Apostle Islands - Hike on Stockton Island

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July 4th 2018
Published: July 4th 2018
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Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Bayfield, Wisconsin

Presque Isle isn’t really an island. But it used to be when the lake levels were higher than they are now. Around 2500 years ago, though, the lake dried up a bit and fell enough to establish a land bridge between Presque and Stockton. Sand has filtered into the windward side of the landbridge to form what geologists call a tombolo, a relatively small spit of land connecting two larger ones. What you have here, then, is a narrow strip of land, low in elevation, creating two bays, one on each side.

The windward side bay is Julian Bay. It has become a ‘singing sand’ beach - one that makes a kind of squeaky song when you step on it. We encountered singing sand last year, in our explorations of the gulf beaches. It is kind of cool to hear the sand make that noise. I don’t understand the physics of it, but it happens when the sand grains are all of the same size, filtered perfectly. Somehow they make a noise when the slide past each other that normal sand does not. The beach at Julian Bay is a gorgeous one. If it weren’t for the biting black flies, which the rangers reported had just hatched the day before, it would have been a beautiful place to sit and contemplate the expansive views of Lake Superior.

But the flies were bad, no doubt about it. Joan had her mosquito net on and I had doused my skin with Off. Still, the little buggers landed on our socks and managed to bite us right through layers of clothing. There were a few places where they didn’t want to go and we spent time there, otherwise they were a constant reminder to keep on the move.

We only had two and a half hours to hike so we chose the relatively short Julian Bay and Anderson Point Trail. The former is a short hike, less than half a mile, that takes you across the tombolo and dumps you out on the Julian Bay Beach. The hike passes through heavy and thick wetlands. There are numbered markers, but as has happened frequently elsewhere this year, the NPS doesn’t seem to have the resources to print up the paper guides to help you interpret the signs. So you stop and look, kind of dumbly,

Bald Eagle on Basswood Island
at the stuff and try to imagine what the interpretation is supposed to be.

After spending a little time on the beach, we headed southeast onto the Anderson Point Trail. It is a ‘Point’ now because it is part of Stockton Island, but since it used to be its own island, what you are really hiking is the perimeter of Presque Isle. This hike is a bit more rugged than the Julian Bay Trail and is about a mile and a half in length. In places, you have to do a little scrambling over rocks and need to look for cairns to identify the trail. In other places, we were slogging through black muck up to the laces on our boots. It is a fun hike, but with the bugs, humidity, and trail conditions, it was a bit challenging.

As we were hiking, I tried to compare our experience here with our hikes on Isle Royale. The vegetation is similar but a little different. While both islands are in the Northern Woods ecological zone, and so have the same climax forests of balsam fir and spruce, the mixture of hardwood trees (beech, aspen, maples) seems different. And the

Arriving at Stockton Island
rocks you climb on are radically different. The bedrock in the Apostles is brownstone, a very hard sandstone. In fact defunct quarries are found in multiple islands. Brownstone blocks were harvested in the Apostles and shipped to cities, especially Chicago, after the big fire. (Brownstone doesn’t burn like wood.). In Isle Royale the rocks are basalt and darker in color.

The bottom line is that the Apostles are softer than Isle Royale. The experience here is more tranquil and maybe a bit more nurturing. After rounding the point and beginning the second half of the Anderson trail, we entered the Presque Isle Bay. Things immediately quieted down. The surf didn’t pound the brownstone boulders, and the entire forest seemed to go silent. The hike was enjoyable because it had several really different environments.

Back home, I dug out my ecology maps to see if they offered any help on what makes the Apostle Islands different. They share the same zones with Isle Royale (and the shoreline of Keweenaw Peninsula) all the way down to level IV where the differences are barely noticeable. Still, though, I think the nature of the bedrocks, the different shapes of the islands, and the slight difference in latitudes, all define small but interesting differences.

Our hike covered just a small part of Stockton Island, which is the largest island in the park (and the second largest island overall). Because of slight variations in geography, location, and human history, each of the 21 islands offers a unique experience. Understanding this park requires getting on the islands, but that is a daunting challenge. The ‘water taxis’ to them are expensive and in most cases, have to be specially chartered. So getting onto more than one or two is going to challenge the average tourist. If you have a sailboat, or motor powered boat where you can camp onboard, I can see some real opportunities for thoroughly exploring this park. Otherwise, like us, you will be forced to sample. We chose Stockton as our island to visit simply because the biggest ‘cruise operator’ here offered an excursion out there. Still it cost $46 per person, and we only had 2.5 hours to explore the island before the boat was scheduled to leave. That’s a pretty steep price to pay for a two mile hike. (OK, you get an hour boat-ride each way, too.)

I like this National Lakeshore, and am thrilled by how different it is from the other parks around the lakes. But I feel that I’m going to leave here a little disappointed - I’m not sure we’re going to be able to sample this park adequately.

After returning to Bayfield, we drove a couple of blocks to Maggie’s. This is an iconic restaurant serving burger, pizzas, and fish and custom drinks. What makes it special is that every single decoration in the place has one or more pink flamingos. Now what pink flamingos have to do with Bayfield, Wisconsin, I don’t know. But there you have it.

Additional photos below
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Trying to Avoid the Flies on the Beach

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