A wave of ice cold water hit me and I sputtered for air. The back of my yellow kayak slid in and out of focus. I grabbed the stern of the boat and hauled myself over, staying low and trying to catch my breath.
“You good?” A friend called from nearby, but I couldn’t pinpoint their location. “We can head in. You don’t have to keep trying.”
I crawled back into the cockpit of my boat, putting on half of my spray skirt and then grabbing the bilge pump to pump out water.
I shivered, and wiped some snot off my face.
“I want to try again,” I said, not really believing it.
“If you’re sure.”
I didn’t end up rolling my kayak that day. All 5’ 3” of me couldn’t quite manage to turn a 16ft kayak right side up. I left cold, wet, bruised and impossibly sore, but ultimately happy I had given it another shot. That night, I watched from inside as lightning lit up whitecaps on the world’s largest lake.
For most people, kayaking is a vacation activity, in white sand beaches of Florida, or a leisure activity on your local lake. Kayaking is relaxing.That isn’t quite the experience Superior offers.
Lake Superior is the world’s largest lake by surface area. It has a year round average water temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit, has produced waves as tall as 30 feet, and creates its own weather patterns. The word “lake” is almost entirely incorrect—Lake Superior is a sea.
The Lake Superior experience is completely different than inland lakes and tropical beaches—it’s better.
First paddled by the Anishinabek people, then serving as the highway of the fur trade, Lake Superior remains relatively unknown in the realm of tourism, despite its waterfalls, cliffs, hiking, and paddling.
I worked as a kayak guide in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore for the summer, where people come to paddle the intricate halls of the mainland sea caves, visit the remote shores of the 22 islands, and have their own slice of adventure. Sometimes this involves glassy water and weaving through lacy archways—other times it involves teaching people how to surf kayaks, chasing off small island bears, or making up a quick way to fix a boat.
Farther North lie the towering cliffs and basalt of Minnesota’s North Shore, where water rushes into the big lake over red and purple rocks. The farther North you go, the farther you can walk without seeing another soul.
Michigan harbors the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, where the cliffs are stained in reds and greens and purples. Every summer, the park gets thousands of backpackers, kayakers and tourists. I visited in Late September and the park was near empty, with water clarity around 30 feet.
Lake Superior’s landscapes are widely varied, and the land has a rich indigenous and maritime history. The shores are littered with shipwrecks, and the waters can test any seafarer.
For me, this has always been part of the draw. The remoteness, the towering cliffs, empty beaches, and most importantly, the ice cold water.
“Does it ever get old?” A participant on a kayak tour I was guiding asked me. She had sweet brown eyes and freckles.
I looked up at the cliff wall, Devil’s Island sandstone, red and orange layers, streaks of glimmering rock. The sea caves here are stunning, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the sweet purple flowers that hang on to that wall and manage to bloom where nothing else can grow.
“No,” I answered. “No, honestly every day I am surprised by how beautiful something here is. A few days ago it rained like crazy, and we were able to paddle under some waterfalls. That doesn’t happen very often.”
She nodded, satisfied.
The beauty of Lake Superior doesn’t lie inherently in cliffs and cold water. The Lake is both a lake and a sea. The Lake has both tropical-like beaches, and ice cold water. Superior can be calm and inviting one day, and sink ships the next. The Lake can feel completely like my home, and nearly drown me in the same day. The beauty of Lake Superior lies in unpredictability and contradiction, and in being one of the last truly wild spaces.
I wrote this piece a while ago, but didn’t like it. I threw it in a folder labeled “trash” on my computer and forgot about it. I found it recently, and it turns out I don’t hate it as much as I thought I did, so here it is.