Sailing the Apostle Islands is idyllic, despite a thunderstorm

APOSTLE ISLANDS NATIONAL LAKESHORE, Wis. — The thunderstorm struck with a vengeance around 9:30 p.m.

We were anchored in Stockton Island's Quarry Bay in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, off the northwest tip of Wisconsin.

Fortunately, though, we were protected from the 40 mph winds that lashed the waves and battered our boat.

The evening had begun mildly enough. After a pleasant sail from the Port Superior Marina a few miles south of Bayfield, Wis., the four youngsters in our two-family group spent the day jumping and diving into Lake Superior from the deck of La Bateau, our chartered 44-foot Jeanneau sailboat.


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We also checked out the shallow caves along the shore and hiked on the trails leading from the sandy beach. We barbecued that night on the deck of our boat, relaxed and watched the brilliant colors fade from orange to red to pink on the billowing clouds that dotted the horizon. (They didn't look like storm clouds to me.)

Later, though, when the spouses and children had gone to sleep, lightning flashed, thunder boomed, rain lashed and the wind swirled everything that wasn't tied down on deck.

I scurried topside to make sure none of the swimsuits and towels had blown into the lake and returned to find Mark Lorenzen, the boat captain and my longtime skiing and kayaking buddy from San Francisco, hunched over the radio listening to what sounded like conflicting weather reports.

Although he's been sailing for five decades in the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean, Lorenzen had never experienced a ferocious Midwest thunderstorm, and it had him spooked. Me too, and I grew up in this region.

For 15 minutes (though it seemed longer), we exchanged worried looks as the storm pounded us. Then, as Lorenzen told me to go topside to bring up the anchor so we could motor into the wind, the rain slackened and the wind all but stopped.

It stayed that way all night long.

The next morning, as we drank coffee and watched a beautiful sunrise, we thanked our lucky stars and the protection offered by the rocks and trees above Quarry Bay. 

This was my second sailing trip to the Apostles — one of the country's prime sailing areas — and although both were fun, the second was much more exciting. Two years ago, my 23-year-old son, Matt, and I took a two-day course with John Thiel, owner of Dream Catcher Sailing in Bayfield, on the 37-foot Egret.

That outing, in which we learned the rudiments of hoisting sails, understanding winds and docking boats, whetted my appetite for more.

So when the chance came to return to the Apostles last summer and sail 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. He brought along his water-loving wife and two kids, ages 11 and 8. They clicked — most of the time — 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.

My youngsters even learned a bit of sailing lingo, such as 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 could charter a 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 our four-day outing, the kids and their mothers read, played games and slept. (We all shared the cooking and cleaning duties.)

One highlight of the trip wasn't even on the water. On the second afternoon, we sailed to the Wisconsin mainland to hike in Frog Bay Tribal National Park, which was opened last summer 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 with guide Ellen Kwiatkowski, former executive director of the Bayfield Regional Conservancy. Over the next hour, she led us through the Native American park (the first of its kind in the United States) on a springy trail of peat moss and fallen pine needles.

Birds — about 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 although we didn't see them, there were plenty of other critters watching us —if they weren't snoozing — from bobcat to bear to porcupine.

Soon we were sailing again, zipping by the Raspberry Island Lighthouse. Originally built in the 1860s, it was replaced in 1906 and underwent a million-dollar remodeling in 2006. 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 at a cockpit table big enough to seat all eight of us. Bright stars sprinkled the sky. This was, after all, a wilderness area with only the towns of Bayfield, population 600, and Ashland, population 9,000, offering light-producing competition.

The last day, after more swimming and hiking, we sailed back to Port Superior. A strong wind was blowing off our beam, and whitecaps were breaking on the lake. It was sunny when we made it back to the dock. Then, in the middle of transferring our gear to our cars, Mother Nature reminded us of who was in charge by unleashing a downpour.

But I didn't care. Clothes will dry. Sailing adventures, well, they don't happen every day.

You can bet I'll be back in the Apostles another summer, perhaps captaining my own boat.

travel@latimes.com