Often called the “Jewels of Lake Superior,” the Apostle Islands, just off the Bayfield Peninsula in northern Wisconsin, are a fascinating geological destination, and they bear the title well. Though cruising Lake Superior is not for the faint-hearted, the Apostle Islands make the trip worthwhile; there is no better place to experience the world’s largest freshwater lake.
The Apostle Islands are most well-known for their brownstone and sandstone caves, many of which are large enough to navigate a boat through. “The caves are so spectacular,” says Capt. Ashley Georgeson of Bayfield, Wisconsin-based PMG Charters. “There are really deep caverns and big openings that you can maneuver right into. It’s a remarkable experience.”
Ashley and her husband, Capt. Pete Georgeson, have been offering boat tours of the Apostle Islands since 2011, but Pete has come to the area every summer since he was born. Now, the couple lives here year round and has two boats that they use for tours, each capable of holding six passengers and making multiple trips a day during the summer months. PMG Charters regularly enter the caves on their tours.
The caves are also popular among kayakers on calm days. The geological feature is unique to the area; the inland sea’s winds, ice, and currents create the necessary environment for erosion to occur. During the winter, the caves fill with ice and when the lake is frozen through, the mainland caves are opened for hiking tours that attract tourists by the thousands.
The same weather patterns that have formed the caves do impact boaters, however. “Lake Superior weather is pretty crazy,” says Ashley. “You’ve got to keep an eye on the weather and it’s very variable.” A calm day on the lake can quickly turn for the worse if a squall line suddenly rolls through, and Ashley urges boaters to check in with the National Park Service. Cold water temperatures mean that ending up in the water can become dangerous quickly. “Know where your safe harbors are and be experienced,” she urges. “I wouldn’t go out on a 15-foot boat.”
At 14 miles long, Madeline Island is the largest of the Apostle Islands and the only one that has a permanent settlement. There are close to 300 year-round residents and 1,000 summer residents. Tourists can rent a summer cottage, hotel or campsite. The Madeline Island Yacht Club is a full-service marina that operates year-round and has dockage for transient boaters.
There are a number of restaurants on Madeline, but Tom’s Burned Down Cafe is a standout. The dive bar actually burned down twice and wasn’t rebuilt. Now it is just a series of decks and tents complemented by a huge collection of unique signs. They often have live music. “It’s a pretty rowdy crowd and a good time,” Ashley says. There are a couple other bars on Madeline Island, but otherwise nightlife is scarce. Big Bay State Park is a popular destination with a beach, campsite and over seven miles of trails across the sandstone cliffs with lake views.
The other islands are less developed, but many of them still offer public dockage for visitors and their protected bays can be utilized as safe harbors. Jutting out from the natural landscape is a collection of six historic lighthouses—tours are available for maritime enthusiasts—scattered across the islands which are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Stockton Island is one of the most popular islands to visit. “There are safe harbors for anchoring and it has one of the most beautiful beaches in the park, awesome sea stacks and nice hiking trails,” says Ashley. The island also has many campsites with direct views of the lake, and is home to one of the most concentrated black bear populations in North America. Devils Island is another of the more popular islands. “It has the most spectacular caves in the park,” she says.
Fish are abundant around the Apostles and there are quite a few operations that offer fishing charters. Lake Superior doesn’t just boast a large quantity of fish, but fish of good quality. “There’s great fishing and all the fish taste great,” Ashley says. “A few years ago we pulled out some smallmouth bass, which typically isn’t that tasty on a smaller lake, but it was delicious just because the water is so clean.” There are 88 species of fish found here, including lake trout, walleye and a hearty salmon population.
The clean water and the beautiful, dynamic landscape are what’s kept the Georgesons here so long. “It’s beautiful out here now. It’s sunny and 70 every day and there’s blue, crystal clear water,” Ashley says. “Whatever you’re looking for, it’s pretty much here, just maybe on a smaller scale.”