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The sea caves of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore are portals to awe-inducing adventure

In my mind, kayaking the sea caves here meant translucent water, sunshine and trees so green they’d hurt this drought-stricken Californian’s eyes

Instead, I encountered turbid waters and heavy skies delivering a continuous cold drizzle. Fog blanketed the evergreens atop the cliffs.

Yet it was a delight, the type of scenery the typical tourist kayaker rarely gets to see in the Apostle Islands. At least that’s what my guides, Bill and Ian of Trek &Trail Bayfield, said.

At first I wasn’t convinced, but they soon won a convert.

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, the “jewels of Lake Superior,” is a collection of 21 islands and a 12-mile sliver of the Bayfield Peninsula in northern Wisconsin.

Although I was in the area to attend a writing workshop, what I was really itching to do was explore the famous sea caves that line that slice of the peninsula.

After a quick lesson at Meyers Beach Recreation Area, our group of six kayakers headed for the caves a couple of miles away.

The water was choppy, and my bare feet ached when Lake Superior’s icy water sneaked into the double kayak I shared with Ian.

It was nippy even in early June. Three layers of fleece and a wet suit underneath couldn’t shield me from the chill. I paddled furiously just to keep warm. Ian admonished me to slow down and enjoy my surroundings.

He pointed out an eagle’s nest on top of a naked poplar tree — promising two eagle sightings later on our nearly eight-hour trip.

The wet weather added some mystery to the towering red sandstone caves. I had expected the blinding green of the Midwest, but the iron-oxidized cliff formations took me aback.

As we paddled closer, the caves’ arches and openings materialized in the mist, giving the eerie appearance of rust-hued, gigantic human skulls emerging from the lake.

Bill went ahead of our pack, making sure the caves were accessible despite the choppy waters. Most were all clear.

I giddily paddled through grand archways of carved-out rock to enter the first cave. Cliff swallows fluttered in and out, and crevices in the sandstone sucked in, churned and spat out water.

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The second cave — nicknamed “the garage” for its enormous size that could easily fit several vehicles — was one of the most exciting. VW bug-sized openings in the cave walls sucked in, then expelled lake water, transmitting a thunderous sound as it slammed into the cavern’s walls. 

At one point, I stopped and gawked at the geological wonder of the cave, created after a billion years of glacial, wave and wind erosion. A thin pillar of stone appeared to support thousands of pounds of rock.

“How does a 5-foot pillar hold so much rock?” I wondered.

About halfway through our cave explorations, we stopped on a sand beach to munch on sandwiches, smoked trout — a local delicacy — and chunky cookies. I walked and ate at the same time to keep warm.

Even Bill and Ian admitted that it was too cold to be out on the lake — even for the locals — so we soon headed for home.

The excursion also was a feast for those hoping to glimpse wildlife. Purple-bellied salamanders scurried on the majestic cliff walls, and hooded merganser ducks skied on the water.

By late afternoon the lake had calmed and looked like the dull side of aluminum foil. The fog and drizzle had dissipated.

We paddled along the shoreline of the peninsula, in awe of the funky shapes and red, pink, peach and yellow splashes of color on the rock formations.

The sky was still hazy, so we didn’t get a chance to see most of the outlying Apostle Islands. Still, I was more than satisfied, marveling at each cave and the shoreline’s distracting beauty.

I almost forgot my fingertips were nearly numb.

If you go

THE BEST WAY TO APOSTLE ISLANDS NATIONAL LAKESHORE

From LAX,  Delta, United and Alaska offer connecting service (change of planes) to Duluth, Minn. Restricted round-trip fares from $402, including taxes and fees. It’s about a 90-mile drive to the Apostle Islands headquarters in Bayfield, Wis.

WHERE TO STAY

Bayfield Inn, 20 Rittenhouse Ave., Bayfield, Wis.; (715) 779-3363. A newly renovated hotel offering simple accommodations, waterfront suites, condominiums and cottages. Close to the ferry, shops and restaurants.  Standard rooms from $99.

Old Rittenhouse Inn, 301 Rittenhouse Ave., Bayfield, Wis.; (715) 779-5111. A historic bed and breakfast offering luxury suites, whirlpool rooms and standard rooms with Lake Superior views in two Victorian homes. Queen rooms  from $140.

Harbor Hill House, 141 N. Front St., Bayfield, Wis..; (715) 779-9616. A charming three-bedroom bed and breakfast overlooking Lake Superior. Queen rooms from $110.

WHERE TO EAT

Landmark Restaurant at Old Rittenhouse Inn (see above), (715) 779-5112. Old-world, white linen tablecloths and attentive service featuring American and French-inspired cuisine. Try the fresh and buttery seared scallops and local smoked trout salad. Entrees $10 to $40.

Fat Radish, 200 Rittenhouse Ave., Bayfield, Wis.; (715) 779-9700. Good for lunch, with inventive wraps and healthful offerings.

Wild Rice Restaurant, 84860 Old San Road, Bayfield, Wis.; (715) 779-9881. High-end American cuisine featuring locally sourced house-smoked duck and Bayfield sugar peas. Extensive wine list.

TO LEARN MORE

Trek & Trail, 7 Washington Ave., Bayfield, Wis.; (800) 354-8735

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, 415 Washington Ave., Bayfield, Wis.; (715) 779-3397

Bayfield Chamber and Visitor Bureau, 42 S. Broad St., Bayfield, Wis.; (715) 779-3335

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