Wendy Placko, Director of Sales & Video Team Lead at Neuger, went on the Apostle Island kayaking trip this past August. Journey with Wendy as she reflects on her five-day adventure at Sand Bay and the surrounding islands on Lake Superior.
I’d known of Wilderness Inquiry for maybe two years because the company I work for, Neuger, started working with them, and a good friend of mine was actually their executive director. So, I had known about Wilderness Inquiry and I was eager to sign up for a trip, but then COVID-19 struck. After the vaccine became available, I was able to join one of the first trips Wilderness Inquiry offered under their typical model, which is that anyone – with any ability – can register, meet people, and have fun. And that’s exactly what I wanted to do! My husband isn’t very outdoorsy, and I really enjoy the outdoors. I’m never going to force him to do this, so I wanted to do it with a group of people that were enthusiastic about it. And I liked the opportunity to meet people and, you know, just get to know some complete strangers in a fun, challenging environment — and they were such great people. Everyone was happy to be on an adventure, doing something they had never done before.
It was everything I wanted; getting to meet people, experiencing something new – I had never sea kayaked before, and I never went kayaking in a camp setting. I can barely pitch a tent – I could probably make it in the wilderness, but having some coaching through it all is great. They coordinate all the details and have the equipment ready for you: life jackets, wetsuits, tents…all you need to bring are your clothes and a sleeping bag. They give you dry bags for your belongings that roll up really tight so water doesn’t leak in. The guides were in charge of the meals, which was so nice. They brought fresh food that we prepared each night. They even catered to my vegan needs and another woman’s gluten-free needs. We ate three meals a day and had yummy snacks. I came prepared with my own vegan marshmallows because I wanted s’mores, but I didn’t even need the snacks I brought. The guides were so considerate and prepared.
We were at the Wilderness Inquiry base camp – they call it glamping – on Sand Bay, just outside of Bayfield, Wisconsin. There are a bunch of tents that are set up for the summer on wooden platforms so that you don’t get wet – you’re not even sleeping right on the ground! Because it’s glamping, you don’t have to really rough it, like starting the fire to boil water or anything. They have a bunch of propane stoves, and compostable toilets (it’s not as gross as it sounds.) It’s good for the environment, saves water, and they’re well ventilated.
The Tip Test
We were within walking distance to the Bay where we tested our skills so the guides could get a sense of how strong we were as paddlers. We had to do a tip test, which was terrifying, but good. Since you’re in a sea kayak, it’s a little different than a river kayak. I’m used to river kayak where you’re just kind of sitting on top of the plastic kayak, but with a sea kayak, you’re inside of it. There’s a cover and a spray skirt – made from waterproof fabric – that you pull around yourself, but if you were to flip over, you would literally be upside down in the water held in by your spray skirt. So you have to learn how to pull your spray skirt off and come up. We wore life jackets and wetsuits for safety. The water on the lake was 60-degrees, which is pretty warm for Lake Superior, but it could still be shocking to your body if you aren’t used to being doused in cold water. I was paired with a buddy, Ben, and we had to work together to try to flip over – thankfully they’re really hard to tip. The purpose of the test is to make sure you’re ready to handle that in case it ever happened on the water – you would probably be fine, but it would be a bummer if your stuff tipped out.
We were assigned two guides the entire time, both qualified swimmers/paddlers that can save people if they get into trouble. I felt like I was safe and in good hands throughout the trip. It’s good to know they have that protection because paddling on Lake Superior is no joke. There are lots of shipwrecks in Lake Superior, and those are large ships! Imagine what could happen to a group of people in tiny vessels. There are specific warnings on the lake, such as if the water is too choppy, too windy, or too dangerous to go out. If an inexperienced paddler were to try to do what we did their safety could have been in jeopardy. I think it’s really important to have those guides.
On the Lake
My first impression of the lake was that it’s just gorgeous – I was in awe. You can see all the way to the bottom! I grew up near the Mississippi, and clear water is just not a thing – it’s brown, thick, and polluted. On Lake Superior you get hit with a breeze as the waves settle and I love that sound, it’s just good for the soul. At the same time I felt just a little bit of tension because it’s honestly a workout. It’s not still water, you’re going against the wind and waves. So while it was really relaxing, I still had to work it out in my brain how I’m going to control the kayak. I was the person in the back who steers, which is a big responsibility. The person in the front is the powerhouse, they keep the boat moving forward. The person in the back has to direct the person in front, instructing them when to switch sides so that we go in a certain direction, etc. I didn’t notice a ton of wildlife on-shore, but we were graced by beautiful birds and seagulls. The fish hang out in really recessed parts of the lake, so you don’t see too many.
We had some rough weather for a couple of days, but it was exciting to hear our guides tell us which island we could visit for the day – just being able to explore it and have fun. The second day was questionable, it was pretty foggy, so the guides paired us with a larger group so we could all go in one pod for safety. The reason being that when it’s foggy, a ship could come through and push us all aside, basically. But if there’s a big group of us we’re more visible.
Emily, one of our guides, had a million facts that kind of went over my head at the time, but one that stood out was if you stretched out the entire shoreline of Lake Superior it would cross several states and make it all the way to the Bahamas. It’s so much water in one place. Another interesting thing to me was that I am used to going to the North Shore of Lake Superior (I think that’s where a lot of Minnesotans go.) The South Shore is where we were – the Apostle Islands area – and the beaches are sandy whereas the North Shore beaches are full of rocks. It’s probably not the coolest part of the area, but the sandy beaches intrigued me. It was interesting and cool to see that because I was so used to the other shoreline. I also learned how to tie rigging knots! On one of the rainy days, I thought it would be a great time to practice tying some knots with our guides. I kept noticing the ropes and knots throughout the island, although our tents were off the ground, we had to use the ropes and a tarp to create a cover for our eating area and to protect our food from flies and birds. It was an adventure.
The trip lasted for five days total. We arrived on Wednesday and spent the night at the Little Sand Bay Basecamp. Then we went to Sand Island on Thursday morning, which is one of the bigger islands closest to Sand Bay. Friday afternoon we went into town because there was a thunderstorm. We hiked to a lighthouse with a forest ranger who gave us some history on the lighthouse and who lived there. We tied knots, played Yahtzee, roasted marshmallows and just hung out. We couldn’t go on the water on Friday because of the weather, we came back on Saturday and had a bay paddle day. The weather began to clear on our last day.
One of the gentlemen was a super nice guy who has been on at least 20 trips with Wilderness Inquiry! We had some really nice conversations during the time we were there. He has a cognitive disability, which I didn’t really recognize at first until I started talking to him and asking him what he’s interested in, what his hobbies were. He told me that he was a Special Olympics coach, which made me wonder if he had a disability. I couldn’t notice it, but he told me was open to sharing with me that he was born a twin and in distress which affected his development, but he’s high functioning. He works at the YMCA in Red Wing. It was kind of my secret hope – to meet new people with different abilities while I was on this adventure because I knew that was part of Wilderness Inquiry’s philosophy.
There was a pair of sisters from Northern Michigan. One sister is really into kayaking, and the other suggested they go on a trip together. They love the outdoors but had never done a Wilderness Inquiry trip before. Also with us was a mother-daughter team. I didn’t realize that the mother was legally blind. Her daughter is in college, they were both just great to be around – a super tight-knit duo. Last but not least, our two guides: Emily and Jim. It was eight of us total, six travelers and two guides. The sleeping arrangement had everyone in pairs, since I was a “single” traveler I stayed with Emily.
The day that we crossed for the first time to go to the island, it was pretty windy and choppy. I had a hard time keeping the wind and waves from taking us in a certain direction. So, I think one thing that was a challenge for me was being smart enough to call out what the person in front should be doing. I learned that if you paddle on one side, it turns you the other way, but there’s also a rudder – which was kind of confusing – because if you steer with your foot in one direction, the kayak goes in that same direction. So it was like wires crossing in my brain – sometimes it’s opposite, sometimes it’s the same side. I was getting stuck, and the guide paddled over and it coached me through it so I was able to remain calm and stay with the group. They were right there to help you through those events.
Overall, the trip was great. I wouldn’t say it was super relaxing because there are activities planned for the entire day. It’s the kind of trip you take when you really want an adventure that works your body. Wilderness Inquiry is great because they have trips for all kinds of people with different levels of adventure and physicality.