It’s an August morning in northern Wisconsin, the kind that residents of the small town of Bayfield dream about in the darkest months of winter. The sun glistens on Lake Superior, a gentle north breeze cools the 70-degree air, and the City Dock, lined by sailboats and yachts, is quiet save for a small circle of drummers from the nearby Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa stationed in front of the town’s Lakeside Pavilion. They beat their drums in tune to dancers dressed in intricately beaded formal regalia. Behind the drummers, a few hundred yards into the bay, sits the Viking Octantis, the largest cruise ship the town of 466 year-round residents has ever seen.
At 665 feet, with space for 378 guests and 256 crew, the state-of-the-art $230 million expedition ship hovers in place using the powerful thrusters of its dynamic positioning system, technology that eliminates the need for an anchor and, thus, damage to the lake bed or ocean floor. Built to cruise the Arctic, Antarctica and the Great Lakes, the ship has an ice-strengthened Polar Class 6 hull. At 77 feet wide, the slender Octantis has just six inches leeway on either side to squeeze through the narrowest of the 16 locks that allow ships to pass from the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lawrence Seaway and Lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron before finally entering Lake Superior, the largest and westernmost Great Lake. As the drums beat to honor the visitors, the passengers are ferried off the ship in flaming orange tenders.
This town of pastel Victorians on the tip of the Bayfield Peninsula is no stranger to tourists. Its annual Apple Festival in October attracts 50,000 people. The jumping-off point for the 21 islands comprising the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Bayfield is a haven for kayakers, sailors and environmentalists. Opinions in town about the cruise ship are divided.
“It is the beginning of the end of Bayfield,” said John Unger, an employee at Apostle Islands Marina, near the City Dock. “I’ve got a feeling that within five years we are going to have cruise ships sitting out there all of the time.”
The Octantis had seven scheduled stops in Bayfield this summer, the last of which is Sept. 20. There are only three scheduled stops for 2023, but Lake Superior cruising is gaining momentum. The Octantis will be joined on the lake by its new sister ship, the Polaris. Combined, the two will offer four Lake Superior itineraries, including one epic 71-day journey on the Polaris that starts in Duluth, travels through the Great Lakes, down the Atlantic Seaboard, along the east coast of Mexico, through the Panama Canal, and along the western coast of South America to Antarctica.
There’s also the Hanseatic Inspiration, a brand-new German 230-passenger expedition class ship that will operate a 13-day Great Lakes journey, part of which will be on Lake Superior.
A few blocks from the marina, Julie Buckles, the owner of Honest Dog Books, holds a more tempered opinion about the increase in cruise ships. “There’s been a knee-jerk reaction within that community that this would automatically be a bad thing,” she said, listing the issues environmentalists in the region have fought against in the last decade, including a proposal for a concentrated animal feeding lot, a mine, an airport and an artesian water-bottling company. “A Viking ship is the least reason for concern.”
As passengers disembark at the Pavilion, Robert Buffalo, the hereditary chief of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, is waiting to lead eight of them on a bus tour of the tribally owned Red Cliff Fish Company and the privately owned Copper Crow Distillery. “In my opinion,” he said, “this is a great adventure for both the city of Bayfield and the Community of Red Cliff.”
The marine historian Harry J. Wolf wrote there were once more people “asleep on boats on the Great Lakes than on any ocean in the world.” From the mid-1800s into the 1960s, passengers widely traveled Lake Superior, including Mark Twain, who cruised Lake Superior in 1886 and again in 1895; and Mary Lincoln, who stopped in Bayfield aboard the 60-passenger Union in 1867, two years after her husband was assassinated.
“For Bayfield’s first 50 years or more, large boats were regularly using the harbor,” said Neil Howk, former assistant chief of interpretation and education for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The SS Christopher Columbus, a 362-foot-long whaleback steamer, stopped in Bayfield twice in the 1890s, once with nearly 3,000 people on board. “That was a pretty big deal,” said Mr. Howk.
With the advent of automobiles and airplanes, however, cruising Lake Superior lost its allure, especially when the 500-passenger SS South American, the last of the Great Lakes steamships, was retired from regular service in 1967. In the decades since, there has been a mere trickle of overnight passenger boats cruising the lake. The last one to dock in Duluth was the 138-passenger Yorktown in 2013.
But the trickle has turned into a steady stream. In June, American Queen Voyages offered a 16-day itinerary on its 202-passenger Ocean Navigator, which included Lake Superior for the first time. Between late May and September the Viking Octantis offered 14 eight-day cruises almost exclusively on Lake Superior.
Stephen Burnett, the executive director of the Great Lakes Cruise Association, headquartered in Kingston, Ontario, chartered a 30-foot Zodiac in August to show senior planners from the cruise companies Ritz Carlton, Hurtigruten, Scenic, Lindblad and Ponant portions of Lake Superior’s 466-mile Canadian shoreline between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay. Known as the North Shore Inside Passage, the sparsely populated region has a craggy coastline of thick boreal forest, interspersed with billion-year-old bedrock and small artisan communities. According to Mr. Burnett, three of those five companies have committed to Lake Superior in 2023 or 2024.
“It’s a marvelous lake,” said Mr. Burnett. “If you aggregate all of its assets, it’s one of the most exciting cruise destinations anywhere.”
Why the sudden excitement for cruising this under-the-radar Midwestern lake, the world’s largest freshwater lake by surface area that has an average annual temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit?
“The Great Lakes have been historically underserved by cruise lines,” Torstein Hagen, Viking’s chairman, wrote in an email. “Their combination of natural beauty and cultural treasures make them the ideal place for our expedition voyages, which are rooted in scientific discovery and learning.”
For travelers, Lake Superior offers a closer-to-home alternative in an era when international travel has been disrupted by Covid, the war in Ukraine and an increasingly unstable climate.
With 2,726 miles of shoreline stretching across three states and one Canadian province, Lake Superior borders five national parks in the United States, one in Canada, and roughly two dozen state and provincial parks. Beyond its rugged beauty there’s human history dating back 10,000 years, when the original Anishinaabe hunter gatherers began to inhabit the lake basin.
The lake’s empty ruggedness is appealing, but its wild weather can wreak havoc on itineraries. In late May, 30 m.p.h. south winds forced Viking to cancel shore excursions to Bayfield. The first three stops in Houghton, Mich., on the Keweenaw Peninsula, were also canceled because of inclement weather and winds, much to the chagrin of Marylyn and Randy Sandrik, passengers who live in Frisco, Texas. Ms. Sandrik grew up near Houghton and, as a girl, would watch the SS South American, a 500-passenger steamship, pass through the city every summer.
“She talked about the South American so many times,” said Mr. Sandrik, “that when I found out Viking was going to Houghton, I said, ‘Book it right away.’”
So far they are enamored with both the ship and the voyage. “I like that there’s no smoking, no gambling, no casinos, no charge for drinks and no talent shows on board,” said Ms. Sandrik.
The Scandinavian-chic Octantis does have an onboard spa, three indoor-outdoor pools, a lounge with floor-to-ceiling observation windows and some staterooms that are twice the size of the average New York City apartment. But it’s also built for research, with a 400-square-foot wet lab, a National Weather Service balloon-launching station, two submarines and a 100-foot-long spillway to launch Dutch-built special-ops military vessels repurposed for scientific exploration.
On the Great Lakes, Viking has partnered with NOAA, the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Its onboard staff of scientists launch National Weather Service balloons, measure tropospheric ozone, study the increasing presence of algae blooms and sample water for microplastics. Guests are invited to observe or, in some cases, participate as much as they wish.
“I don’t see our cruise ships as doing only citizen science,” said Damon Stanwell-Smith, Viking’s head of science and sustainability. “They are world-class research vessels.”
In addition to unpredictable weather, Lake Superior has another natural barrier to expedition cruising: It straddles two countries. If a ship departs from the Canadian side, passengers are required to enter U.S. Customs and Border Protection on the first point of entry in the United States, which is Duluth. Until very recently, the hilly city of 86,000 residents has not had a facility in its harbor to accommodate a secure border crossing.
This summer, Duluth, in partnership with the Duluth Seaway Port Authority and the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, built a temporary facility in its harbor along the sea wall behind the convention center, where passengers can disembark from the tenders and pass through customs. The permanent facility is projected to be completed by 2024.
“What Duluth did is going to be a game changer for the Great Lakes cruising industry,” said Rebecca Yackley, the director of the Office of Trade and Economic Development for the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation. “Clearance facilities are the greatest challenge to cruising on the Great Lakes right now. Duluth has the only customer and border patrol facility on Lake Superior.”
Emily Larson, the mayor of Duluth, sees small-scale expedition cruising as a boon for her city, which has an industrial port that moves 35 million short tons of cargo per year. An expedition ship like the Octantis is dwarfed by the 1,000-foot-long lakers that carry taconite, salt and iron ore.
“I’ve been to Miami. I’ve seen the 4,000-passenger ships. We are not a city that would chase that market,” she said. “We are a city for 200 to 400 people at a time who are really curious about the geology, industry, science, fresh water, food and experience of Duluth.”
In Bayfield, Ted Dougherty, the chairman of the Bayfield Harbor Commission, and other local officials, including Lynne Dominy, the superintendent of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, spent a total of three years negotiating with Viking. Ms. Dominy’s concerns about the ship were the safety of park visitors in smaller vessels like sailboats and kayaks, wake damage to park shoreline and infrastructure, and the displacement of local businesses who offer ferry excursions and other boat journeys within the park.
“I don’t have any authority over Lake Superior or Bayfield,” said Ms. Dominy. “All I can do is say, ‘These are the things I’m concerned about.’ If what you do doesn’t interfere with the quality of the visitor experience and doesn’t damage the resources, then you’ve done everything right.”
To address those concerns, Viking skirts the perimeter of the park, using already established shipping canals, and contracts with local tour operators like Apostle Islands Cruises to explore the National Lakeshore. Whether it will be enough to appease some Bayfield residents remains to be seen.
“I think it’s going quite well,” said Mr. Dougherty. “If we want to have a grocery store to operate in the middle of winter in Bayfield, we have to have business in the summer.”