Trail Guide: Sea Kayaking the Great Lakes

Kayaking is super fun, and places like the Pictured Rocks and the Sea Caves are super gorgeous. I totally get it. But after spending a summer up guiding on Superior I’ve got a few notes for you all, just to re-enforce the whole safety thing.

This summer I saw a whole lot of people out at the Mainland Sea Caves without spray skirts, or in inflatable boats, or worst case scenario, in sundolphins. (You want to know what I hate most in the world? It’s the sundolphin. That boat is tiny, and slow, and there’s no spray skirt or bulkheads. What are you gonna do when that thing capsizes? It’s gonna sink! Are you gonna swim the mile back to the beach in 57 degree water? You’re not wearing a wetsuit! You’re gonna get hypothermia.)

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This is the sundolphin. Take this piece of crap back to Lake Minnetonka where it belongs.

So you might be thinking, “but all the pictures I’ve seen of the Lake look beautiful and calm, and I’m a good paddler, I take my sundolphin out on Lake Minnesota-dota-tonka-bago all the time.” (I don’t know the lake names here. Everything in WI sounds funny.)

I’m here to remind you that the Great Lakes are a different ball game. 

You are no longer dealing with lakes when you start paddling here. You are on an inland sea. Lake Superior’s largest recorded average wave height was 28.8 feet. These lakes can create their own weather. They have taken down real ships. Do you really feel safe in that 10 foot sundolphin?

The Great Lakes are seas. Bring a Sea Kayak.

A sea kayak is defined by a few things. First, sea kayaks are longer than 15 feet. Most are around that 16-18 foot range. Tandem sea kayaks should be pushing 18 feet. Anything shorter than this might not be sea worthy.

Second, sea kayaks have sealed bulkheads. That means there are pockets of air both in front of and behind the cockpit. If your boat capsizes, it will not sink, and you can get back into it.

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Sea kayak. Almost 16 feet.

Sea kayaks are the only type of manpowered boat that is smart to bring on a Great Lake. Don’t have a sea kayak? Consider a guided tour.

Know how to get back in your boat

In the event of a capsize, you want to be able to get back in your boat. Do you have a scramble rescue? Do you have a paddle float rescue? Do you know what those words mean?

If you’re paddling with other people, do you have a T-rescue? No? Consider hiring a guide or taking a safety course.

Gear Things

There is a set list of safety gear you should have before hitting the Great Lakes. Here is that list:

  • Spray Skirt– keeps water out of boat. Water out of boat= boat that floats= stable boat.
  • PFD- Aka life jacket. And actually wear it. It’s not a lot of good floating away from you.
  • Bilge Pump– pumps water out of boat. Water out of boat= boat that floats= stable boat.
  • Paddle Float– can use to create outrigger with paddle for self-rescue. Also makes a good back rest.
  • Spare Paddle– in case something bad happens to first paddle.
  • First Aid Kit– for band-aids.
  • Repair Kit– so you can duct tape that hole in your boat.
  • Whistle- carry three signaling devices. This is an easy one.
  • Mirror– effective way to get someone’s attention using sunlight.
  • Marine Radio- you might not have cell service. Now you can still call for help/ check the weather.
  • Wetsuit– What’s the water temperature? Is it below 70? Hypothermia might be a risk. Lake Superior has more hypothermia incidents than drownings. Food for thought.
  • Extra Layers– Weather changes quickly out there. Rain jacket never hurt anyone.
  • Sponge– clean boat = happy boat.
  • Map- know where you’re going.

Most importantly, have a plan. Maybe this seems silly and obvious, but know a little bit about the hazards in the area you plan on paddling. Know the marine forecast, and check the radar before you head out. Tell people where you are paddling, and when you expect to be back. Most of the gear above you won’t even use on a typical paddling trip. But it’s good to have a plan B, and C, and D and E. And if you don’t have all the backup plans, go with someone who does.

Just the other day when my group was heading in before a storm we saw a family of four setting up for a picnic near the cliff wall on sit-on-top kayaks. The weather had probably looked nice when they left, but weather changes. (We, of course, gave them a heads up.)

The day before that, a mother was the sole survivor of a tragedy in the Apostle Islands. This incident is my primary prompting for posting this. I post a lot of pictures of kayaking on Lake Superior, and I don’t want people to see these pictures and assume that means this Lake is always beautiful and safe and calm. I don’t have my camera out when it’s not. I’m not on the water, and if I am, I’m busy trying to get myself and others off of it. There is a safe way to kayak the Great Lakes. I would hate for people to see photos that I take as a message that this place is always a safe and fun vacation spot.

This isn’t meant to be irreverent, or to shame anyone, or to assign blame. Experience informs the choices we make, and we cannot fault people for experiences they haven’t had. I don’t think death or loosing your family is a fair price to pay for simply not knowing, but the Lake isn’t fair.

If you’re reading this, awesome. I’m not concerned about you. But make sure your friends, and neighbors all know that these lakes are not safe all the time. Friends don’t let friends paddle sundolphins.

 

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