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On Gitchee Gumee's shining big-sea water

Wetland behind the dune on the shore of Little Sand Bay of Lake Superior, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Dan Wilcox photo.

I don't like Longfellow's epic poem about the Ojibwa and Lake Superior, but I can relate to Ishmael, the seaman narrator in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick."

When I find myself growing grim at the office, whenever my hypos get such an upper hand that only strong moral principle prevents me from knocking people's hats off, then I account it high time to get to sea.

Ishmael had little or no money in his purse, so he signed onto Ahab's whaling ship Pequod. I had a little money and live far from the ocean, so we bought the sailing cutter Sea Dragon and had it shipped to Lake Superior.

Last weekend, a neighboring boat person in the marina at Washburn asked if our boat is one of those "Triple D" models. Despite researching sailboats for years, I didn't recognize that one.

"That's a common type of boat up here," he said. "It leads to debt, destruction and divorce." Fortunately, Carol laughed.

Having grown up on the Great Lakes, I have a deeply-rooted attraction to the big water. We are fortunate to live in Wisconsin with both a north coast and an east coast on the Great Lakes, and a west coast on the Great River. As much as I like the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan, Lake Superior fascinates me like no other body of water.

It's big. It's cold. It's wild. It's beautiful.

Lake Superior covers 31,000-square miles, the largest body of fresh water in the world. It is truly an inland sea. Lake Baikal in Russia and Lake Tanganyika in east Africa each hold more water, but Lake Superior is the largest in area.

The lake is geologically young. That's one reason it looks so bold. The lake basin was dug by moving glacial ice into Canadian Shield granite, some of the oldest rock on the planet. The last of the glaciers retreated only about 10,000 years ago. The modern shorelines emerged as recently as 2,500 years ago.

Native Americans were crossing the lake in birch bark canoes and mining copper for tools on Isle Royale and the Keweenaw Peninsula as long as 6,000 years ago.

Lake Superior is an ultra-oligotrophic lake with low nutrients and sparse aquatic life. The water temperature in most of the lake remains about 40 degrees Fahrenheit all year.

The lake is so big that it generates its own weather and tempers the climate around it.

Lake Superior is rich in history and legend. It attracts people who revere it like an ocean.

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is located at the tip of the Bayfield Peninsula in northern Wisconsin. It includes 21 of the 22 Apostle Islands, a strip of mainland and the waters of Lake Superior out 0.4 kilometers from the islands' shores. The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore was designated and placed under management of the National Park Service by Congress in 1970 and further strengthened by designation of about 80 percent of its land area as the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness in 2004.

Once inhabited by Ojibwa and later by loggers, farmers, fishermen, rock quarrymen, lighthouse keepers, cabin and resort owners, the Apostle Islands are now uninhabited and wild. The islands have regionally rare habitats including old-growth forest, boreal forest, clay bluff communities, sandstone cliff communities, lagoons, bogs, and dunes.

Deer and bears occupy the larger islands. The Apostles are scenic, with sandstone cliffs, sea caves, forests and beaches surrounded by vast expanses of Lake Superior.

You can tour the Apostle Islands by excursion boat out of Bayfield, take the ferry boat to Madeline Island to visit Big Bay State Park, or paddle sea kayaks out to the islands. (Go with an experienced leader and watch the weather!)

For those less intrepid, there are some nice places to visit while driving along the Lake Superior shore like the mouth of the Brule River, Port Wing, Herbster, Cornucopia, Little Sand Bay, Bayfield, Washburn and Ashland.

Check out Sharon Graham's Trout Run Art Gallery in the old Post Office building (also once a bar) in Port Wing. She lived in River Falls for many years. Sharon has a clay pot throwing studio, is still making fine art, selling fine art made by others, and she serves fine ice cream too.

Last weekend, Carol and I cleaned and sorted out all the gear on our new old sailboat. Digging through all the lockers and storage spaces on the boat was like a treasure hunt. We inventoried and stowed all the cruising gear, cleaned the boat from stem to stern, rigged the main sail and staysail, and fired up the small inboard diesel engine.

We cast off the dock and motored out past the harbor breakwall. We were again at sea. OK, it was only calm Chequamegon Bay, but it is part of Lake Superior. We look forward to cruising the Apostle Islands, other parts of Lake Superior and the Great Lakes beyond.

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