For the first time all summer I’ve been able to both camp on an island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and also get off my ass and write a blog post about it. I pretty much had to write this post as a confession of poor judgment, bad luck, good luck, of maybe just a bit of stupidity. You can read the story and decide. It turned out well but easily could have been a very problematic day on Outer Island, due in part to a phenomenon that I’ve never seen in decades 0on the big lake.
We had a nice little trip, 50 miles or so, scheduled over five days. Ironwood the first night, two nights on Outer to let us run up to the lighthouse on the north end at our leisure, and then Manitou on the way back. It was a different trio than the normal Fall trip that I’ve been on since 2000 with most of the original principals scattered from Scotland to a raft on the Grand Canyon. There was no drop in either quality or conviviality however, with long time paddle buddies the ManFromSnowyLegs and the BessemerConvivialist rounding out this fall trio. Weather was perfect as we launched from Red Cliff but that quickly changed as it easily can on Superior in the fall. About halfway up Manitou Island we saw small marauding bands of rain squalls moving from west to east. We crossed from Manitou to Ironwood just before the storm indicated in that radar image hit. We were the little blue dot and were very happy that we successfully scrambled to get up tents and tarps before the deluge. Wednesday morning was beautiful and we did a quick crossing to Cat and then Outer with a nice quartering tail breeze that made the 8 miles or so a pleasant two hour dawdle on a lovely day. Once again as it had on Tuesday, the sky clouded up and thunder began to rumble. This one missed us to the south but we saw the most spectacular chain lightning that any of us had witnessed in years simply hammering the Upper Michigan shore 25 miles away. Before the storm hit we could actually make out the ski flying hill at Copper Peak just north of Bessemer thirty miles distant. There are far, far worse ways to spend an evening than sitting in camp, drinking beer, and watching an outstanding lightning show. We all agreed on that before we went to bed. We also agreed that given the forecast for Friday that predicted 15-25 knot northwesterly winds gusting to 35 knots, that we would abandon Outer and find an island camp situated closer in to avoid any dozen plus mile slogs into wind and waves.
I was awakened shortly after midnight by the MFSL informing me that my boat was gone. He had heard waves breaking on shore and got up to check on things. Unlike Meatloaf’s famous song, in this case two out of three (boats) was bad. Two foot waves with an incredibly long wave length were breaking and rolling well up the beach. There was not a breath of wind and there hadn’t even been a breeze when we went to bed. While we had all dragged our boats up we had not tied them up and mine was at roughly a 45 degree angle to the shore. ‘Was’ being the operant phrase at this point. Luckily the MFSL spotted a white line gently bobbing about a hundred yards offshore and I verified it with the headlamp. I had closed all hatches and put the cockpit cover on and the boat had slipped off the beach, cleanly making its escape to its comfortable spot just outside the break. My buddy was halfway geared up to paddle out and retrieve the boat so my only contribution to the recovery effort was to assist in the launch and landing. The BessemerConvivialist provided strong moral support as she listened to this fairly muffled and incomprehensible back and forth from her sleeping bag. The boat was rescued, all three were lashed up to a fallen White Pine, and we crawled back to our sleeping bags.
The morning brought constant thunder and lightning beginning around 8am with a NE wind blowing and the waves jumping up to three to five feet in the channel between Outer and Stockton. The nearshore forecast said waves two feet or less but we remembered that 20 miles from Red Cliff and 25 or so to Saxon Harbor did not really quality as ‘within five miles of shore’. We got on the water around one pm, thanks to prudent counsel from the BessemerConvivialist who reminded me that I promised not to drag her out in 'uncomfortable' conditions, and paddled back to Oak Island and spent two nights on the spit. We had great fun in the large following seas with minimal wind thanks to the BC's insistence we wait for the wind to ratchet down a bit. Saturday morning was perfect bluebird weather and we headed back to Red Cliff in time for a 11:30 date with a Whitefish basket and pint of South Shore Nut Brown at Morty’s Pub in Bayfield.
Lessons learned? As the masthead on this thing reads, good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment. I am fairly certain that I will never crawl into the tent again without my boat tied to the shore. The Outer campsite had moved about 150yds north after a storm knocked down a bunch of trees at the original site. The beach is narrower and the NPS even built a lovely set of steps from a big cedar log to get up the bank. The vegetation was nonexistent right up to the base of the steps, a dead giveaway about how high the waves reached but with the nearshore forecast and personal observation indicating a calm night I guess I ignored the potential. Once again Gitchee Gumee proved that she was the boss. We pondered over coffee the next morning just where the hell the swells had come from with no wind to drive them and speculated it was that storm we were watching the evening before. It was only when we got back on the weekend that I read about a seiche, our normally tiny mini tide, that had reached up to five feet in the Sault due to the storms and quickly changing wind directions. That was just about the time that it hit.
The other good question would be what would we have done if the boat had decided to head north or go visit Ontonagon instead of bobbing docilely 100 yards offshore? This could have been a very real possibility had not the MFSL awoken when he did. I would not have woken up and the BC wasn’t going anywhere, seiche excitement be damned. ‘When at sea the number is three’ is a good adage. I’m sure a search for the kayak would have ensued the next morning. Had the kayak not been located, an embarrassing radio call to the Coast Guard would have been needed since there is zero cell coverage on Outer. We saw exactly one sailboat off Ironwood the whole time we were in the outer ring of islands. A couple hundred bucks to the shuttle boat service would have been the only option since neither the BC nor MFSL wanted me on their back deck for twenty miles.
I hereby swear to tie the boat up. When I think back, I’ve actually witnessed a couple close calls with boats over the years. One was at the GLSKS when a large wind sucked a bunch of boats that we thought were securely up on the beach into Grand Marais Bay. The other was a day on Sand Island at the north camp when we actually pulled the boats up on the berm and Gitchee Gumee proceeded to erode the berm from a yard behind our sterns pretty much up to amidships. This is also illustrates the ‘one little thing’ aspect of sea kayaking. Life jacket, spare skirt and paddle, pump & float, dressed for immersion, radio, etc., etc., would have all been moot with no boat. Fortunately most situations that end really badly are when errors tend to compile and make it impossible to back off or recover. Thanks mainly to my good buddy the ManFromSnowyLegs, the possibility of compounding errors was nipped in the bud. I would encourage paddlers to think like good pool players, two or three shots ahead, as wey practice our sport.