Lost at Sea: Reading Period adventure goes awry

This article is a personal account of a midterm reading period trip taken by Outdoor Recreation Club (ORC).


In the middle of Lake Superior sits an island called York with three campsites, one pit toilet, some bears and few, if any, people. Located approximately four miles off the coast of northern Wisconsin, York Island provides camping for those who venture into the waters of Lake Superior within the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The island itself is quite unremarkable, being rocky and covered in mostly second-growth forest that is common throughout the Midwest due to the logging boom in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, the draw of York Island and the Apostle Islands in general is the beauty of the lake on which they sit and the sea caves that are formed when water crashes into and erodes the rock.

This is what drew a group of six students from Lawrence’s Outdoor Recreation Club (ORC) to the islands for a three-day, two-night kayaking trip over mid-term reading period. Weather on Lake Superior tends to be pretty unpredictable, especially far enough out to properly plan a trip, so the trip leaders, senior Gus Lowry and junior Jen Nelson, had a backup plan. In the event that weather on Lake Superior was not ideal for kayakers, then the group would head south to Lake Eau Claire in western Wisconsin for some calmer watersports. However, when the group arrived at the Apostle Islands, the waters seemed almost welcoming.

After obtaining a camping permit from the park headquarters in Bayfield, Wis., the group went to Little Sand Bay to launch their kayaks and paddle to York Island where they intended to stay for two nights before paddling back to the mainland and returning to Lawrence. When arriving at Little Sand Bay and starting to unload their gear, Lowry received a phone call from one of the rangers at park headquarters to inform him of a small craft advisory that had been issued by the National Weather Service.

Simultaneously, a law enforcement ranger approached and asked who the group leader was. Everyone indicated Lowry and the ranger waited until he was off the phone before informing the group of the small craft advisory. While the National Park Service cannot prohibit any individual form going on a specific trip, they can advise against it, as they did here. At this point the water was looking choppy with two to three-foot high whitecaps building and strong winds.

As a group, it was decided that conditions might change after lunch and unpacking, so a decision could be put off until then. As expected, the weather improved. The group departed the mainland at approximately 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 19. Once arriving at York Island and establishing camp, the group settled in for a dinner of vegetarian Thai curry with rice noodles. After playing several word games and socializing by the fire, the group went to bed.

The following morning was calm and tranquil on the infamous Lake Superior. The water was perfectly still and the group awoke late to the sound of breakfast being made. That is, a camp breakfast of hot water mixed into oatmeal or powdered milk with granola. This was the day for exploring. After breakfast, everyone boarded their kayaks and started paddling for the nearby Sand Island lighthouse, where they picnicked before exploring the sea caves on the island’s eastern shore. After a period of fun exploration, the group turned back to camp in perfect, albeit slightly warm, weather.

After returning to camp, card games and other afternoon activities ensued to pass the time between the return from Sand Island and dinner. One such activity was swimming in Lake Superior briefly in order to cool off after paddling for several hours. This may seem dangerous, but the members proceeded with caution and their time in the water was limited to just a few minutes. Finally, dinner time came around, and more games ensued until the fire died and everyone went to bed, dreading the idea of leaving the next morning after only two days on the island.

The next morning, the group arose to partly cloudy skies and mild winds. After breakfast, the group departed the island and started paddling for the mainland, but they wouldn’t make it far. After rounding the cape to the southeastern end of the island, light rain started and the winds kicked up. Three-foot waves and whitecaps were seen ahead, and the group pulled into a small inlet to let the weather calm before attempting to depart again. On the next attempt, the group made it partway into heavier seas, before realizing the danger they posed, and turning back, thus started the ordeal that would last for approximately twenty-eight more hours.

A small craft advisory was in effect until that evening, when the weather was supposed to clear with the setting sun, but without proper lights on the kayaks, it was impossible to attempt a night time departure. To make matters worse, that morning, the group ran out of their primary source of water purification and would have to resort to emergency chlorine-dioxide tablets for clean water along with the obvious boiling with the remaining stove fuel. Food was down to about one decent meal each. As the day wore down to night, the weather forecast said things would be milder for several hours early the next morning. The group planned on packing that night, waking up at 6 a.m., and departing as the sun rose at 7 a.m.

Finally, on day four of a three-day trip, the camp awoke to stronger winds than the previous day and a forecast completely different than they had seen the night before. A small craft advisory was issued for the entirety of Oct. 21, and even the sheltered bay looked menacing under the overcast sky. The trip leaders called the Coast Guard station at Bayfield, Wis., which referred them to the National Park Service.

After several hours of back and forth due to the non-life-threatening nature of the call and the fact that the kayaks were not owned by the students, the park service agreed to come and pick up the group from York Island with the kayaks and give them a ride back to shore. While passing these last few hours on the island, some students started playing Halloween-themed games, especially around a mythical character they created, called Snickety-Snick. Finally, after being rescued, the students returned to campus approximately twenty-eight hours after they originally planned with no harm done, with the exception of a few blisters and a toe that was cut on a sharp piece of driftwood.