Essays

Matter of Perspective

On a clear day, you can see forever. At least that’s what the song lyrics say. From Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands, on a clear day you can see across Lake Superior to the Minnesota shore, a distance of maybe 30 miles. You can’t see clearly, however, because the water, land, and sky blend together at that distance and details are lost.

But our objective, Sand Island, was a mere three and a half miles away, the park ranger informer us, and looked even closer. My wife and I stood on the beach watching the sun set behind the island, thinking that we had come a long way to paddle such a short distance. Months of planning were about to culminate in a relatively short crossing and our first kayak camping trip.

But then, tiny dots appeared. As they gradually materialized into kayaks, we began to realize that Sand Island might be farther away than it looked. Anxiety about whether we were adequately prepared for the next day’s journey returned.

We knew how changeable the lake could be. Though it might be calm when we started, it could quickly turn rough before we got across. However, the forecast was for clear skies, wind from the north at 5 to 15 miles per hour, and waves of less than two feet. Our weather radio had issued no small-craft advisories, so it appeared that all was well.

The next morning, our first challenge was loading the boats. We had all our gear in dry bags, but we weren’t exactly sure they would all fit through the hatches. As it turned out, we had to repack only a couple of the larger bags. With coaxing and rearranging, we tweaked the loads and everything was stowed inside.

The day was a beauty, with a light breeze and cloudless sky. Little Sand Bay was nearly calm. Who could ask for more?

After we left the bay, the waves became choppier as we neared the halfway point. It wasn’t bad, but hinted at what it could be if the wind should build. The chop called for steady paddling with no time to stop for a break until we arrived in the protected lee of Sand Island.

After our crossing, it was still early, so we explored farther around the island. We scooted in and out of sea caves sculpted by the waves, enjoying our little adventure in idyllic paddling conditions. Our earlier fears about traveling alone seemed totally unfounded as the weather held throughout the day.

We were blessed with an ideal night for camping, but the ranger at the lighthouse warned us the next day’s forecast called for shifting and stronger winds. If so, we would be battling a headwind and rough water during our return trip.

Being early risers, we checked conditions as soon as we got up and saw the lake was still calm. We immediately broke camp to take advantage of the mild conditions. The return trip was a much fun as the previous day’s crossing, and we landed back at Little Sand Bay happy and content. We were glad that we had decided on an early start, however, as we watched whitecaps develop while enjoying breakfast on the mainland.

We learned many things on our first kayak camping trip. We learned what equipment is needed and what is not. We learned how to pack lots of gear into small places. We learned to pay attention to the weather, but also to listen to our own intuition. We learned that the distance from Little Sand Bay to San Island is three and a half miles, but that it can also be measured in months of planning, dollars spent on gear, and courage required to face a new and unknown challenge.

We learned that on a clear day you might be able to see forever, or perhaps 30 miles, or maybe only three and a half. Distance is really just a matter of perspective.

(Original publication: Canoe & Kayak, October, 2004)

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