Far From the Fray: The Zen of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

In October 2020, National Parks Lake Superior Foundation Board Chair Tom Irvine invited National Geographic Explorer photographer David Guttenfelder to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore to commemorate the park's 50th anniversary.


By Tom Irvine


The global pandemic has ushered in a “new normal” that, despite its challenges, has also exposed some unexpected silver linings. People are looking inward, taking stock of their values, and discovering the bounty of nature and wildlife right in their own backyards.


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore's designation as a national park. To observe this milestone, the NPLSF, Friends of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore spent months planning my early October visit to the archipelago to develop new informational tools that will educate the public about this incredible national resource. This trip required exceptional teamwork from all the agencies involved to handle the complex travel logistics and observe strict COVID-19 protocols.


As part of my role with National Parks of Lake Superior Foundation, I had the great privilege of documenting this trip so others can get to know the wild and extraordinary Apostle Islands.


Joining me was globally renowned photographer David Guttenfelder, who has spent the past 25 years traveling worldwide on assignment for the Associated Press and National Geographic Society. Like many of us, he found himself quarantined at his Minnesota home when the pandemic began, unable to hop on a plane to faraway places for his work. Although he has roots in the Upper Midwest (his family is from Wisconsin), Guttenfelder’s globetrotting has kept him away from Lake Superior. So when we asked him to be the official photographer for this project, Guttenfelder gladly accepted the invitation, hoping the trip would help him reconnect with the great lake he knew very little about.


“During the pandemic, we’ve all been cooped up in our neighborhoods, and Covid has forced me to discover something that’s right in my own backyard,” Guttenfelder said. “I feel so grateful to live here, where the national parks around Lake Superior offer fresh air and wide-open spaces.”

Paddling a kayak inside a Sand Island sea cave at sunrise.

An evening rainstorm along the shoreline of Lake Superior’s Sand Island.


Many people in the Upper Midwest have a connection with Madeline Island, but few people know about the other Apostle Islands, which are entirely unique from one another. Our first stop in the archipelago was Sand Island, a 3x3-mile-wide island just 3 miles north of the Bayfield Peninsula, making it accessible by kayak or boat in perfect conditions. Sand Island features spectacular coastlines and remarkable red-brown sea caves that kayakers can explore when the weather conditions allow it.


We arrived at Sand Island on a day when the autumn leaves were at peak color. We spent the first day kayaking in the sea caves and hiking to historical landmarks, like the Sand Island Lighthouse, the Hansen Farm, and Plenty Charm cottage, the cabin of longtime island resident Gertrude Wellisch.


Although relatively unknown to most Americans, Sand Island's history is replete with ancient abandoned fishing camps, settler homesteads, and a picturesque lighthouse. With its Gothic-style architecture and sandstone quarried right at the building site, the Sand Island Lighthouse is considered one of the most beautiful of all the Lake Superior lighthouses.

A National Park Service lock on the door of the Sand Island lighthouse.

A view from a window of the Hansen Farm on Sand Island.


“The islands have this amazing history, like lots of rings on the tree,” Guttenfelder observed. "There's native history and European settler history and then, of course, the conservation work of the national park system that has been taking place for fifty years."


After three days on Sand Island, the next island we visited was Stockton Island, a much larger island that boasts breathtaking sand beaches. We spent four days there exploring Quarry Bay, Presque Isle Bay, and the curious “singing sands” of Julian Bay (“singing” because the sand squeaks when people walk on it). We also hiked to some of the other well-known landmarks on the island, including Anderson Point Loop, Brownstone Quarry, and Tombolo Loop Trail.

Dusk light is reflected in pools of water on Anderson Point, Stockton Island.

The cloudy sky is reflected in a stream along Tombolo Loop Trail on Stockton Island.

Fall colors along Tombolo Loop Trail on Stockton Island.


Not many people know that a tombolo is a geologic feature that is home to various plant communities, like bogs, dunes, lagoons, savannahs, and pine forests. Tombolos tend to be very fragile. The national park service has taken considerable measures to ensure that visitors can enjoy the stunning scenery while also preserving the delicate ecosystem.


On our last day, we visited Outer Island, the most remote of the six Apostle Islands. Because it is the furthest island from the mainland, getting to Outer Island can be a challenge. We went by landing craft built specifically for the park and anchored at Outer Island's southwest corner on the ever-shifting sand spit, a major stopping spot for migrating birds and fragile vegetation. Long ago, a rail spur reached out to the sand spit where timber was loaded onto lake barges bound for the lumber mills of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Approaching Lake Superior’s Outer Island.

The constantly-shifting sandspit on Outer Island.


Once on Outer Island, we climbed primeval stairs to reach the Lighthouse and Foghorn building on the northeast corner of the island, facing out into the vast expanse of Lake Superior. This famous lighthouse built in 1874 would take the mighty Noreasters' brunt as it guided ships past the mainland's rocky peninsula to the rapidly growing ports of Duluth and Superior.


This landmark is especially important to me because my great-great-grandfather, John Irvine, was the lighthouse keeper at Outer Island. In September 1905, he famously saved five men's lives from a sinking three-mast schooner called The Pretoria. His son, my great-grandfather Thomas Irvine, followed in his footsteps and was also a keeper at Outer Island and many other Lake Superior lights.

Steps lead to Outer Island Lighthouse.

A bedroom inside Outer Island Lighthouse

A panoramic view from Outer Island Lighthouse.


After touring all the historic structures and signing the Outer Island lighthouse guest log, we left for our final foray to Michigan Island to tour the Apostle Islands' oldest lighthouse. There, we ascended the 112-foot cardio-busting spiral staircase to check out the working beacon light and imagine what it must have felt like to guide Lake Superior's sea vessels to safe harbor.


When we returned home from this assignment, we each took some time to reflect on what the trip meant to us. For me, it deepened the connection I have with the islands, our national parks, and the mission of the foundation. For David Guttenfelder, the trip sparked the beginning of his love affair with the Apostle Islands.


“I’m just starting to discover these islands,” said Guttenfelder, who hopes to return to the park next summer to kayak between islands and photograph his journey. “When I start photographing someplace new, I feel like I haven’t done it justice. There so much more to show and tell; this is just the start.”


Michigan Island Lighthouse.


During our trip, Guttenfelder somehow balanced quickly publishing his photos on social media “so followers can go out in the water with you and fall in love with the place” with protecting thousands of dollars of camera equipment in a kayak in the cold, open water. He hopes his photos of the trip will excite people about the park while also teaching them the responsible way to experience the lake and lands. "I'm a big kayaking enthusiast," he explained, "so I needed to show people how to photograph these areas while kayaking responsibly and not taking unnecessary risks."


Guttenfelder added that he wishes the sea caves will freeze again this winter as they did in 2015, so he can return to the Apostle Islands to photograph the frozen ice caves as well as the visitors. "I fell in love with the place," Guttenfelder said. “As I continue to explore these islands and have even greater adventures, I’m going to be doing a lot of responsible learning and taking even bigger bites out of these experiences.”

Thanks to the whole staff of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore for making our trip safe and productive, with special gratitude to Park Superintendent Lynne Dominy, Archeologist and Cultural Resource Specialist Dave Cooper, and Chief Ranger Chris Smith. Also, a big shout out to Friends of the Apostle Islands, Erica Peterson, and Neil Howk for their local knowledge, kayaks, and friendship.


Tom Irvine, Board Chair, NPLSF

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St Paul, MN 55102

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