Written by Katie Woodhouse
In mid-June, a small group of teenagers from Wisconsin’s Washburn school district kicked off their summer vacations with a picturesque trip to the Apostle Islands. They spent three nights at WI’s Little Sand Bay base camp, embarking on a new outdoor adventure each day. Since 2015, this annual trip has been made possible for Washburn students through funding from the Duluth Superior Area Community Fund and the Washburn Community Education Fund.
“I love getting to hang out with the students – seeing them get really excited about being outside and kayaking and just being kids,” Gina Nelson, a Washburn High School special education teacher who’s volunteered to chaperone this trip for the past four years, said. “I feel like there’s so many responsibilities we put on teenagers, especially within the academic realm. It’s nice for them to let loose and play and just be kids.”
Over the years, the overnight camping trip has steadily gained popularity among Washburn students. “Initially, we had teachers nominating students who they thought would benefit from the experience,” Nelson explained. “Now we have students who want to nominate themselves, who are like, ‘I’m coming next year, right? Is someone gonna nominate me?’ – which is pretty cool.”
This year’s trip began on the afternoon of Thursday, June 13th, when a group of energetic students and chaperones arrived at Wilderness Inquiry’s Little Sand Bay Base Camp, settled into tents, and introduced themselves to the WI leaders over grilled burgers, brats, and s’mores.
Gathered around the first of many campfires, the group shared their hopes and expectations for the next few days. Almost every participant expressed that they were looking forward to visiting the sea caves, a set of beautiful rock formations and sandstone cliffs that line part of the western edge of the Bayfield Peninsula.
There’s a popular hike that stretches along the coast of the peninsula, so most students – who all live relatively close by – had already peered at the attraction from above. But few had ever accessed it from the water, where kayaks can dip into secret coves and arches and paddlers are treated to striking, up-close views of the caves.
The following day, the group clambered into kayaks for the first time. They spent the morning paddling through Lake Superior’s Buffalo Bay, where some were able to spot the spires of the famous Fedora shipwreck beneath slightly murky waves. After a few hours of paddling, the group ate a picnic lunch and spent the afternoon exploring a nearby stream and waterfall before heading back to camp for an evening of good food, laughter, music, mosquito bites, and deep sleep.
On Saturday, students woke up early and set out to visit the highly-anticipated sea caves. Once they arrived, however, it was clear that high winds would make the planned paddle impossible. Instead of getting on the water, the group changed course and headed to Bayfield, WI, where chaperones treated everyone to ice cream cones at a local bakery.
The afternoon was spent paddling at the Bark Bay Slough, a lake located just off the Lake Superior coast. The group glided through the calm waters of Bark Bay for almost three hours, passing lush green trees and lilypads below a clear blue sky. Back at camp for the night, participants wrapped themselves in fleeces and blankets and walked to a nearby beach to watch the sunset over the breaking waves of Lake Superior.
By Sunday, the group was determined to make it to the sea caves. Luckily, the strong winds from the previous day had died down, and students were finally able to see what they had been looking forward to most. They piled into kayaks and paddled down the shoreline toward the distant silhouette of the great sandstone cliffs. The views did not disappoint. Students gazed in awe at intricate rock formations, ducked into echoing caves, slipped through a towering stone arch, and took many, many pictures.
After the sea caves, the group enjoyed a final pancake & bacon brunch at Little Sand Bay. Then they gathered their things from the campsite, said their goodbyes, and, finally, headed home.
For Nelson, the trip was a valuable opportunity to connect with students outside of a traditional classroom setting. “It’s a different way to bond with kids,” she said. “I think it’s really important for kids to see you outside of your role as a teacher and their role as a student. And this is such a great way to do that.”
Indeed, the four days were spent not just sharing tents and kayaks, but laughs, stories, games, and new connections.
When asked what advice she would give to future trip participants, Nelson was quick to answer. “Be ready for an adventure, try to be present in the moment, and roll with the ups and downs,” she said. “I think that’s the best way to do it. Just enjoy yourself!”