Sailing in the Apostle Islands

August 4-7, 2002


My partners in sailing were Tom and Matt Melloy, father and son.  Tom graduated from the College in 1972, so we arrived there together in 1968.  He did an M.A. in political theory at Columbia and then took a law degree from the University of Iowa.  He married Cindy Jensen, who grew up near Mount Vernon and whose brother, Eric, was a friend of Kirsten’s.  Cindy was in medical school at Iowa while Tom was in law school.  Both have practices in St. Cloud, Minnesota.  Their children are Megan and Matt.  Megan is a college student at Beloit College.  Matt is in high school.


The concourse that served Northwest’s Cedar Rapids flight to the Twin Cities must rank as one of the world’s longest.  Ten gates in it were being reconstructed and passengers from remote gates were bused almost half way to the main terminal.  The remaining distance, almost a mile, went quickly for those who rode the three walk way belts at ten gate intervals, but pity the poor person who had to make the trek when belts were busted. At least they had longer to view the hundreds of hanging flower baskets high above the roadway that parallels the concourse.  The main terminal proved a vast, empty space with a large information desk behind which sat a sleepy, fair-haired man.  I asked him if the flowers were watered and fed by hand.  “No,” he said.

It’s the largest automated system of its kind in the world.  Sensors provide a computer with current time, temperature, humidity, and soil conditions.  The Web provides a weather forecast.  A computer decides when and how much to water and feed.  To date, not a single basket has failed to flourish.

“Trouble with insects, birds . . . an occasional leaf turning brown?” I asked.  “Don’t know about that,” he replied.  Only then did I fully realize that I was in Minnesota, where the plants are evergreen and the belts never bust.


Executive Express’s van to St. Cloud was the only way to get there.  Severe thunderstorms closed the St. Cloud Airport, so today’s commuter flights to St. Cloud were canceled.  The only other St. Cloud bound passenger was a “hockey Mom” from an Ann Arbor, Michigan suburb whose son was encamped in St. Cloud State University’s nationally competitive program for gifted 15 year old hockey players.


Tom met me at St. Cloud’s Holiday Inn and together we departed.  Arriving a bit earlier than Tom, I had made a sweep of HI’s layout, observing that a large wedding reception was about to begin.  Big tables in several decorated party rooms were decked with snacks.  Girls, teenage and beyond, stood outside the rooms looking bored, and further out in the halls 15 year old hockey lads, whose parents were staying at HI, were reinventing themselves as party crashers and were now seriously looking for fun. Tom instantly grasped the whole scene from a few bits of it I mentioned. 


The evening that followed featured conversations with, Tom, Cindy, and Megan, salmon and homemade peach ice cream, plus a light, steady rain throughout a cool dusk, adding half an inch to the five already in the rain gauge.  Woven into evening conversation was Cindy’s dunking at a weekend hospital fair, family travels, wilderness programs, Megan’s studies, and Matt’s return that day from a Texas stay with his grandparents (Matt himself was absent in order to catch up with friends before venturing the Apostle Islands with a pair of oldsters). Sprinkled throughout the talk were comic allusions by Tom to imagined events at Holiday Inn party HQ.  Then, and in other comic moments, the hooded, easily averted eyes that I so associate with Tom’s face, seem to widen.  His gaze becomes direct and penetrating.  In laughter, our eyes meet and the accidents of our separate lives yield to deeper levels of experience common to all who are vested in fathering and husbanding.  Few words ever emerge from these depths for either of us.  The moment slips away, but it remains unforgettable.  In the fabric of my memory, a tapestry of gentleness best represents what I knew with these friends in their home.  Raw harshness seemed for now wrung out of their lives.  Active edges were plainly visible but none cut within these walls.


Kitchen and main floor are empty. The skies are overcast but no rain falls now. In a few minutes, Tom appears with sleeping bags and mentions a noon departure.  Slowly over the following hours, the provision pile grows, but it does so by intervals and in no particular order.  The rains, and perhaps faulty roof drainage, have left a wet corner in the basement.  Megan, Tom, and Cindy attend, each in varying ways.


Cindy lays out a leave-taking brunch. Matt appears.  Talk revolves around him, edging ever closer to Matt’s right heel where splinters lie embedded.  By 1130, Cindy is emphatically Dr. Mom.  Matt walks deliberately back and forth, Cindy watches intently as each step puts weight on the wound.  She found pus in it this morning.  “I hope you are telling me the truth that it doesn’t hurt when you walk. You seem to favor that heel!”  More walking back and forth, more scrutiny, and finally, “Here’s what I want you to do while you are gone.” 


No rain so far today.  While Tom and Matt load the car, I ask Cindy about her success with clematis x jackmanii.  Their purple flowers soften the two most visible corners approaching the entrance to the house, running the length from ground to roofline.  The effect was stunning, especially for one, like me, who had tried to get the plant to produce under similar conditions and with very limited success.  We moved easily to other plantings as Tom backed the car out with Matt in it.  Matt jumps out to get a different pair of shoes.  Tom stands by the car door and stretches.  Cindy comes over, puts her arms around his neck, and kisses him for a long moment.


Arrive Port Superior Marina after a drive that featured local roads, small towns, seedy-side tourist locales, plus a long stretch of national forest.  The air along the way was heavy, the ground sodden, and an occasional break in the clouds brought sun, baking both into steam.  Twenty minutes before our arrival at the dock, the wind, which had been moving ever so slightly from the southwest, shifted to northeast, not increasing in speed but instead emptying the sky of clouds and filling it with air so clear that distant, light colored roofs of occasional cabins along the shores of Lake Superior seemed to bejewel the line where clear, blue water met gray rocks blending to deep forest green.  Lake, even “great lake,” are not apt words.  What one beholds is a sea, the world’s largest inland body of water.  Superior holds 10% of the earth’s freshwater. The sea surface at dock level is an unbroken shimmer, which elongated in late sunlight every shape it reflected.  Several pictures taken then are among my better efforts with a camera. We gather paperwork from Superior Charters, briefly board BlueBelle, assign cabins (Matt forward, Tom aft, and me at switches, chartplotter, and ladderway), chill the cold plate and estimate icebox capacity.


We are in Bayfield looking for a full-sized grocery store, without success.  Bayfield is for visitors with time, money and a love of the outdoors or its artifacts.  Visitors with a purpose, mostly aging sailors and youthful kayakers, meet their needs largely in Ashland, a forty-minute drive south.  None of us felt compelled to go there and we made the best of a pitiful roadside market.  We also stopped at Maggies, Bayfield’s best-known restaurant. In décor, Maggies stretched the already over-extended image of the Apostle Islands as the Caribbean of the North.  The food was better than the décor.   The hostess took a name and told us to return in an hour.  We used the time to empty the car, stow provisions aboard BlueBelle and discover that Matt had left a potent, oral antibiotic for his foot in St. Cloud.  The late hours of Sunday and early hours of Monday were, for Tom and Matt, the most trying of the whole trip.

            Introducing myself to a boat newer than I had ever known was much less trying. The chartermaster’s checklist was an obvious place to start and I located all the essential equipment (fire extinguishers, life vests, emergency rudder, etc.) plus items reported to be aboard but not found (2nd flashlight).  I looked closely at hull and deck. Three dings on  deck were all I found and I added a fourth when a winch slipped.  Otherwise BlueBelle was as flawless as the day her bow first kissed water.  She had been closed up, all ports and hatches locked down tight, probably for days, but the only smell that met my nose when I first went below was that of an expensive furniture finishing compound which had been used on the cherry wood covering almost every surface in the main cabin. BlueBelle looked and smelled utterly unused, and she road high, if still dockbound, on a shimmering sea in the late day light of early August.


The sun was two fingers above the horizon as I left the Marina showers and strolled quietly up the dock, nodding to an elderly woman going shoreward in a heavy, expensive but well-worn sweater. Her dog pulled hard at the leash and she reluctantly picked up the pace.  We were both smiling as we passed, for the day breaking promised to be especially fine.   The cool, dry, cloudless sky on which the sun had set now reappeared in hues of blue and fading rose.  The dawn’s calm was fading as well, the breeze was building, and the sea surface began to dance.  Tom met me at BlueBelle’s slip and we stood by the boat for some moments enjoying the morning. The pharmacy in Washburn (12-15 miles south of the Marina) didn’t open until 9 AM, Matt was still asleep in the forward berth, so Tom and I went into Bayfield for coffee and pastries to start the day for me and for Matt, whose weakness was cake donuts.


Tom and Matt head for Washburn while I focused on gear and throttle action at the helm.  It had baffled me yesterday.  Instead of separate controls for each, standard practice for decades of sailboats with auxiliary engines, the controls were combined and a smooth departure required quick mastery of the combined action.  Dave, our chartermaster, came aboard for his briefing on uncharted hazards, new Park Service rules, and likely anchorages for the weather ahead.  He quickly reviewed what I already knew (battery switches (both when starting; then alternating between 1 & 2 on odd and even nights), electrical panel, VHF radio, etc.) and as quickly raced through gear and throttle controls.  When I asked Dave to repeat the latter, he said:  “Start her up and work out the action while tied to the dock.”  He left but did not take my doubts with him.  I jotted down a list of predeparture tasks and began doing them in order: checking pressure in the dinghy and transferring its painter to a stern cleat, disconnecting shore power, switching off the cold plate, switching on the instruments, etc.. 


 Just as I had the diesel engine ready to take a load, Tom and Matt returned with Augmentin in hand, we iced the chilled box and provisioned it, retrieved loosened docklines, checked over the side for a dry exhaust or lines that might foul the prop, and finally backed BlueBelle out of her slip.  Shifting to forward and throttling up in the same motion, we edged around the closely spaced piers with a close eye on the depth gauge.  The channel was narrow, boat traffic was moving in and out, and our margin for error was very small.  We needed no more.


Motoring 090 through Pike’s Bay, BlueBelle cleared the point of land that had protected the Marina from a northerly wind.  Within 20-25 minutes, I saw before me one of the two days in the last five year experience that were absolutely perfect for sailing.  A strong, steady, 15-20 knot breeze was coming over our port quarter rail.  All we had to do was turn northeast into the wind, hoist the mainsail, once I had found the screw tackle and attached it to the halyard, and then roll out the jib.


Before touching the engine kill switch, I did a VHF, channel 16 hail to Superior Charter’s radio base, retuned to channel 9 and got a loud and clear reply from base.  We were at the mercy of wind and water for the next five hours but had help nearby if we needed it. As the sun climbed higher in the sky, its warmth grew and every one of those knots of cool, dry wind were needed to cool our excitement and exertion. Tom was at the helm as we tacked back and forth among dancing whitecaps on 3 mile legs between a Bayfield shore to our west and a Madeline Island shore to our east.  Between these shores, two car ferries ran at speed and keeping well out of their way doubled helm and sail work.


Through the hours a routine developed that came to inform our decision about direction and anchorage.  The southern point of Basswood Island soon forced us to choose between the North and West Channels.  The North Channel was widest and enabled us to make the greatest advance into the Apostle Islands on our northwest legs.  With Matt and I handling the sheets and Tom the helm, we close hauled on reciprocating courses that ran a course of 330 degrees on our westerly leg while we fought to keep from slipping south on the easterly one.  Each leg was approximately 25-30 minutes long and two other sail boats were using the same courses, at seconds of latitude above and below us, so catching and being caught added a bit to the excitement and made watchstanding more than a formality.  Matt and I consulted the charts for anchorages on or near our course lines.  I  showed Matt how to pin location of an anchorage by using chart coordinates of latitude and longitude.  I rechecked his coordinates and entered them into my handheld GPS receiver, which gave us a reading of distance and direction from our current position. We were seven miles southwest of Quarry Bay, an anchorage specifically endorsed by our chartermaster.


Wind speed is now half of what it was in early afternoon, whitecaps are rare, but we had put the shores of Basswood Island well behind us and were still successfully tacking along Hermit Island’s shores.  We could not actually see into Quarry Bay but at a distance of 2 miles we could see clearly the cliffs immediately east of the Bay’s mouth.  I was hoping that we could sail within yards of the Bay, but 1630 marked the beginning of evening’s calm. Several attempted tacks turned into jibes, surprising Matt at the helm and leaving me to explain why empty sails will not bring the bow through the eye of very light wind.  We fell back on auxiliary power, brought in the sails and motored into a busy Quarry Bay.  A mix of power and sail boats were tied to the Park Service dock and four sail boats were already anchored in the most protected quarter of the Bay.  We dropped anchor in 15-foot water with shores on two sides of us, one a half-mile long beach no more than 60 yards away. Securing the boat, we turned to exploring the Bay.  Young people on other anchored boats were swimming, playing, and dinghying around beach and bay.


Matt and Tom climbed into our tiny dinghy and paddled beachward, Matt in the coxswain position against the transom and Tom in the place for a passenger.  Repeated attempts to photograph the pair thus seated yielded a few good shots but none that satisfied me.  I pulled on a bathing suit, lowered the swim ladder, and eased myself into chilly water. A half mile’s hard swimming warmed me.  I donned a mask and snorkel to check for conditions on the bottom and how well our anchor had set. I had no trouble seeing 18 feet below me, but, apart from lots of pebbles, into which the flukes of our anchor had dug, there was nothing to see. As dusk approached so did a host of various boats seeking anchorage.  By dark, more than a dozen boats had tucked in around us, one a 40 year old 38-foot trawler, beautifully kept and badly captained.  We first noticed him when he reversed hard and almost ran over the canoe in tow behind him.  He later tried to set anchor in the dark and almost atop us.  At dawn, I noticed his boat well west of us and wondered if his anchor had ever taken hold.


The day ended comically.  I found it impossible to thread the fuel container into the BBQ grill.  Tom accomplished it but couldn’t find the hamburger to cook.  We had chips, cold cuts, bread, and mustard, played hearts, and crowned Tom the winner before 2230 lights out.


Everybody slept in.  We breakfasted, Tom and Matt in the cabin, me in the cockpit listening to the weather report and idling the diesel.  We weighed anchor and were in open water by 1000. Wind and sea conditions were again close to ideal for our crew. Having sailed upwind most of yesterday, we decided today to gain some downwind experience. We pointed BlueBelle’s bow westward and let the 12-14 knot east wind push us gently along.  Though we actually moved at almost the same speed of yesterday, everything else was different.  We rarely felt the wind blow, the sails and standing rigging made little if any noise, we made no tacks but jibed on a few occasions.  Mellow was the morning.  I put on one of my Jimmy Buffet CDs to complete the mood.  We cleared the northern tip of Basswood Island and aimed Bluebelle northwest toward the Raspberry Island Light.  Without jibing once, she raced the distance, covering in two hours what it took five hours the day before to cover.  Along the way we rejected Frog Bay as an anchorage, leaving Raspberry Bay as an alternative.  In late morning, the helm became more of a challenge.  Our mainsail held most of the wind and it was hitting this sail at a point well out from the Bluebelle’s centerline.  The result was a yawing motion that swung the stern windward and the bow leeward, leaving the helmsman to compensate with the rudder.  Tom addressed the challenge and did awkward work well, though no doubt he found it a little disconcerting, especially as the wind approached 20 knots later in the day.


Dredges, cranes, and other construction equipment surrounded the dock at the Raspberry Lighthouse, so we decided not to approach it.  Raspberry Island beach was thus the only point of access.  Matt had early expressed a clear desire to see the Lighthouse, but the landing would be tricky, I thought.  A beach approach required us to face the wind and whitecaps rather than race through their tailing remains.  Shoals kept us more than 50 yards offshore; the beach was small and ended in a sandy point with brown shallows extending 20-30 yards out towards Manitou Island.  I had hoped to find a 15 foot deep pool behind the point into which we could tuck Bluebelle for several hours, but, on our approach under power, depth readings fell dramatically from 50 feet to 12-13 feet and I had to pull up short.  Wind whistled through the shrouds as I idled the engine; the boat fell back and set the anchor quickly.  Tom was hesitant.  Matt was determined but also eager to have company.  We stuffed down more cold cuts (few go sailing on small boats for gourmet food).  Finally, speaking in a definite voice, Tom said, “I’ll go with you, Matt.”  I briefed Tom and Matt on dinghies in a wind, on a rocky shore landing, on hauling the dinghy up to the sandy point for a downwind return to BlueBelle.


Matt and Tom were off, they paddled with strong strokes, and their landing was uneventful.  Once among the stones, they seemed to try several different ways of beaching the dinghy, until Matt simply picked it up, put it over his head, and crossed the rocks, angling his burden lest it be swept before the wind.  With the dinghy stowed, they headed up the trail to the lighthouse.  I let out a long breath and went below out of the wind to begin this journal.  The sun had gone, mid-level clouds swept the sky, and we got our first sign that the high-pressure system was breaking up, taking the beautiful weather of this morning and yesterday with it.  Tomorrow would be a different story.


Matt and Tom reappeared on the beach and within minutes were beside the boat and almost past it. The sky had cleared as quickly as it had clouded. With anchor and sails up, we seem to skip before the wind to Raspberry Bay, though an accidental jibe reminded us of the main hazard for this point of sail.  None of us suffered this time, as the wild, sweeping boom crossed above our heads.


A gleaming 35-foot sailboat stood at anchor in the expanse of the area’s biggest bay.  Except for a Red Cliff Indian homestead and dock on the west side, the bay was empty.  The sailboat left as we began probing for the 15 foot depth line on the eastern, most protected shore and found it almost within spitting distance of red boulders at the foot of a steep bank on which grew hundreds of white, bending birches.  Wind and anchor insured that our cockpit benches were almost perfectly aligned to the warmth of a sinking sun. The evening calm settled in, the air was clear and cool, but the sun still had heat. Tom and Matt found cushions and napped in these quiet, late hours of the day.  I tried to swim but was chased back aboard by water much colder than in Quarry Bay.

            The hours that followed were so beautiful as to make a heart ache.  I fought off biblical terms as pretentious but there was no denying that in the crevice where the white birch bank met dark blue water along a line of red rocked caves, our small vessel was held in a transcendent embrace.  With each passing quarter hour, the sun setting across the bay seemed to cast light more horizontally and the calm, sea surface magnified it by further reflection.  The wet, red boulders gained an almost Pentecostal brightness, which was carried up the bank by thin, white willows of birch that were no longer illumined from the top but from the side.


            Amidst such splendor, we celebrated Matt’s birthday with a feast of beer brats.  Tom got the grill lighted with help from Matt and the bratwursts sizzled in smoke that itself seemed tasty enough to eat.  The feast was capped by a minor miracle.  After days of constant attention and concern, the splinter that was buried deep in Matt’s foot shot out as he gave the wound a quick, strong squeeze. He beamed not merely with relief but with real and obvious pleasure.

            The cards came out again after supper, but not for long. A quick check of the chart showed that a mid-afternoon return to Port Superior Marina would probably require an early departure from Raspberry Bay, so we faded almost with the light.


Overcast skies confirmed a weather report that called for morning showers and southeasterly winds of variable speed.  The cloud cover was breaking up as we motored around fish traps lying off Raspberry Point and headed down Bayfield peninsula with Oak Island to the east.  Occasional shafts of light appeared but so would drizzles and we donned our warmest gear.  The pictures from this day show how quickly the weather changes here, and it would change again at mid-day.  A southeasterly wind of a little less than 10 knots made the North Channel more attractive than the West one, so we motored further east, passing between Hermit and Basswood islands. 


We had the Channel entirely to ourselves as we raised sails and killed the engine a few miles off of Madeline Island.  We tried to point our bow towards Bayfield.  What wind there was came too much from the south for us to hold a Bayfield course, so we began tacking. Two legs into passage down the Channel and what little wind there was died entirely.  We tried to come about and failed.  We sat.


We chugged along under diesel power without much regret.  Monday had been a remarkable upwind day; Tuesday was comparablely a downwind one; it seemed somehow fitting that there should be a “nowind day.”  In any case, the sun broke through, the sky completely cleared as we entered Pike’s Bay, but no wind arrived.  Bigger sail boats sat becalmed, littler ones turned in aimless circles.


BlueBelle was gently eased into her slip at Port Superior Marina.  Moments before, I had turned a pier too soon and was on the verge of misplacing her, but Tom and Matt had caught the error almost before I committed it. In theory, we had the boat until 4 PM, but without wind, the opportunity meant little.  We piled our stuff on the dock and in the process found the hamburger meat that had eluded us on Monday night.  Tom set it aside for tonight’s supper in St. Cloud.  A lady whose boat was in the slip opposite ours overheard that we had ice remaining and she came to help her self at our insistence.  Tom set to cleaning the inside; Matt and I replaced the sail covers and worked on cleaning the outside.  Over three days and an equal number of nights, BlueBelle had gotten grimy.


We checked out at the office, loaded the car, and were in Bayfield for lunch at an outdoor table overlooking the yacht harbor and ferry landing.  The waterfront was busy but Matt was driving us toward Duluth an hour or so later as Tom napped in the front seat and I made journal notes.  The west side of Bayfield peninsula was almost deserted and we drove along miles of sandy beach broken only by an occasional inlet where a small river flowed into the Lake.


We were back at Tom and Cindy’s house and everybody disappeared for showers before doing anything else. The only memorable feature in the last half of the drive was seeing huge docks jutting high out of a hillside towards a canal feeding into the Lake.  Rail cars full of ore once traversed the docks and dumped their loads into the bellies of large ships that provided raw materials for steel mills from Pennsylvania to Illinois.  Nothing moved on these docks now and most of the mills have been closed.


The future of Lake Superior seems now to be much less industrial and much more recreational.  As Tom and Matt were heading for the eastern, Wisconsin side of Lake Superior, Cindy and Megan were on its western Minnesota side. Their activities were on land not water, but they were similarly out of doors.  Compared to other places sustained by outdoor recreation, Lake Superior’s south shore, from Minnesota to Wisconsin to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is remarkable for how few people go there.  Vast stretches are wilderness. Commercial development is rare and on a very small scale where it exists.  Bayfield and Madeline Island come as close to offering luxury resorts as anyplace else on the south shores, but these resorts do not begin to approach Bald Head Island, Hilton Head or the Cloisters, much less Newport or the Vineyard.  The people drawn to this area tend to be young, rugged, and of relatively modest means.  There are far more kayakers than sailors.  Winter visitors may be very different, but even they are unlikely to change the impression of unspoiled majesty. 

The wonder of this area is natural but more so because human beings are so small in it rather than because their efforts have succeeded in preserving a fragile environment.  Those who know Maine of 30 years ago, find a comparison apt, especially Maine’s inland woods and lakes.  The difference between salt water and fresh is, however, a huge one, and it doesn’t take a keen nose to mark it.  The Maine coast has the odor of sea life teaming in a tidal wash.  The shores of Lake Superior rarely offer smells that differ from inland areas.  Trees rather than water are the source of what one’s nose remembers.  The waters and shores here are especially distinctive because of the play of light upon them. Each view is crystal, it has a definite sparkle, and if one could hit it with a fork, a ring would no doubt result.


Rob Sutherland

August 30, 2002