You are here

Historic Lighthouse Aids in Rescue at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Raspberry Island Light

The historic Raspberry Island Light has recently been restored. NPS photo.

A historic lighthouse had a role in one of three recent rescues at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin, and quick work by the park staff averted several potential tragedies.

Lake Superior is renowned for its cold temperatures, rough seas, fog, and sudden squalls.

That statement from a park publication sums up the challenges for both boaters and rescuers on the largest of the five North American Great Lakes. Although the lake is popular with recreational sailors and kayakers, three incidents last week confirmed the need for boaters to respect weather and water on Lake Superior. According to a park report,

On the morning of July 15th, Oak Island volunteer Merle Lang reported that a group of Boy Scouts in kayaks were struggling in the channel between Oak Island and the mainland. Within minutes, Lang reported at least one member of the group had capsized and fellow kayakers were attempting a rescue.

Sea conditions at the time were reported at two- to three-foot waves with sustained winds in excess of 20 knots. An adult member of the group had flipped upside down and was unable to release his spray skirt and was trapped underwater for a short period of time. He was righted with the help of one of the guides and other members of the group, but had swallowed several gulps of water and was reported to be dizzy, nauseated, and extremely fatigued.

In a classic example of good timing,

NPS maintenance employee Ken Eklund and park ranger Susan Mackreth were aboard the NPS Grebe, and were transporting park VIPs Judy Michaels, a doctor, and Janice Carol, a nurse. They were in the immediate area when they came upon the kayakers in distress and were on-scene within minutes.

They moved the injured adult aboard the vessel, where he was stabilized, monitored and transported to Buffalo Bay marina at Red Cliff. NPS safety officer Steve Witt with park rangers Damon Panek and Jim Dahlstrom in NPS Eagle conducted a quick search to locate the rest of the kayak group with the assistance of park ranger Mike McCoy, who maintained visual observation on most of the group from the Raspberry Island Lighthouse.

The Raspberry Island Light is one of eight historic lighthouses at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore—more than any other National Park Service area. It’s been involved in assisting with plenty of shipwrecks since it went into service in 1863, although I’m sure the early keepers of the light could never have imagined a role in saving sea kayakers.

Two additional NPS vessels assisted in locating the remainder of the group within 30 minutes. A total of 19 kayaks were involved and became separated over a two mile area due to increasing winds and wave conditions.

One juvenile member of the group was taken aboard the NPS Eagle due to extreme fatigue and also was transported to Buffalo Bay marina in Red Cliff for observation and later released.

The guides, operating under provisions of a commercial use authorization, were issued a citation for not having the required number of guides as required by CUA trip permit conditions. By the end of the incident, winds were in excess of 35 knots and four- to five-foot seas were reported along their intended route.

This incident was clearly wrapped up just in time, but the following day brought two more rescues by the park staff.

On the afternoon of July 16th, the US Coast Guard notified NPS dispatch that a 26-foot sailboat was in distress near the park. The vessel had a sail line wrapped around its prop and was taking on water.

Waves were running three to four feet and the sailboat was drifting directly toward Madeline Island, which is located outside of the park. Rangers Mike Larsen and John Pavkovich and maintenance employees Steve Witt and Tom Richardson responded aboard the NPS Eagle.

They assisted the Coast Guard by transferring two people and their dog off the drifting sailboat and transported them to port in Bayfield, Wisconsin. The Coast Guard then towed the sailboat back to the Bayfield City marina.

As park staff were about to clear from this incident, they received a report of a kayaker stranded on Long Island, located within the park. The NPS crew responded and found two overturned kayaks with two men in the water clinging to their vessels a half mile west of Long Island.

The kayakers, 56-year-old Steve Kirchen of Bloomington, Illinois, and 63-year-old Virgil Buss Jr. of Rockford, Illinois, were in 52 degree water for more than two hours before they were rescued by NPS personnel. Both men appeared to be in mild to moderate stages of hypothermia and were transported to awaiting ambulances in Bayfield. The Bayfield Ambulance Service transported both men to Memorial Medical Center in Ashland, where they were treated and released from the hospital later that evening.

Kirchen and Buss were part of a group of seven kayakers that became separated and capsized in three- to four-foot seas. The wind was recorded at 20 mph and air temperature was 60 degrees at the time of the incident.

It may have been all in a day's work for the park staff, but I'm willing to bet those rescues sound a lot easier than they were.


Lake Superior often doesn't get the respect it deserves from recreationists. I'm not saying any of these folks were ill-prepared (except, perhaps the guide service that should have had more guides for a 19 boat group), but it's fairly common for people to think "lake" and decide boating or kayaking there should be a walk in the park. Apparently not enough people listen to Gordon Lightfoot songs. If Superior can take out a 30,000 ton iron ore freighter, it can swallow a kayak in the blink of an eye.

I've had several friends run into trouble in the channels between the Apostles and between the islands and mainland. A lot of unpredictable waves out there. When I was in college in Ashland, a couple friends of mine decided they were going to go pole rafting on a big chunk of floating ice off the Bayfield shore. To make a long story short, it's amazing how many kids actually survive college to tell the stories later! (Yes, they managed to self-rescue without USCG assistance.)

We're going kayaking in the Apostles next summer. Hopefully we won't get a write-up on Traveler.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide