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.

 

Trail Guide: 7 Adventures in Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula

After living in Bayfield, Wisconsin for almost a full month, I completely see why the small Lake Superior town is a major tourist attraction. Between guiding kayak trips and exploring the area for myself by foot, I’ve come up with a fairly solid list of highlights of the Bayfield Peninsula.

Houghton Falls Nature Preserve

With sandstone cliffs, views of Lake Superior, and seasonal waterfalls, this 1.5-mile trail is an easy hike and a must visit. Be aware that in many areas going off trail is trespassing on private property, and the Bayfield Regional Conservancy asks hikers not to wander into the streamed, as it contributes to erosion.

Catch a Little Sand Bay Sunset

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Sunset behind Sand Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

One of the best spots to watch the sun set over Lake Superior might be Little Sand Bay. Here you can watch the sun sink behind Sand Island, and stroll down the pier, and out to a small river/estuary.

Corny Beach

Looking for a place to swim and get some of the best smoked fish around? Look no further than the small town of Cornucopia, right on Lake Superior. If you’re looking to add some mileage to your beach day check out nearby Lost Creek Falls for a little over a 2 mile hike. 

Kayaking the Sea Caves in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

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“The Crack”, Mainland Sea Caves, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

The Mainland Sea Caves are often what brings people out to Bayfield, and fairly so. Objectively glamorous, the sea caves are an incredible experience, and kayaking is probably the best way to really experience these caves.

That being said, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first thing to remember is that Lake Superior isn’t really a lake; it is a freshwater sea. Just last fall, a 28.8 foot wave was recorded near Marquette, Michigan, and the weather at the Sea Caves can change very quickly, from glass to dangerous in under an hour. Kayakers should use ONLY sea kayaks, and have spray skirts, wetsuits, PFDs (which you should actually wear!!!), a bilge pump, a paddle float, first aid kit, and extra water, and all of this at the very least.

If you are going to paddle the sea caves and you have access to all of this equipment, great! Make sure you can either self-rescue or you are with someone who can T-rescue—preferably both. I would also recommend checking the marine forecast, and understanding what that forecast means. At the Mainland Caves, strong wind from the Northeast generates pretty large waves that can rebound off the cliff walls.

All this to say, if you don’t have sea kayaking experience and access to equipment, going with an outfitter is an excellent and much safer way to experience the sea caves! Check out Living Adventure and their various tour options here!

Kayaking the Islands

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Looking East from the Oak Island Dock after sunset

While the Mainland Sea Caves are awesome, the whole of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore features more, less accessed sea caves. By touring the islands on a multi-day sea kayaking trip, you can experience more remote caves and garner some more experience sea kayaking. Check out Living Adventure’s different multi-day trips!

(For staff training this year we did a three day overnight that looked something like Beaches, Waves and Caves, but with a lot more capsizing and rescue practice! The sea caves on Sand Island are incredible, (even when you’re upside down in a kayak and freezing in them) and having lunch on the Raspberry Island Sandspit might be one of my favorite experiences to date, sunburn included. The photo above was taken from the Oak Island dock during an overnight trip. If you’re at all up for some island camping and interested in paddling, this is really the sort of experience you want to have in this lakeshore.)

Hike Meyers Beach Sea Caves

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“The Crack” from the hiking trail above rather than from the water

If you don’t get out in a kayak to the Sea Caves don’t stress too much—you can experience the caves from above the cliff line at the Meyers Beach. This trail is usually considered to be moderate, and is as long as you make it. Keep your eyes peeled for black bear, which are known to frequent the area.

Apostle Islands Grand Tour

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Devil’s Island Sea Caves 

Hop on one of the cruises starting in Bayfield to get a three hour tour of the Apostle Islands from a ferry! Try for the top deck of the boat for the best view, but be sure to dress warm—the air up there is cold and it only gets colder the farther out you go!

Questions, comments, concerns? Feel free to leave me a message below!