Monday, August 30, 2010

Camping permits, shaky weather forecasts, and sit on top kayaks

Its a long headline but its a three part post. A group of five of us headed to the Apostles for what I fear is the last Apostles overnite of the season, given our packed dance card for the fall. It was a wonderful trip with some easy paddling, some challenging paddling, and some perplexing questions along the way.

The trip began with a rendezvous at Ethels in Bayfield for $2 pints of New Glarus products and pizza. Beer enjoyment was severely curtailed however, since we had a crossing to make to get out to Oak 3 that night. We were sure that we would have a nice push since the forecast was a south wind 15-20, with 2 to 4 footers pushing us up the west channel, building overnite with small craft warnings necessary on Saturday. Actual conditions were a light south breeze with occasional 'three sisters' wave sets of consecutive 12, 14, and 16 inchers. The last half hour of the trip was in beautiful twilight, a wonderful paddle. The next day found us heading for Quarry Bay on Stockton in building conditions. The waves were capping and there were some almost three foot beam seas between Oak and Stockton. We had a quick stop on the last beach on the southeast corner of Oak to stretch our legs and met four guys from Duluth in sit on tops that they had rented from a guy on Madeline Island. They checked out our spray skirts and remarked that they wished they had those kind of boats because it was a "pretty wet ride for us and all our gear" paddling up from LaPointe. We left them on Oak and paddled to Quarry Bay to claim our group site C, a site we were assigned after being rerouted due to the rogue Manitou bear. We really coveted the individual site, a beautiful beach site, and sat there, had snacks, took a nap, and eventually claimed it when no one showed. Sunday we got an early start to beat the forecast 15-20, gusting to 25mph south winds with 2-4 footers, but had another day of bluebird paddling with a light breeze and some ripples. Now that the travelogue part is out of the way, here are the three takeaways from the weekend.

I know its tough predicting weather on the big lake but when its obvious that the forecast has been blown, isn't there a window to look out or even an online resource to use to modify it and make it useful and relevant to boaters? When I got home I checked the nearshore forecast and the realtime wave map, both of which are linked on the right side of this blog. The former was doggedly insisting on the 15-20, 2-4 footers, while the latter map was solid blue with one foot waves all over the Gitchee Gumee. I honestly don't get it but know that if they keep 'crying wolf' that someone is going to get into trouble. There are actually many times when your own senses and some of the old weather adages like 'red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in morn, sailors be warned' are more useful. Bryan Hansel has some great ones in his blog, Nessmuking. If someone who knows something about the NOAA forecasting procedures would like to comment, that would be great because I'm honestly puzzled about the huge disparity between forecast and reality.

As I confessed earlier, we poached the Quarry Bay individual site Saturday night. Well, most of us did. TwoBurnerRob set up on Group Site C, which would be in high demand were the name ofthe park the Apostle Islands National Brush Preserve, because he didn't want to move in the dark if the rightful lessees showed up at dusk. Chances of that were slim on a Saturday though, and if the rightful occupants plan had been to wait for the wind and waves to die down a bit, that just didn't happen. We actually had cell coverage and called the park, who could only advise us that the permit for that site had been picked up. In talking with park staff, they said that people were pretty good about calling if they couldn't make it, but its tough being out on an island, with some paddlers not comfortable with conditions, and then trying to make contact and notify the park. I can't think of a better system but if people are considerate and call if they get waylaid, I guess that's the best. There was talk of incentives, credits for nights missed, etc., but that would be tough to administer and once again, communication can be tough using just the marine band radio. We ran into some folks that had a Presque Isle site and had been told that Quarry Bay was all full. We were the only souls in the two available group sites and the individual one. I guess sometimes we just need to play it by ear, which it seems like everyone did Saturday night.

Lake Superior sit on top kayaks. In my opinion those two items should rarely be used in the same sentence. The water is warm now, 65-70F in the Apostles and there is about a month to six week window when it's like that. It would seem that sit on tops would be great for playing around LaPointe or at Big Bay, but crossings and overnites can be shaky in traditional sea kayaks. We met a fellow at The Creamery last weekend (OK, he was the bartender), and the guys from Duluth, and both mentioned that they were a bit short on cash and didn't feel like spending the $50 and 3 hours on the required safety course at the two mainland outfitters, a course required to rent sea kayaks with spray skirts. We talked at length and both parties confessed to being wet for the entire paddle once the first wave broke over the cockpit, the hatches leaked so their gear was wet, and the sit on tops handled like a Mississippi River barge in wind and waves. We suggested to both folks that the fifty bucks might be the best $50 they ever spent, and as the guys from Duluth stood there comparing our boats with theirs I got the impression that that they would have definitely handed over the $50 at that point. The guy on Madeline renting these craft most likely isn't going away and there is nothing the park service, Coast Guard, or anyone else can do so I guess the only thing left is education. I'm also guessing the repeat business for overnite tours isn't very strong once customers have had the Gitchee Gumee sit on top experience. Our barkeep in Downsville said they 'didn't have time for the safety training' and the outfitter told them to just play around in the harbor and they would figure it out. We told both about the ISK and SKOAC training sessions as well as the Duluth Outdoor program and other opportunities. Other than that, what can we do? Its normally people with limited funds and limited kayak knowledge of the situation and just want to have an Apostle Islands experience.
After all that writing I'm confessing that I have no answers on the weather forecasting process, campsite reservation tweaks, or what do do about some poor SOB hammering it through the Basswood triangle, cold and wet, in their sit on top kayaks. If there was ever a post that begged comments and opinions, this one is it.


Silbs said...

Good stuff. After sailing 30+ years I stopped listening to the forecast except for severe weather warnings. If you do listen to them you will seldom paddle.

Bryan said...

Its normally people with limited funds and limited kayak knowledge of the situation and just want to have an Apostle Islands experience.

Absolutely. When you have liveries that are only concerned about money, they're going to rent these visitors boats that aren't suited for the conditions, or the liveries are going to send out visitors without the proper equipment and training. In Grand Marais, this summer has seen improperly outfitted (baggy wetsuits, no rescue gear) visitors with no kayaking experience renting kayaks from the local outfitters. One of the outfitters refuses to offer wetsuits, because the kayaks he rents are so stable. I ran into one couple who had rented gear from one on 40F water in jeans. They just returned from a 3/4 mile off-shore rock outcropping.