Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Oak Island

Oak Island is a land of high hills and steep valleys, sandstone cliffs, and towering hardwoods. During your visit, explore abandoned logging camps, breathtaking vistas, ancient beach lines, and cool, peaceful forests.

As the last glaciers receded 11,000 years ago, the ice-carved landscape that is now the Apostle Islands was slowly revealed. The waters of early Lake Superior (Glacial Lake Duluth) were so high that all the islands were submerged. Oak Island, the highest Apostle Island at 1,081 feet above sea level, was the first to emerge as lake levels lowered. Ancient beach lines, the remnants of different lake stages, can be seen in several places on the island.

During the last five thousand years, the lake level has remained relatively constant. Wind, waves, and ice have transformed Oak Island's shoreline into the terrain seen today—cliffs of glacial till, sandstone outcroppings, and sandy beaches. Most spectacular of these features are the bluffs on the north tip of the island (the highest cliffs on Wisconsin's Lake Superior shoreline) and the Hole-in-the-Wall (a sea arch along the northeast shore).

Native people have camped and harvested food on Oak Island for centuries. Legends exist of a band of pirates using Oak Island as a lookout and base during the fur trading era of the 1700s. Land surveys conducted in the 1850s note the location of a maple "sugar bush" used by Ojibway Indians on the island.

As early as the 1850s, a cordwood business was flourishing here, supplying fuel to passing steamships. The island was subsequently logged for pine in the 1880s and 1890s, and for hemlock and hardwoods throughout the 1920s. As many as six lumber camps, including those of the Schroeder and R.D. Pike Lumber Companies, once dotted the shores of Oak Island. Some of the clearings and remnants of these camps are still evident today.

During and after the Great Depression, commercial fishermen used parts of the island as base camps. One of these men, Martin Kane, took up permanent residence near the sandspit, where he lived for over 25 years as the friendly "King of Oak Island."

The island is covered with a mature northern hardwood hemlock forest, including red oak, eastern hemlock, balsam fir, sugar maple, and yellow birch. Although a fire burned most of the island in 1943, many large trees survived, resulting in a dense canopy and sparse understory.

A variety of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians make the forest of Oak Island their home. Careful observers might discover the tracks of black bear, deer, coyote, and fox on the trails and beaches. Smaller mammals such as bats, red squirrels, mice, and voles are common. Toads and garter snakes are often seen. Loons, herring gulls, and mergansers patrol the shoreline; songbirds fill the forest with their melodies; majestic bald eagles and hawks soar overhead. Eagles frequently nest in one of the white pine trees along Oak's shoreline.

Areas may be closed to protect nesting eagles.

Camping, Hunting, and Boating
Camping permits are required. The permit system allows campers to reserve campsites in advance. Reservations can be made at the Bayfield visitor center or by calling 715-779-3397. Oak Island has four individual campsites, two large group (8-30 campers) sites, and one small group (8-10 campers) site. Camping outside of designated sites is possible, with restrictions. Campsites may be temporarily closed to prevent disturbance of nesting bald eagles.

Oak Island is a popular spot for winter camping. Ice travel is always uncertain. Stop at the Bayfield visitor center to learn about current ice conditions and obtain a camping permit.

Boaters should avoid commercial fishing nets, which may be in several locations along the island's shore. Oak Island provides several possible anchorage areas, depending on prevailing wind conditions. Boaters are encouraged to monitor marine weather forecasts.

Docking is permitted as space allows. A wooden dock is located in the middle of the west side of the island. A well and outhouse are available nearby. Maximum water depth at the end of this dock varies, but is usually about six feet.

Go to the Apostle Islands Day Hiking page for trails on Oak Island.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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