The thunderstorm struck around 9:30 p.m., with a vengeance.
We were anchored in Quarry Bay off Stockton Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Fortunately, we were protected from the 40 mile-per-hour winds that lashed the waves and battered our boat.
It had all begun mildly enough.
After a pleasant sail from the Port Superior Marina a few miles south of Bayfield, the four youngsters in our two-family group spent the day jumping and diving off the deck of La Bateau, our chartered 44-foot Jeanneau sailboat.
We also checked out the shallow caves along the shore and hiked a bit on the trails leading away from the sandy beach. We barbecued that night off the deck of our boat, relaxed and watched the brilliant colors fade from red to pink on the billowing clouds that sprinkled the horizon.
Then, when the wives and children had gone to sleep, lightning flashed, thunder boomed, rain lashed and the wind swirled everything that wasn’t tied down on the deck.
I scurried topside to make sure none of the swimsuits or towels were blown into the lake and returned to find Mark Lorenzen, the boat captain and my long-time skiing and kayaking buddy from San Francisco, hunched over the radio listening to conflicting weather reports.
Though he’s been sailing for five decades on the West Coast, the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean, he’d never experienced a Midwest thunderstorm and it had him spooked.
Moreover, one weather channel—at least the way we understood it—had the storm barreling northwest toward what would have been our unprotected anchorage. But the other had it moving southeast and away from our safe harbor.
For 15 minutes (though it seemed much longer), we exchanged worried looks as the storm pounded us. Then, as Lorenzen told me to get ready to go topside to bring in the anchor so we could motor into the winds, the rain slackened and the wind all but stopped.
And it—fortunately—stayed that way all night long.
The next morning, as we drank our coffee and watched a beautiful sunrise, we thanked our lucky stars and the protection offered by the rocks and trees above Quarry Bay.
Then, for the rest of our four-day trip in the Apostles—one of the country’s prime sailing areas—we pretty much forgot about lightning and rain and thunder and wind.
This was my second sailing trip to the Apostles and while both were fun, the second was much more exciting. Last year, my 23-year-old son Matt and I took a two-day course with John Thiel, owner of Dream Catcher Sailing on the 37-foot Egret.
That outing—in which we learned the rudiments of hoisting sails, understanding winds and docking boats—only whetted my appetite for more.
So when the chance came to return to the Apostles and sail this past summer on a Superior Charters’ yacht, which easily slept eight, I jumped at it.
First, though, I had to find a captain. Lorenzen fit the bill. And he brought along his water-loving wife and two kids, ages 8 and 11. They clicked with my youngsters, ages 9 and 11. Truth be told, I lost count of the scores of times they jumped from the deck of La Bateau, shouting with glee.
Why, they even learned a bit of sailing lingo, like boom, anchor, jib, fore, aft, keel and leeward. And a couple of times, we even let them steer the vessel.
Lorenzen probably got tired of my constant questions, but I was determined to learn as much from the trip as I could so one day I can charter my own boat.
For the most part, the winds were gentle and presented ideal learning conditions. So while Lorenzen and I practiced tacking, jibing and beating to windward for three or four hours each day of the four-day outing, the kids and their mothers read, played games and slept.
One highlight of the trip wasn’t even on the water. On the second afternoon, we sailed over to the mainland to hike in Frog Bay Tribal National Park, which was opened recently to the public by the Red Cliff Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa.
On the sandy beach facing Oak, Hermit, Raspberry and Stockton islands, we met up with guide Ellen Kwiatkowski, executive director of the Bayfield Regional Conservancy. Over the next hour, she led us through the park (the first of its kind in the United States) on a springy trail of peat moss and fallen pine needles.
Birds—some 90 species live in the park—serenaded us on our walk under tall birch, hemlock, spruce and cedar trees, many of which were more than 100 years old. And while we didn't see them, there were probably plenty of other critters watching us—if they weren't snoozing—ranging from bobcat to bear to porcupine. Perhaps even a wolf?
Soon we were sailing again, zipping by the Raspberry Island Lighthouse. Originally built in the 1860s, it was replaced in 1906 and then remodeled by the National Park Service in 2006 to the tune of $1 million. It shows, too, and is considered the “showplace” of all the Apostle Island lights.
We anchored that night in a bay sheltered by Raspberry Island and dined on whitefish around a cockpit table big enough to seat all eight of us. Bright stars were sprinkled over the sky. This was, after all, a wilderness area with only the towns of Bayfield, pop. 600, and Ashland, pop. 9,000, offering any light-producing competition.
The last day, after more swimming and hiking, we sailed back to Port Superior on the northeast side of Madeline Island, where we’d be spending the next few days in a log home on Sunset Bay.
A strong wind of 15 knots was blowing off our beam and whitecaps were breaking on the lake for the last hour of the trip. It was sunny when we made it back to the dock. Then, in the midst of transferring our gear back to our cars, Mother Nature reminded us of who was really in charge by unleashing a downpour.
But I didn’t care a whit. Clothes and towels dry. Adventures, well, they don’t happen every day.
And you can bet I’ll be back in the Apostles next summer, perhaps captaining my own boat.
If you go: For details on chartering a sailboat or lessons, see Superior Charters. Dreamcatcher Sailing also has a sailing school and offers sailing vacations. More info is also available about Bayfield and the Apostle Islands, as well as Madeline Island.
Brian Clark is a Madison-based writer and photographer who contributes to a number of papers, including the Los Angeles Times, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Though he's worked as a business writer, he'd much rather be penning stories about climbing mountains, kayaking whitewater rivers, sailing, and skiing steep slopes at remote resorts in British Columbia or the Alps.