Camping at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore: Into the Woods

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Looking for more stories from our trip in the Apostle Islands? Check out part 1 of our adventures!

Even though we were never in immediate danger the night before, having a bear lurking outside our tent still put a significant dent in our mental toughness. We awoke the next morning drowsy, neither of us sleeping very well, and we still felt void of enthusiasm and energy for this trip. I could tell Sam wanted to sit down and have a heart-to-heart chat about our vacation as badly as I did. We decided to hold off until we had some food in our bellies, since we’re both pretty intolerable until we eat.

Scooping up oatmeal from our camping bowls, we talked about our options. Even before we arrived here yesterday, this trip was far from what we expected. We had a major detour getting here, we didn’t stay at the campsite we originally reserved, and we had one (possibly two) bear encounters in the course of just four hours. We felt frazzled, underprepared, and entirely vulnerable to whatever nature wanted to throw at us. To make matters worse, the world felt muggy and damp after a night full of rain instead of the fresh, clean feeling that normally follows a rainstorm. Everything was gray, dull, and lackluster compared to what we envisioned.

We decided we would cut the trip short by at least a day. Knowing we had a 10+ hour ride back to Chicago instead of the seven or eight hours we originally anticipated made the whole trip seem like a chore instead of a vacation. Camping for four nights and then sitting in a car for 10 hours before going back to work the next day sounded awful. Maybe even more awful than sleeping with bears.

Still, we had paid for a kayak trip that started at noon, and we wanted to do that. We heard it was one of the best ways to see the sea caves of Lake Superior, and it was something we truly wanted to experience. After we kayaked, we could either: 1. tough it out and do one night camping on Stockton Island instead of two nights; 2. just throw all our shit in the car and drive back to Chicago, maybe staying a night in Madison or Milwaukee; 3. drive all the way to Traverse City and bask in the comforts of home, warm showers, and sunny days on the lake. The only thing we didn’t consider an option at this point was adhering to our original plan and driving back to Chicago all Sunday afternoon and evening.

We ruled out going to TC. There were plenty of times to go home, and going there from here would only mean more hours in a car (the very thing we were trying to avoid). This was a National Park we wanted to visit, and since we likely wouldn’t make this trip again, we should do our best to give it a chance. We didn’t rule out the possibility of going back to Chicago later in the day, but we would make that decision later.


Just in case we decided to stay, we picked up our tent—literally just pulled the stakes out of the ground and lifted it up while fully assembled—and carried it up the hill to a different camp site. The park was still pretty empty, so even though we took the middle site in a row of three sites, there wasn’t anyone else around. We knew what to look for when seeking a bear-less tent site, and we were more confident in this decision. After chatting with some other campers in the park, it seemed that we were the only ones who had a visitor in the night. Maybe a new site would bring us luck.

Our new site was set up, so we shimmy-danced into our wet suits and headed off towards the beach. The lakeshore greeted us with dark gray skies, gusty winds, and a radiating humidity. Filled with an optimistic bravado that this part of our trip would be great and finally we could start enjoying our vacation, in our Great Lakes hearts we knew the truth: the lake was angry, and no one in their right mind would be on the water right now. These conditions were pretty much the opposite of what one hopes for when kayaking.

Sure enough, we were greeted by the guides and told the trip was cancelled. Not just delayed or relocated to an easier water route, but flat-out cancelled. We played it cool and acted like it was no big deal as we handed back our wetsuits, but I sensed Sam’s heart sinking along with mine. Was this destined to be the worst vacation we’d ever taken together?


A soft rain started falling, so we tucked under the little shelter housing two NPS rangers and a plethora of information. In our casual Midwestern way, we made small talk with the rangers and they highlighted some interesting points on the map, dangerous data about the waves we hadn’t even seen, and told us about the storm that rolled through earlier in the week in shocking detail. If the storm has traveled just 30 more miles north, one ranger told us, it would’ve crippled the tourism industry up here at the Apostle Islands for the entirety of the summer. After what we’d see, I believed it. That storm was no joke, and the devastation it left in its wake was still palpable.

The rain passed after 10 or 15 minutes, and the rangers suggested we hike the trail along the sea caves since we couldn’t kayak. Sam and I looked at each other: the trail was the same one we’d attempted the night before, with the bear lurking just out of site. We told the rangers about our second-hand-bear-sighting, and they said there were reports of a sighting this morning as well. That was comforting.

“They’re really nothing to worry about,” one of the rangers told us. He was a bigger guy, both in height and width, and he looked like he would probably handle a bear with ease. I felt less confident about our ability to wrestle a bear to the ground. “Make noise and let them know you’re a human. They’ll leave you alone. Black bears aren’t predatory, and they don’t want anything to do with humans.”


The rangers also told us the campground we’d selected the previous night was known to have a habitual bear. Unable to conceal our puzzled looks at the word “habitual,” they explained that there are two ways rangers classify bears: non-habitual and habitual. Non-habitual bears are considered wild. They’re still scared of humans, aren’t aware of consistent human food sources, and stay far away from human areas if possible.

Habitual bears grow accustomed to having a reliable food source, namely provided by humans, and become less afraid of humans in an effort to seek this food. They’re interested in eating, and if it means coming into human territory to get a snack, they’ll do it without hesitation. Imagine those photos you see of bears crawling on garbage dumpsters at Yosemite or fearlessly approaching tourists that throw food at bears to get a picture. Those are habitual bears. The National Park Service educates visitors about picking up food waste and trash in an effort to prevent non-habitual bears transforming into habitual bears, therefore endangering the spaces human visitors occupy in National Parks because bears are more likely to wandering into parking lots or whatever.

Apparently the campground where we were staying had a habitual bear. In other words, he knew from many previous experiences that he could get a snack at the campground, so he comes back and checks it out in the hopes of finding food. Heck, he might come every night. It wasn’t exactly comforting information, but somehow it helped knowing that the bear wasn’t interested in us, just our food. Kinda like me when I haven’t eaten in hours and Sam wants to attempt conversation.

We thanked the rangers for their kindness and skittered off to our car. Eventually, we realized, we were going to have to find the courage to go back into the woods. This is what we wanted, right? To be in nature, quasi-isolated, deep in the lush forest of the north? Feigning bravery, we agreed that a hike might do us some good. We packed a light bag of snacks and water, then set off along the same trail we started the previous night.


I’m so glad we took the chance to hike the trail again. Knowing we weren’t staying the night out there alone, and that there were other people (plus two rangers) nearby, we did truly feel better about the hike. It was about two miles to the first lookout over the sea caves, and it was phenomenal. We weren’t too high off the water, and we watched Lake Superior battle and bash against the swirling patterns of red stone cliffs.

Taking turns navigating along narrow tracts and getting a better view at the caves below, Sam and I found the playful explorers hiding inside our souls. Normally we’re interested in walking and racking up miles. But this place begged to be savored slowly, so we ducked around ancient pine trees and wove along the curve of the rough cliffs. The angry water below lapped at us, unstoppable and unforgiving, and we marveled at its infinite horizon. Few other hikers braved the wind and questionable weather, so we had practically the whole place to ourselves.


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After an hour or so of taking in the view and gushing over this powerful landscape, we made our way back to the car. Halfway through our trek back, one of the park rangers we’d seen earlier joined us on the journey back to the car. His name was Grady, and it was his first summer in the midwest after being a seasonal worker out in Washington for a few years. Grady was just a year or two younger than us, and the three of us wasted no time talking about uncertain career paths, the majesty of nature, places we wanted to explore, the best adventures we’d all seen in our short lives so far. Time passed quickly with conversation, and before I knew it, we were back at the car. We bid farewell to Grady and the lake, and made our way to Bayfield to get our cancelled kayak trip refund.

Our chat with Grady boosted our confidence in being on our trip again. Yes, there are bears around. Yes, we’ve never done anything like this before. But goddamn it, few people take the chance to be in the wild for a few days and brave the great outdoors. Like it or not, we were those people (or at least trying to be), and we were going to stick this out. Sam beat me to “Let’s camp on Stockton Island for one night and not go back to Chicago today” chat, and I agreed. Time to put on our big kid camping pants.

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