Travel Logs of an Expedition of Healing
This fall, six of Northwest Passage’s Prairieview residents traveled to North America’s third coast, the shores of Lake Superior, for their capstone project in the latest chapter of New Light Under the Surface. We ventured north to spend time in this beautiful place and to work in partnership with the National Park Service staff of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and with Artist in Residence photographer, Andrew Walsh. This adventure was made possible thanks in part to the financial support of Wisconsin Sea Grant and The National Park Service Submerged Resources Center.
Lake Superior welcomed the group with unusually warm and calm water, clear skies, and a sunny disposition. We spent two nights and three days camping four miles from the mainland on Sand Island, near the Bayfield Peninsula, the western-most tip of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on which camping is permitted.
Getting to the Island
For the majority of the residents, our first night camping on Sand Island was also their first night sleeping in a tent. It goes without saying that there was much preparation for the trip. In addition to the snorkeling and photography skills they learned and put into practice this summer, the group learned how to set up and take down a tent and how to ‘make their bedroom,’ how to pack a backpack, and how to plan their meals for wilderness camping. By the time we boarded the Park Service boat at Little Sand Bay the girls were well prepared for our adventure.
Great Lakes Fisheries Biologist Jay Glase captained the boat, a sturdy craft with powerful twin outboard motors. It was also equipped with a ramp that can be lowered for loading cargo and passengers directly onto the beach, but most importantly, so that we could slip safely into the water for aquatic exploration.
The water was perfect by Lake Superior standards. A gentle breeze pushed up 1-2 foot waves which was just enough to make water spray across the deck as we cruised to the Island, bouncing over waves.
“Being on the boat gave me an adrenaline rush. I had never been on a boat before. It felt so good as the mist of the cold water hit my face. I watched the waves from the side of the boat fly up. It was so relaxing to watch and brought me so much excitement.”
Setting Up Camp
Upon arriving at East Bay on Sand Island, Jay ran the boat right in to the shallow water and lowered the bow ramp. The group formed a chain and worked together to unload the mountain of gear. We thanked Jay for safe passage and waved as he departed back to the mainland. The group was now on the island and began to settle in for the next three days.
The girls put their camping skills to practice and spent that afternoon setting up camp. Pitching tents, assembling the camp kitchen, building tarp shelters, and gathering firewood. They helped one another out, sharing what they remembered of their training when others got stuck. Once camp was settled, we spent the afternoon getting to know our little corner of the nearly 3000 acre island.
“The two points on the island jut out on both sides of me. They’re slightly curved, as if giving me a hug and telling me I’m safe, nothing will hurt me. The island is protecting me. From what? I don’t know. But the secluded peace of it all gives me a great sense of security.
To my right is the mainland, the place where we parked the car and left. Not only did I leave the town and commotion behind, I left my troubles too. The 2 a.m. thoughts of self-hatred, the constant fear of what comes next, the horrific desire to not desire, the trance of unworthiness that fogs my mind.”
First Night on the Island
After dinner the group rallied the energy to hike the nearly three miles to the northern tip of the Island. We hiked through old growth white pine and cedar and arrived at a small peninsula upon which the historic 135 year old Sand Island lighthouse sits. We got there just in time to catch the brilliant colors of the sunset and see the first of the stars emerge overhead.
Artist in Residence, Andrew Walsh, provided instruction and guidance on sunset photography as the group took in the wild remoteness of the place. We played in the rock pools and explored what felt like the ‘edge of the earth.’
As night set in, we departed back to camp, the group persevered through the long hike back on a dark and buggy trail by singing and joking as we followed the lights of our headlamps. When we arrived back at our well-made camp at East Bay, everyone settled in for the night to get some much needed rest.
“The most challenging part of this trip was coming back from the lighthouse, when I got my hair stuck in the bug tent and the gnats swarmed my face because my headlamp was still on. This showed me that I can overcome struggles.”
Exploring the Caves at Swallow Point
The next morning brought perfect weather – again! By the time our boat arrived promptly at 8:45 the group had eaten, cleaned, and secured camp. They were ready and waiting in wetsuits when Julie Van Stappen, Chief of Planning and Resource Management, and their boat captain for the day, arrived on the beach. We boarded with gear and cameras in hand and traveled up the shoreline to Swallow Point.
The Caves at Swallow point are one of the most notable geological features of the Apostle Islands. Their beauty is rivaled only by the caves on Devil’s Island and the mainland caves at Mawikwe Bay (which received international notoriety and tens of thousands of visitors during the winter of 2013).
The caves at these unique locations are formed from red sandstone that has slowly eroded to create arches, tunnels, and deep caverns. They are a living geological feature that continues to be gradually broken down by ice in the winter and smoothed by wave action in the summer. These caves have been photographed by hundreds of explorers and dozens of professionals. But never before have they been explored and photographed like this.
The group stood on the deck and was given guiding words of inspiration and safety by Ranger Van Stappen and their team leaders. We then slipped into the water in teams of three, two “buddies” and a team leader in each pod, and swam to the caves.
As we approached the Sea Caves there were three things that stood out; the geology, the crystal blue clarity of the water, and the sound of the waves ‘galumping’ against the hollows of the stone. To many, the idea of swimming into a cave, in deep cold water would be a terrifying and claustrophobic proposition beyond imagination. These six brave young women dove in and didn’t look back. They boldly went forward chasing their curiosity and the opportunity for just the right shot.
“I felt so calm. I was in my own little world. I didn’t worry about all the stressors going on in my everyday life. I left that all behind. I just sat back and listened to those beautiful waves and took amazing underwater shots.”
Going Below the Surface
The unparalleled beauty of these caves can only be fully experienced by seeing both the above water and below water elements of them. The caves that arch overhead, also arch underwater and it takes unique skill and equipment to capture the whole picture. Fortunately the group was equipped with the eye and the gear to do so.
They were driven by the inspiration that they had the unprecedented opportunity to share the beauty of this global treasure with thousands of others. They were bringing the Apostle Islands to the rest of the world.
The excellent weather made hours of photography both above and below the water possible. The morning sun reached far under the water’s surface making for exceptional photographic conditions. We swam deep into the caves and through the arches. After exploring nearly a quarter mile of shoreline, the morning came to a close. We swam onto the boat and returned to our campsite for lunch and conversation with Julie.
“Lake Superior is brilliantly blue. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such blue water in my life. I can see how people of other nationalities and faiths base a lot of their beliefs and practices on nature and why they cherish lakes so much.”
On to Eagle Island
After eating and resting up, the group was given the unique opportunity to visit another of the Apostles. Julie ferried us around Sand Island and across three miles of open water to Eagle Island. Eagle Island, one of the smallest of the islands, sits on the far western edge of the National Lakeshore. It serves as a bird refuge and people are barred from stepping foot on dry ground there for 6 months of the year – fortunately for the group, they were remaining in the aquatic realm.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring the submerged rocky ledges and deep crevasses of Eagle Island’s north shore.
By the time Julie had to part ways, the cameras were full of images and our bodies and minds were out of energy.
We returned to camp and wound down day number two on Sand Island.
“Riding on the boat with Ranger Julie Van Stappen made me feel like I was special, that she truly loved taking us out and watching us. I hope one day I could have her take me to more of the islands.”
Heading Back to the Mainland
Day three defied the forecast and blew expectations out of the water. Instead of the thunderstorms and high waves that were predicted there were gentle clouds on the horizon and clear blue skies above. The water was again, warm and calm in the sheltered East Bay.
We packed up and cleaned the campsite then spent the morning with our guest, Artist in Residence, Andrew Walsh. Andrew has volunteered time with Northwest Passage on two previous occasions, but this was a first for him to join a group on an expedition. On the days previous he had joined the group in the water and on land offering professional insight and tips, he had also spent time doing night photography with the girls the evening before.
This morning he set up on shore and gave the photographers the opportunity to be the stars on the other side of the lens.
After lunch, we loaded the mountain of gear onto the boat and boarded the boat heading back to the mainland. It was bittersweet partings leaving the place that we had all formed a strong bond with over the course of three short days.
Early in my career I spent four years instructing and guiding sea kayaking in the Apostle Islands. I spent thousands of hours paddling and countless nights camping in the Islands. I ushered hundreds of guests to and from the shores of the mainland out to these gems of Lake Superior. Not until this trip, did I realize the potential of this place to help those, in the most dire need of nature’s elixir, find hope and healing.
Ian Karl, Experiential Programming Coordinator
“Into the water I went. Washing away the pain the scars left. I watched the memories float down. Away from my thoughts, away from me. Submerged in the peaceful currents. I let myself go for just a moment. As I rose up out of the water. The sun seemed to shine brighter.”
Every child’s journey to mental health at Northwest Passage incorporates therapeutic elements such as those encountered while at the Apostle Islands. The girls practiced a number of therapeutic practices from time spent in nature and recreations to relaxation and time spent building relationships with peers and staff. It is opportunities like this that the girls are able to put their efforts in treatment to work in a rewarding and awesome way.