So Plan B gave way to Plan C. We retreated to a protected bog, a narrow path of water that wound endlessly through clumps of tall grass and bushes that smelled like sage. The mirror-calm water reflected the sky, with no waves in sight.
When you visit the Apostle Islands, it pays to keep your plans loose. Lake Superior is 31,000 square miles and kicks up both summer floods and winter blizzards strong enough to take down ships. Perhaps in response, the people in the area have become as warm and accommodating as the lake is cold and unforgiving.
Doug and Sherri Hamby, a couple from Rochelle, Ill., have visited the Apostles 15 times in the past five years. As they travel across the region with their hand-built hardwood and fiberglass kayaks, they find that the people who live in this part of Wisconsin are unusually kind, Ms. Hamby said.
“There’s a stereotype called Wisconsin Nice,” she said. “They almost purposely slow down a little bit just to say hi.”
We saw a lot of this on our trip: The bed-and-breakfast owner who told us we could just mail her a check when we got home because we had only credit cards with us. The tour boat captain who didn’t even check to see if we had tickets on our way in. The parking lot attendant who said we could use a traffic cone to “reserve” a space in the normally first-come-first-served lot.
The largest and most popular of the Apostle Islands is Madeline Island, a former fur trade post about the size of Manhattan but with only 300 year-round inhabitants. Arriving there by boat, which is your only option until the lake freezes over in winter and temporary roads are built, feels like putting in at a tropical port of call: Sailboats bob, wind socks flap in the stiff breeze, laughing tourists sport backpacks and baseball caps.
The island vacillates between ostentatious displays of wealth (a golf course that overlooks the $100,000 boats in the marina), touristy kitsch (a giant sculpture of an ice cream cone near stores selling candles, postcards and fudge) and truly beautiful undeveloped areas that feel as remote as any northern Wisconsin forest. The 2,600-acre wilderness preserve includes pine, maple and birch, along with wetlands adorned with tall grasses and shockingly purple wild lupines. Even though downtown can feel a little crowded, many tourists don’t venture far inland — you can and will find yourself alone in these woods. It’s a calming place.
In keeping with the spirit of the Apostle Islands, we alternated between camping and civilization. After our kayak adventure, we visited the Inn on Madeline Island, a modern hotel with a friendly reservations system and a nice location on the edge of downtown. We were excited to use the hot tub right on the lake, but that night the tub was unexpectedly cold and so was the sauna, which had a snapped-off temperature dial we couldn’t figure out. The room was comfortable, with lighthouse and cabin art on the walls and tasteful hardwood furniture.
Another night, we stayed in Bayfield’s 1890s-built Treetop House, a charming bed-and-breakfast with plenty of flowered wallpaper, doilies and sailboat knickknacks. The host, Sandy Paavola, has lived in the home since 1961 and served us quiche, fresh fruit and a breakfast cheesecake with our morning coffee.
It was one of our better meals in the area, where the food tends toward burgers or simply prepared local fish. The Wild Rice Restaurant in Bayfield was a happy exception. Wisconsin-inflected courses like foie gras with granola and native berries, and pecan wild rice cake with brown sugar ice cream, are elegantly composed, and the building is even more striking, constructed with the sharp lines of a Norwegian fishing village and adorned with colorful local sculpture.
This art felt like a prelude to the sea caves, the all-natural sculptures that are the Apostle Islands’ biggest draw. The ones we visited were on Devil’s Island. Here, wind and waves have carved out sandstone into a freewheeling piece of art. Alternating bands of gray, brown and rust-orange decorated caves, twisted pillars and holes that line up like the round windows of an old pirate ship. At their thinnest, the formations are a work of Lovecraftian geometry; improbable pillars propping up a lush tabletop of forest.
We planned to see the caves from a kayak, but the waves made it too dangerous. Our backup plan was to see them from a large ship, but the wind made the captain change his route. We finally made it out in the ship on our last day. In the dazzling sunlight, the caves were all the more beautiful for the time it took to get there. Once again, we learned the lesson of the Apostle Islands.
A previous version of this article misidentified the launching point for the writer’s kayak trip. It is Little Sand Bay, not Sand Point.