edge of the Northwoods forest greeted us instead.

We paddled north through East Bay, rounded the northeast tip of the island and cruised into Lighthouse Bay. The shoreline had transformed from sandstone cliffs into a long sandy beach. Without another soul in sight, we claimed a campsite and spent the afternoon swimming, fishing, and relaxing. Just another day on the beach.

The Lucky Quarter
When outdoor photographer and avid paddler Aaron Black-Schmidt floated the idea of returning to Lake Superior to paddle the Apostle Islands, I couldn’t resist the opportunity. In 2019, we did a SUP expedition on Isle Royale National Park—a wild and breathtaking archipelago in Lake Superior’s northern waters, over 100 miles away. It was on that trip that this unpredictable and gorgeous paddling environment first captivated me.

This time, we were joined by a trio of fun-loving paddlers from Kentucky—Aaron Koch, Heather Warman, and Heather McConnell. Aaron and Heather W. own a SUP and kayak outfitter—SUP Kentucky—located along the Red River about 60 miles southeast of Lexington, Kentucky. The other Heather’s day job is in medical sales, but she picked up paddling a few years ago on a tour with SUP Kentucky—the Heathers became fast friends.

While some folks flip coins to make decisions, Heather M. simply picked up the right one. “I heard about the trip a week before and didn’t even commit until I found a quarter that showed the Apostle Islands,” she said. “Once I saw that, I knew I wanted to go.”

Now we were all together on Sand Island, ready to experience whatever Superior had in store for us—the good, the bad, the ugly.

The Kentucky crew experienced the bad side of Lake Superior the day prior, during a presumedly casual warm-up paddle along the mainland shoreline. With beautiful sea caves and natural arches, the 12-mile stretch of mainland shoreline offers a spectacular paddling opportunity for those not ready for island-hopping. Paddling along the mainland shoreline is considerably safer than doing open crossings, but you can still get a taste for how quickly the weather can change.

“The wind was at seven knots and went up to 15 knots in 30 minutes,” said Heather W. “The waves were big, and I started to get really nervous about how the rest of the trip was going to be.”

Each one of us were keenly aware of the challenges that lay ahead—the ugly was what we needed to avoid. But during that particular evening on Sand Island, we were blessed with the good.

The setting sun illuminated billowing thunderclouds in the distance, coloring the sky and water with brilliant hues of gold, orange and red. I grabbed my board and paddled into a real-life painting. Mother Nature’s masterpieces don’t fit in a stuffy museum, she makes you work to visit her artwork.

Devil’s Isle Playground
With our time limited and 15 miles of open water between us and the outermost island—Devil’s Isle—we hitched a ride on a boat taxi. After lashing our gear to the boards and resuming our paddle, we were immediately met with the famed Devil’s Isle sea caves—one of the most spectacular paddling environments we’d ever witnessed.

Aided by dead-calm conditions, we spent over two hours gliding under natural arches, crouching through tight tunnels, and paddling around cavernous rooms. The tree-topped sandstone cliffs had been carved out by centuries of powerful storms, violent waves, and frozen Lake Superior winters—a confluence of natural forces that created this magnificent place to explore.

We weaved through the maze of sea caves, ducking into every nook and cranny like kids on a playground. Once it was finally time to leave, we set out on a 4.5-mile open water crossing to Rocky Island; continuing on to our next campsite on South Twin Island. It was our trip’s most hazardous crossing, but Superior was in a good mood with picturesque weather—cloudless, windless, stressless.

“Why is nobody out here today?” asked Heather M.

The glassy waterway was empty; just our crew paddling through an expansive area of tranquil wilderness. Halfway between the islands, I used a Lifestraw to take a sip of the world’s largest drink when I noticed something different—silence. Not the type of silence you hear in your room at night, nor the type of solitude that can be discovered on your local nature trail. This was different. This was a deafening silence, a moment of pure tranquility. In a world gone mad, the ability to experience zero decibels and zero distractions is a moment to be cherished.

I took out my GoPro and recorded a few seconds. I wanted to capture that moment, to take back with me in hopes that whenever I needed it, I could escape back to this peaceful place. Just for the record, the video doesn’t do it justice—some experiences simply can’t be captured.

Once we reached our campsite on South Twin, we enjoyed a hard-earned lunch of hearty tacos stuffed with salami, cheese, olives and an Arby’s sauce packet; peanut butter and honey tacos for dessert. Backcountry adventures tend to inspire curious culinary creations.

“Isn’t it funny how the things that got us excited as kids, still gets us excited today?” said Heather W., as we all sat on the rocky shoreline, skipping rocks into the lake.

A storm was forecasted to blow in overnight, but we didn’t care, the escape vibes were setting in. Later that evening, we stared at the stars while sitting around the campfire telling stories, you know, kid stuff.

Surfin’ Superior
The clouds had blown in and the wind was gusting to 25 knots. Just a breeze by Lake Superior standards, but enough to keep us landlocked for the day. As we sat on the beach and watched whitecaps whipping through the channel, something caught our eye—a clean line wrapping around the northwest tip of the island. The Aarons and I geared up, grabbed our boards, and paddled out in search of freshwater waves—the ladies clearly had more brains than us.

Stiff headwinds blasted in our face as we left the protection of our little cove. We hugged a shoreline that had been ravaged by storms and waves exponentially bigger than the ones we struggled against. Boulders, trees, and driftwood had been blasted together into a mangled mess of raw, unfiltered nature. It was simultaneously beautiful and terrifying.

“The boss is angry today,” said Schmidt.

The water looked angry with a concoction of jumbled whitecaps, hellacious headwinds, and crashing waves—Superior Stew. We were testing the boundaries of the lake’s patience.

Struggling against the headwind, we navigated around barely submerged boulders and fallen trees. After several failed attempts at dialing in the spot, Aaron managed to break through with the first wave of the day. The South Twin Island surf session was on.

Aaron paddled back with a big grin across his face and pointed to a rock.

“That’s the spot, this rock is where you want to take off from,” he said.

After adjusting to the nuances of the freshwater point break, I managed to get myself into position and picked off a clean peak forming in the chaotic channel. I stepped back on the Escape’s tail and cranked a turn on the wave’s wide-open face—a freshwater ride to remember.

We surf for another hour—battling wind, chop, shallow rocks and fatigue. Lake Superior doesn’t give up her waves easy, the boss puts up one hell of a fight. Eventually, she would land the knockout blow when Aaron snapped his paddle.

“We just surfed clean peelers in freshwater, and we don’t even have to clean our gear at the end of the day,” he joked, as he prone paddled back to camp.

Another Superior Surprise
The weather cleared by the following morning, so we began packing our gear into Bill’s Bags and set out across the channel for Bear Island.

With residual chop from the night before and a shift in wind, it felt like paddling in a washing machine. However, the loaded down Escape handled the turbulent waves and gobbled up chop with ease. We eventually reached Bear Island’s battered shoreline—gnarled trees grew parallel to water with mighty roots clinging to the eroding shoreline, prolonging their inevitable fall into the dark water below.

As we started setting up camp, the winds began to whip at 15 knots, triple what the weather forecast called for.

“Out here, it seems like the forecast is really just a generalization,” said Schmidt.

The Superior surprises kept coming, I wondered what would be next.

The Abyss
We awoke the next morning in a dense fog. Visibility was roughly 50 yards, anything beyond was the white abyss. We had prepared for this scenario and packed multiple GPS devices. So, we set our course and paddled into the soup.

The next hour felt like paddling in a different dimension, but we eventually noticed a dark outline forming in the fog—Raspberry Island. We paddled around the island and reached its lighthouse, where a cheerful ranger from the National Park Service greeted us.

“I’ve heard about you guys!” said the ranger. “One of the other tours groups told me they saw you guys paddling out here.”

Apparently, word was getting around about us.

After taking a tour of the historic lighthouse constructed in 1862, we bid farewell and began our final stretch back to Sand Bay and civilization. We paddled past a guided kayak tour, many of whom seemed bemused by our choice of craft.

“How far did you guys go on those things?” asked one incredulous kayaker.

In five days, we had paddled 21 miles, stepped foot on seven different islands, caught roughly a dozen freshwater waves, and ate more salami tacos than we care to admit. Maybe not your average vacation, but it was a damn good one if you ask us.

“That’s one thing I did not expect,” said Aaron. “I did not expect word would get out that there were paddleboarders camping. I figured that would just be normal.”

It’s easy to forget standup paddling is still in its infancy and has many skeptics. But that’s also what makes the sport so exhilarating—it’s still on the frontier of adventure sports.

During our final few miles, Lake Superior gave us the perfect parting gift—a tailwind. We cruised back to Sand Bay, gentling nosing our boards into the mainland and back to reality.

While safely completing an expedition on Lake Superior is always worth celebrating, part of me immediately wanted to return. Just a few more moments with that glorious sunset on Sand Island, exploring the breathtaking sea caves on Devil’s Isle, or freshwater surfing on South Twin Island.

Escape from the daily hustle is good for the soul. It allows us to recharge and recenter. That’s the type of escape you find in Lake Superior, a sacred place that’s as unpredictable as it is powerful; as dangerous as it is beautiful. A place where Mother Nature is boss, and her confounding beauty never ceases to amaze.

“We paddle a lot of places and one time is enough, but we will come back here,” said Aaron. “I want to spend a serious amount of time up here.”

He had the bug, the same one I caught two years ago—Lake Superior is contagious.

Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Jack Haworth is a professional writer and avid outdoorsman. Fascinated by the human experience and the incredible beauty of wild places, Jack is passionate about telling the stories of people, places and events that too often go unnoticed. His work has appeared in Men’s Journal, Outside Magazine, SUP the Mag, Canoe & Kayak, and more. All photos by Aaron Black-Schmidt