If you bring your own kayaking equipment to places like Michigan’s Miners Beach rather than rent, make sure it’s designed for the Lake’s sea-like conditions.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, spanning 42 miles between Munising and Grand Marais in Michigan, boasts some of Lake Superior’s most dramatic shoreline, including 15 miles of multicolored sandstone cliffs that rise straight out of the Lake.
No wonder, then, that those colorful cliffs – the Pictured Rocks for which the lakeshore is named – attract kayakers for an up-close view of the sandstone, richly stained by minerals in the groundwater. The lakeshore broke its visitation record in 2015 with 735,000 visitors, up 40 percent from 2014. And more visitors means more paddlers, some of whom know little about the power of Lake Superior.
Late last summer, a pair of overwhelmed kayakers faced disaster until a Pictured Rocks Cruises boat came to their aid in choppy seas.
Just days earlier, paddling guides from Uncle Ducky Outdoors helped another pair recover a capsized kayak. “Conditions on the lake were building beyond what their boats were designed for,” local TV station WLUC reported.
Lake Superior’s beauty can belie its dangers, particularly if you’re not prepared with the right gear and know-how. That’s true whether paddling out at Pictured Rocks, Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, the rugged wilderness coast of Ontario’s Pukaskwa National Park or even the urban waters in Duluth. In fact, on any Lake Superior shore, sudden changes in the weather can whip up winds and waves to dangerous levels in minutes.
Veteran Michigan paddler Armin Gollannek has kayaked the waters near his home on Miners Castle Road since 1978. The beach east of Miners Castle is a popular put-in spot. In recent years, he’s seen an influx of what he calls “unqualified boats or non-recommended boats, going 3 or 4 miles past where they should be.”
“You can go from flat water to incredible wind-driven waves over 4 feet high in under 5 minutes,” he adds. “That’s an eye-opener. When you combine it with these sheer cliffs and no good way to get off (the Lake), you better be prepared for it.”
Paddlers who don’t know the Lake, adds Carl Hansen of Munising-based Northern Waters Adventures, don’t know the risks. “If they don’t live on the shore, maybe they’ve never seen Lake Superior get nasty. … It’s not a ride at Walt Disney World.”
But Carl’s goal is not to scare folks from Lake Superior and its wonders. “We just want them to be safe and have a good experience.”
Pictured Rocks’ iconic cliffs are inviting destinations in calm weather, but the long stretches of unforgiving rock offer few places for safe landings when the weather changes.
Prepping for a Paddle
Before you venture out on your own, take a class specifically for sea kayaking. (Some outfitters even require you do so before renting equipment.) You’ll learn how to self-recover, paddle efficiently, navigate and mitigate risks.
Get the right gear. (See checklist below.) On the Big Lake, you need a sea kayak with two hatches/ bulkheads, one on each end, and a spray skirt to keep water out of the cockpit. The sealed storage compartments provide buoyancy and keep the kayak level. A recreational kayak, designed for inland waters, might only have one bulkhead. If it swamps, it’ll be little more than a big bobber. “You’re not going to be able to flatten out the boat, especially in rough water,” Armin says. Worse, some low-end kayaks have no bulkheads at all.
In 2011, Carl helped rescue two kayakers who were trapped at the base of the Pictured Rocks cliffs, 2 miles from the landing at Miners Beach. One kayak had capsized, near the aptly named Shipwreck Point, in 4-foot waves. The paddler said her 10-foot recreational kayak filled with water and sank to the bottom.
Life jackets are required. Like buckling your seat belt in a car, wearing your life jacket while on the water should be automatic. Never leave shore before donning one, no matter how well you swim. Lake Superior’s frigid temperatures – rarely topping 70° F even in its warmest months – will rapidly lower your body temperature. Immersed in water colder than 50° F, an average-sized adult might fall unconscious in less than an hour. Wearing a life jacket and tucking into a ball to conserve body heat, an adult can survive more than twice as long. That could be the difference between rescue and tragedy.
If you’re in truly dire straits, activate a personal locator beacon, another essential item. It’ll send an emergency signal via satellite to nearby search-and-rescue teams, pinpointing your location. Don’t rely on a cellphone, which may not get service. During such a catastrophe, it’s best to conserve energy while you await rescue. Swimming will speed the onset of hypothermia. Only try for shore if it’s less than a mile away or there’s little chance of rescue.
Because of the dangers of cold water, some paddlers always wear at least partial wetsuits as a precaution. Wetsuits trap an insulating layer of water between the suit and your skin, which the body heats up. In waters 70° F or warmer, paddlers generally don’t need one. When water temps are 50° to 70° F, a sleeveless wetsuit should suffice. In the spring and early summer, before Lake Superior reaches 50° F, a full wetsuit is a must. In water colder than 45° F, wear a drysuit, which keeps out water.
File a float plan. Leave details of your trip with family or friends. If you don’t report in as scheduled, they can contact the Coast Guard and tell a search team where to look. Download a template from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary website, www.floatplancentral.cgaux.org.
Check the weather. “Keep informed, watch the radar, listen to the forecast, but believe your eyes, not your ears,” says Pictured Rocks veteran kayaker Shelly Dinsmoore. Make sure the marine forecast is clear for at least twice as long as your planned trip.
“When you do that two-hour leisurely paddle to Mosquito Beach from Miners Castle, the possibility exists that it’s going to take you three or four hours to get back,” adds Armin. “And there is nowhere else to go. You have to be prepared for that.”
While kayaking, pay close attention to the horizon and changes in the wind. A placid day can quickly turn ugly.
If the weather doesn’t cooperate on the day of your outing, don’t take chances – take a hike instead. There’s much to do off the water on Lake Superior’s shores. Alternatively, check out the region’s abundant inland waters. At Pictured Rocks, the Beaver Basin Wilderness offers a delightful paddle on Beaver Lake.
Know your limits. “You don’t want to overextend yourself,” says Armin. “The No. 1 reason people drown is they don’t have the strength, the energy, the endurance when the weather craps out and they don’t have the luxury of a leisurely paddle back.”
Start with short trips, especially in unfamiliar waters, to gain experience and stamina. In time you’ll learn how to handle some surf, how to read clouds like fluffy white tea leaves, and how to anticipate the dramatically different conditions that could be waiting just around a rocky coastal point. Those are all skills you’ll pick up as you progress toward heartier expeditions at Pictured Rocks and elsewhere on the Big Lake.
It’s tempting, on such dazzling shorelines, to push on farther than you should, for one last vista. But the Lake and its geologic marvels will remain, awaiting your return for some safe paddling.
Sand Point at Pictured Rocks.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin – Paddle to the islands or explore the mainland sea caves near Cornucopia.
Duluth and Park Point – If Lake Superior is too choppy, put in on the protected bay side.
Grand Island National Recreation Area, Michigan – Munising Bay is shielded by Grand Island, and the island shoreline is less crowded than many Pictured Rocks spots.
Grand Marais, Minnesota – Start in the harbor, then venture onto the Big Lake. Other area favorites include Cut Face Creek wayside and Paradise Beach.
Lake Superior Provincial Park, Ontario – This park south of Wawa has open-water kayaking from many lovely coves.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan – Sea caves, sheer cliffs and sparkling waterfalls are some of the highlights.
Pukaskwa National Park, Ontario – This rugged coastline offers a 133-kilometre (82-mile) Coastal Paddling Route.
- Sea kayak, at least 14 feet long
- Spray skirt
- Life jacket, worn at all times
- Wetsuit or drysuit
- Spare or collapsible backup paddle
- Paddle float and leash
- Bilge pump
- Marine radio
- Waterproof personal locator beacon
- Outdoor basics: water, snacks, bug spray, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, reflective device