Kayaking Sea Caves of the Apostle Islands

With the right equipment, training and experience (or hiring a guide service), the sea caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore are fantastic, other-worldly places to explore by sea kayak. Last week we made return visits to the Mainland sea caves and the caves of Sand Island. In previous trips to the islands we also explored the caves of Devils Island.

The Mainland Caves

To reach the mainland caves, most kayakers launch from Meyers Beach ($5 daily parking fee). From there the paddle is a little more than one mile to the first of more than a dozen caves and passageways carved by nature into the red sandstone cliffs. When we visited last week, we were joined by scores of kayakers in several guided tour groups from Trek & Trail and Living Adventure. We sometimes had to wait our turn to paddle into features such as The Crack, but all was cool. It was good to see people enjoying the beauty of the natural world.

However, not all visitors to the caves are totally prepared for the experience. We observed an NPS ranger as she advised a family with three small children preparing to launch a canoe and recreational-style kayaks (aka “rec boats”) that their boats were not adequate for the conditions they might encounter on Lake Superior. Unfortunately we watched the parents listen politely and then launch anyway. The family included a five-year-old girl whom the parents placed alone in her own tiny rec kayak. All we could do as onlookers was shake our heads. Well, I suppose we could have echoed the ranger’s admonishments but I doubt the parents would have changed their plans.

September 10, 2010 – In spite of a forecasted storm, increasing winds and warnings from other paddlers, two kayakers departed for Sand Island about 4 p.m. They immediately got separated. One made it to Sand Island. The other capsized, got separated from his kayak and died from hypothermia. Park rangers recovered his body the next morning. — Text from the safety kiosk posted at Little Sand Bay

After talking with the parents, the ranger walked over to us, smiled, and confirmed that we had the right type of sea kayaks and safety gear for venturing onto the big, often unforgiving, lake. Obviously frustrated, she told us that trying to dissuade rec boaters from paddling to the caves is a thankless and never-ending task. The NPS cannot legally prevent people from launching inadequate watercraft; they merely advise.

June 7, 2011 – Ignoring recommendations from park staff, four college students tried to paddle to Sand Island with undersized kayaks in windy conditions. With air temperatures in the low 60ºs, the decided not to wear wet suits. Two of the four kayaks capsized in 49º F water. Three of the paddlers made it to shore and reported losing sight of the fourth person. The Coast Guard recovered his body at 8 p.m.

— Text from the safety kiosk at Little Sand Bay

The view from deep inside the mainland feature known as The Crack

The view from deep inside the mainland feature known as The Crack

Entering one of the mainland caves

Entering one of the mainland caves

DCIM105GOPROG0353747.

DCIM105GOPROG0363786.

Mary squeezes into the opening of a cave...

Mary squeezes into the opening of a cave…

...and disappears.

…and disappears.

That passageway that Mary made it through was too tight for me so I backed out.

Mary made it through but it was too tight for me.

Here’s the track of our paddle to the mainland caves. That large red dip into terra firma is the result of our GPS receiver losing satellite contact inside one of the caves:

Sand Island Caves

The next day we launched from Little Sand Bay and paddled three miles to reach the sea caves of Sand Island. Because of the distance involved, you’ll encounter far less kayak traffic at Sand Island and in my opinion, caves that are even more scenic and fun to paddle than those on the mainland.

DCIM105GOPROG0453991. DCIM105GOPROG0453967. DCIM105GOPROG0574152.

Mary and I were happy to enjoy the beauty of thes caves.

Mary and I were happy to enjoy the beauty of these caves.

Calm water on our way back from Sand Island to the mainland

Calm water on our way back from Sand Island to the mainland

Our GPS track of our Sand Island sea cave paddling:

A new addition to the beach area at Little Sand Bay is a safety awareness kiosk that illustrates proper kayak equipment and skills needed to paddle the Apostle Islands, as well as outlining the dangers of Lake Superior’s cold water. Good advice for all paddlers. kiosk 1kiosk 2kiosk 3kiosk 4kiosk 5Additional resources:

SeaCavesWatch.org for real-time wave information at the mainland sea caves

Coldwatersafety.org for the National Center for Cold Water Safety

What do you think? Please comment!