The research team arrived at the Port Superior marina on Monday evening–no one knew each other yet, but the nine of us were about to spend the next week together in the 40-foot sailboat Apres Ski. Our first night was spent in the harbor, meeting with specialists from the DNR in the comfortable clubhouse up the hill.
After a breakfast of the incredibly delicious warm wine bread (a traditional Croatian pastry) from the Candy Shoppe in Bayfield, plus a meeting with the Auxiliary Coast Guard representative Chris Bandy (a world traveler and kayaker whose next mission includes a golden eagle hunting trip to Mongolia) we finally got underway.
Sailing is cold. My primary occupation on that day was shivering. After about 3 hours on the water, we docked at Stockton Island in time to do some hiking and exploration before dinner.
We stopped at the ranger station just uphill from the dock and visited briefly with Ranger Gail, who was stationed there for the week. The whiteboard behind the counter listed the trail conditions on the island. All trails were marked passable, except for one. Written next to its name were the descriptors, “unknown,” “good luck,” and “it’s there,” which made me laugh.
Stockton is one of the most well-traveled islands and is known for its Tombolo Trail, which passes through a diverse array of biomes, exhibiting different plants and wildlife along different points of the trail. The island also has a large bear population, and we ventured into the woods hoping to catch sight of one. While some of our group managed to encounter one on the Julian Bay trail, the only bear I encountered was the stuffed one, preserved safely in a glass display case in the interpretative center. Known affectionately as Skar the bear, this animal was shot after it had harassed too many campers in its pursuit of food. He is now featured in a children’s book, “Skar’s Picnic,” which is also displayed in the interpretive center.
Our hike took us to Julian Bay, known for its “singing sand.” While the singing sand beach was as picturesque as it sounds, the “singing” was a little unexpected–the sound from our footsteps more closely resembled a squeaky squelch or even a duck’s quack.
Speaking of ducks, I was thrilled to spot several families of mergansers in the islands, including one that was hanging around in Julian Bay. Coming from the Twin Cities, the only type of duck I’m used to seeing is mallard, and at times I almost forget that there is a huge variety of ducks and waterfowl all across the state. (On a tangential note: I remember once being shown up in a Gander Mountain when I tried to name all the breeds of decoy ducks and fumbled through only four or five. A real sportsman caught wind of the challenge and named every display on the wall with masterful ease–like a duck on water, you might say).
The mergansers’ almost comical mohawks became a familiar sight over the next few days, and we were even treated to a parade of ducklings at sunset.
Offshore of Julian Bay lies the wreck of the Noquebay, a lumber ship that sank when it caught fire on the way to New York. It is now a popular dive site in the National Register of Historic Places.
Our evening on Stockton included a presentation of the geological and industrial history of the Apostle Islands from Ranger Gail, plus a chat around a campfire. The awe of spending time sailing in such a beautiful place really sank in as I walked down Stockton’s dock toward the boat, the sky awash with sunset’s last colors. Knowing that I was about to clamber aboard that sailboat, and that I would be known and greeted by the people inside, made me so suddenly thrilled to be there. We spent a quiet night swaying gently in the water, beneath the pearly brightness of a full moon.
I awoke early the next morning and hiked again to Julian Bay, inspecting the ground for evidence of wildlife passing in the night. I found a few bear tracks at the beach, and passed a few late lady slippers, but that was about it. After a pancake breakfast, I again set out down the trails, this time past the campsites. They all looked really awesome, seated up on the high sandstone cliffs overlooking the big lake, and often surrounded by groves of cedar or pine.
Toward the end of the campsite trail, there is a site that leads down to a tiny length of sand beach via a rope and wood plank ladder. A sign nearby advises use of the “Sand Ladder” for safety. I clambered down eagerly, feeling like a buccaneer in search of a long-forgotten treasure.
While there was no treasure on the beach there, I did immediately find a piece of sea glass, worn to a sandy smoothness by the pummeling action of wind and waves. I’ve never found sea glass before, so I was ecstatic to discover it. Afterward I made sure to always carefully scan the beaches, in case another treasure was lurking in plain sight.
We spent a while longer at Stockton, visiting again with Ranger Gail and invasive species specialist Michael Joiner before departing, setting sail for Manitou Island.