Published July 31, 2012, 09:52 AM

Paddle into the past at dramatic Lake Superior sea caves

The rock is gorgeous, from almost pink to mauve to the color of a white-tailed deer in summer. Long, long ago, this rock was deposited in layers, then squished by geologic forces from deep in the Earth. Now sculpted by Lake Superior for the past 12,000 years or so, a mile-and-a-half ribbon of shoreline on the Bayfield Peninsula offers paddlers a rare chance to humble themselves in the presence of nature.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

CORNUCOPIA — The yellow kayak emerged inch by inch from the darkness of the natural sandstone tunnel. In the bow of the craft, Lisa Gundlach of Madison, Wis., let her eyes adjust to the light of a July morning on Lake Superior.

“That was cool,” she said. “I was a little nervous.”

It was cool, all right. Cool and moist and dark and sloshy. Gundlach and her husband, Adam, paddling with her in the two-

person kayak, were experiencing one of the most remarkable natural wonders on Lake Superior, the mainland sea caves in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

The two were among 11 of us traveling on Thursday with guides Ben Wagner of Duluth and Nicole Tarcsay of Bayfield. Both guide for Living Adventure Inc., a sea-kayaking outfitter in Red Cliff. For most of the day trip, we poked along the shore of this greatest lake gawking at the caverns, pocks, portals, arches and raw cliffs chewed out of sandstone over the eons by waves that have gobbled up ships.

The rock itself is gorgeous, from almost pink to mauve to the color of a white-tailed deer in summer. Long, long ago, this rock was deposited in layers from an inch to a foot or more thick, then squished by geologic forces from deep in the Earth. Now sculpted by the lake for the past 12,000 years or so, this mile-and-a-half ribbon of shoreline on the Bayfield Peninsula offers paddlers a rare chance to humble themselves in the presence of nature.

Thanks to the Inuit, those of us who visit the caves today have the perfect craft in which to do so — the kayak. Sitting at water level, feeling your kayak rise and fall on the heaving breast of Lake Superior, only adds to the sense of awe.

Our pod of paddlers skimmed along the shore, poking into formations that guides call “The Crack,” “The Cathedral” and “The Garage.” Go there. You’ll see why.

Early on, we nosed one-by-one into The Crack, a sharp cleft in the cliff. The sheer sandstone rises 50 feet on each side of you. Soon the crack is only as wide as the length of a paddle. Then you must stow your paddle and proceed forward by pushing against the walls with your arms. Finally, daylight is just a narrow slit far overhead.

“That was awesome,” said 12-year-old Chris Palmer of Lino Lakes, Minn., paddling with his mom, Kate Palmer.

Other passages took us through long, connected arches just head high and barely wide enough for a paddle. We reached out to touch the cool, grainy walls. As the waves built modestly through the morning, their residual slop reverberated through the caves where we paddled. Depending on the size and shape of the formations these waves encountered, they created a variety of deep, resonant gloops and glugs and whups and gargle-spits.

Some of the waves meeting the rock sounded like doors slamming, or like someone dropping a dishpan full of water from a second-story window.

What happens at the sea caves is not merely physical. Yes, it is cool to see.

“The colors are so beautiful,” said Beth Schweich of Apple Valley, Minn. “And I didn’t think you’d, like, squeeze through them.”

But beyond that, this sinuous stretch of shoreline offers travelers the chance to sit on the water imagining immense forces of nature and contemplating the long throw of geologic time. When Wagner and Tarcsay point out a fresh rock face where a garage-sized arch collapsed a few years ago, and when they show you a jumble of desk-sized sandstone chunks that tumbled down earlier this month, it brings the eons smacking right up to the here and now.

Hmm, you think. Here I am, a speck in the life of a planet.

After lunch on a nearby beach, Adam Gundlach stood looking down the lake toward the sea caves.

“Wow,” he said.

After drizzle and clouds earlier in the day, the sky had cleared and the sunlight had painted new color on the cliffs.

“This is perfect,” Gundlach said. “Lunch on the beach. The weather breaks. Everything.”

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