Stockton Island Camping: Our First Day Actually Backpacking

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I for one slept much better our second night at the campground. Sam said he heard the bear—or some other big, snorting, ominous thing—stomping around the tent that night, but I was essentially unconscious from the moment my head hit my stuff-sack pillow. We diligently packed everything up, sorted out our clothes and food for the overnight trip to Stockton Island, parked our car, and headed down the hill to our ferry.

We’d selected Stockton Island primarily for financial and logistical reasons. Of the 21 islands in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Stockton had:

  • access to potable water
  • a ranger onsite
  • a ferry schedule that fit our timeframe
  • food lockers to keep bears away
  • the cheapest transportation option for getting to and from Bayfield

When we initially planned this trip, we were hoping to do island hopping and see a little bit of everything on a lot of different islands. The more we planned, we realized this wouldn’t be feasible unless we wanted to pay a buttload of money to private ferry companies. That wasn’t going to happen. We don’t have a private boat, so that wasn’t an option. Kayaking trips are a good solution for many visitors. However, we would rather hike for 4-6 hours instead of kayaking for that long in open water, so we ruled kayaking out pretty quickly.

In the end, we choked down the price tag for tickets with the Apostle Island Cruises to Stockton, as they would drop us off on Friday and come back for us on Sunday. As a bonus perk, since we wanted to come back on Saturday now, the cruise company happily accommodated our impromptu request and said it would be totally fine to change our reservation. We boarded the ferry and headed northwest, fresh water breeze dancing through our hair and the sunshine finally making its way through the clouds.

Oh, here’s another fun fact for you: Stockton Island is known for its black bear population. Sam and I groaned as our captain announced this information on our ride over. Later we learned that, at one point, there were over 40 black bears on the 10,000 acre island. That’s four bears per 1,000 acres. Territorial battles and food scarcity over the course of a few years meant that there are around 12 black bears on the island today. None of the bears are habitual (meaning they know that food is at the campsite and come looking for it all the time), so as long as we meticulously cleaned our campsite after meals and stored all scented things in the locker, we should be fine.

The ferry pulled up to the dock about an hour later. Stepping off the boat onto the pier, the landscape quickly intoxicated us. The fresh air, the dense forests, the sweeping blue skies and the blue water calmly shimmering in the inlet wrapped around our hearts and begged us to stay. We met up with the park ranger and learned that we were the only people staying on the island that night. The handful of people who departed the boat with us were getting back on it in a few hours, after a short day hike on the island.

Our original plan was to hike out six or eight miles (the distance varied depending on what we read) to a private campsite on the far north side off the island, but we decided we’d had enough bear scares and overwhelming experiences for one trip. In learning that none of the 19 campsites along the peaceful bay were occupied, we hiked the mile along the shoreline and staked our claim at site 15. It was just close and far enough from the bathroom, and water was accessible about a mile back at the ranger’s station. What’s more is that we had our own private beach frontage opening up to the gentle harbor of Lake Superior. After the hell we’d gone through the past few days, it felt like we’d finally found salvation.

We hadn’t even set up our tent before we deciding that we didn’t want to stay for just one night. We wanted to stay for two nights, as we originally planned. Unfortunately, we didn’t make this decision back at Bayfield when packing up our supplies. This meant we only packed enough food for one day and one night. Now, we had to drag our rations out to two full days and two nights. Dumping everything out on the picnic table, we determined what we would eat and when we would eat it. If we stuck to our plan, we’d make it. We’d be hungry and cranky by the time the ferry arrived Sunday, but we’d be alive.

Fueled by optimism and our desire to breathe in every inch of this natural wonderland, we set up camp in record time, threw our bags in the bear locker, and made our way back to the ranger station. Previous visitors left behind bug spray, and we graciously accepted a can when the ranger offered it to us for free. We’d barely been here an hour and already realized that the beautiful weather also meant no breeze and tenfold the amount of mosquitoes we’d encountered anywhere else this whole summer. Dousing ourselves in toxic chemicals in an afford to evade boulder-sized bites and West Nile Virus, we felt more confident in staying and exploring the island in a somewhat comfortable state.

When the ferry came to pick up the island’s day hikers, we told the first mate that we were going to stay an extra night and that we’d be ready to leave on Sunday. We made our way back to the campsite, packed up a daypack, covered ourselves in more bug spray, and headed out into the woods.

The hiking trails on Stockton Island are like ecological biosphere tours. Our first hike was only a few miles, but we covered a wide range of environments: we wandered from dense hardwood forests to bogs filled with pitcher plants to marshlands dotted with egrets and herons. As we exited the marsh on a boardwalk, our hiking shoes sunk into the smooth sand on the opposite shore of the island. In front of us, the gentle coastline curved for a mile or two under a beautiful summer sky as Superior lapped near our feet, aching for us as much as we ached for it. Perhaps most importantly, the wind was coming in off the water here and finally blew the mosquitos away from our bug nets and long-sleeve shirts.

Next thing I knew, we both had our backpacks off, shoes off, bug nets off, hats off, and all of our clothes off. Unlike our bone-chilling swim a few days prior, the refreshingly cool water was the perfect antidote to hiking in thick, fully-covering-every-part-of-our-skin clothes and quarter-sized mosquito bit welts. I’d never gone skinny-dipping in the middle of the day before, and it felt positively liberating. There wasn’t a soul in sight—we hadn’t encountered anyone on the entire island since the ferry left—and the world was ours.

We came back to shore, put on our lighter layers, and walked the rest of the shoreline barefoot. Normally we try to cover as much ground as possible when we hike, but we strolled lazily through the sand and let the waves lap at our ankles as we pointed out interesting land formations, a mama duck and her train of baby ducks, more egrets in the distance. When it was time to put our shoes on again, the trail led through another leafy-green-saturated forest that wound along the south end of the island’s rocky shoreline. Through the gaps in the trees, we saw the water sloshing sluggishly against the red-dirt stone.

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Back at our campsite, we settled in with dinner: we each got a veggie burger and bun, both cooked over the fire, topped with half a packet of mustard. Plus a spoonful of peanut butter. And that was it. We sat at the picnic table twiddling our thumbs, both of us not wanting to admit that we were so hungry still. What could we do? We still had to get through tonight, all day tomorrow, tomorrow night, and somehow make it until 2 p.m. on Sunday when we were at last back in Bayfield. We couldn’t stuff ourselves as much as we liked, and so we’d have to wait it out.

Luckily, there was a campfire program at 7:30 pm near the ranger station. Deciding it would give us something to do (and both secretly hoping there would be s’mores), we made our way towards the ranger’s station and settled in with a handful of boat campers to learn about invasive species. It was a great program and we learned a lot about the ecosystems of Stockton. Sure enough, three teenage girls appeared with elaborate s’mores ingredients: Oreos, Ghirardelli dark chocolate with caramel filling, Chips Ahoy cookies, graham crackers, Hersey’s squares, and a bulging bag of marshmallows.

Sam and I played it cool while they made their s’mores, and when they offered up their roasting sticks and delicious treats to us, we did our best to stay humble and not dive head-first into the sugar comas we’d been dreaming about. The ranger and a lifelong Apostle Islands visitor chatted about how the Islands had changed over the years, which was a really interesting conversation, but not nearly as interesting to us as all the processed sugar sitting in front of us. We stacked up two delicious creations each, patted our bellies, and at last felt satiated.

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After thanking our s’more goddesses for their generosity, we made our way back to our site and caught the tail end of the sunset. It’s a beautiful thing to wake up and fall asleep to the rhythm of the sun, and we were ready to sleep. By this time, we’d adjusted to our sleeping bags and inflatable pads to the point where they felt like fluffy feather beds after a full day of exploring. Unlike our two previous nights, I passed out into a deep sleep almost immediately. My heart, mind, soul, and stomach were full: what more could I possibly ask for?

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