Saturday, September 10, 2016

Do we go or do we stay?

Michael Gray, a noted kayak instructor and tripper as well as the guy that wrote 'Hey, I'd Eat This at home!', an excellent wilderness cookbook with a number of recipes I've personally tested, published a Facebook post expressing concern over the number of kayakers that have had to be rescued this season and wondering how we could prevent these situations.  About the time he hit 'post' on his computer  on Thursday 8 September, the National Park Service Rangers and the USCG rescue helicopter from Traverse City were fishing two paddlers out of Lake Superior west of Sand Island.  The 3' to 6' seas and shallow water made it impossible for rescue boats to get close enough to shore to pick up the two guys. I did not hear or read about any of this until Friday however since I was paddling back to Little Sand Bay from Devils Island with my friend and cohort Rick Hoffman in the midst of Small Craft Warnings.
Were we brash, daring, devil-may-care, or just plain idiots?  What made us decide to paddle back rather than stay another night on Devils since neither of us had a damn thing to do on Friday?  I thought that with all the rescues and issues that we've seen this year on the Great Lakes that I would try to shed a little insight on our thought process and the factors that went into the decision to paddle rather than sit.  We had paddled out Tuesday after an thunderstorm cell had passed through the area.  We waited it out in the Egg Toss Cafe in Bayfield, our first wise decision of the trip, rather than packing in the rain.  The paddle out was easy and quick, around 13 miles total.  Other than a fog bank that enveloped us for about an hour between York and Bear Island it was pretty basic sea kayak 101.  We were prepared for the fog with both paper maps, a nav tool and bearings, as well as waypoints for Bear and Devils programmed into the gps.  The water was warm and we had a sandwich and an extended swim on the NE beach of Bear before heading to the white boathouse and dock on the south side of Devils.  After camp was set up we listened to the nearshore forecast for Wednesday and decided that we would paddle up to check out the sea caves before supper.  This was our second wise decision because the forecast 15-20 knot NE wind, gusting to 25 knots, appeared right on schedule the next morning.  The adage in the Apostles, 'if it's blowing before 10am she's gonna blow all damn day' was right on.  After lunch and a really nice nap we hiked up the trail, through the protected mosquito breeding area (Gaylord Nelson Wilderness area after all) and up to the light house and keepers complex on the north end. We congratulated ourselves on deciding to paddle the night before and the view of the pounding waves adding more depth and breadth to the sea caves was well worth the stroll.  We hiked over to the east landing and were going to check out all of the rock etchings but decided we did not need a shower as the waves were hitting the rocks and spraying water 35' into the air.  After a medicinal shot of Bushmills and a couple beers at Happy Hour / supper we listened to the nearshore again.  Clearing skies and a west wind 15-20 knots, gusting to 25, with a small craft advisory needed, waves 2-4 feet building to 3-5 feet in the afternoon.  Given the historic sketchy accuracy of the NOAA forecasts recently we decided to get up early and eyeball the situation.  Early being a relative time, we got up about 7am and had coffee and breakfast.  It was apparent from both the rain storm over night and the clouds disappearing to the east that we would have a classic Fall westerly blow and the waves were already splashing over the dock on Devils.  Many factors played into our final decision to go.  Firstly we had the gear.  We were dressed for immersion, not that 70F water would be much of an issue, we had good radios with gps and the MMSI emergency system, map, compass, pfd, paddle float, etc.  We also had a couple alternative routes mapped out and chose the one that would give we senior paddlers about an hour of hard paddling interspersed with chow to refuel and some rest breaks.  We knew that we had all day and didn't need to rush things one bit.  Local experience  was key to the decision as well.  We knew where the lee shores would be, the sand beaches and spits for breaks and shelter from the wind, and  how the wind and waves typically behaved as they curled around points and headlands.  By far the biggest factor in our decision to go was the 'been there, done that' element.  Both of us had rolled and performed rescuse in conditions bigger than what we encountered.  We are very comfortable paddling together and with each others skill level. The Gales Storm Gathering held at various spots on Lakes Superior and Michigan has been key in confidence building on big water.  If you want to get better and more confident in big water and push yourself a bit attend this event in early October up in Munising, MI.  The practice where you play axiom was driven home personally when my pal Meurer and I were driving back from a paddle trip south of Thunder Bay near Spar and Thompson Islands.  As we drove back through Grand Marais, MN he remarked that he was pretty comfortable with his roll but was not sure at all if it would desert him in big water.  Outside the harbor the 3-5 footers looked like the perfect place to erase doubts.  We stopped, launched, did some successful rolls, coupla rescues, and toasted the successful idea and it's execution in the Gunflint Tavern.  Practice where you play, I can't stress that enough.
The largest of the waves we encountered were between Devils and Bear as we headed down toward a nice lee on the east side.  They were 3-5 footers fairly close together and still building.  Progress seemed agonizingly slow although the gps showed a steady 2.7 mph.  Staying relaxed, close enough to toss smart assed comments back and forth, and mentally dismissing the effect of the wind in our teeth helped a lot.  A bluebird paddle down the east shore of Bear followed by some lunch and R&R on the spit and we were ready for the next crossing of Bear to Raspberry.  The waves were a bit smaller and farther apart which was welcome but the wind was relentless.  Taking the most powerful paddle stroke as we slid down the face of the waves always seems to help my mental attitude.  We got funny looks from a couple sailboaters that crossed in front of us, also ignoring the small craft warning situation.  Raspberry spit, more chow to refuel, a swim, BS with some sailors anchored in the lee, and then our next crossing.  The wind was still strong and Point Detour is a known and classic pain in the ass to round pretty much in every wind condition.  Our plan was to cross to the mainland from Raspberry then edge up around Point Detour.  If the wind / waves/ clapotis situation created extreme suction the plan was to just head south to Red Cliff and hitch up to Little Sand Bay to get the truck.  Fortunately although the clapotis was acting in its normal, irritating way it just wasn't that bad.  We overtook a couple of kayakers also heading to LSB who were making slow but steady progress.  After explaining that we really did like our funny wooden paddles we continued on to an uneventful landing.
I hope this little essay helps with some of the risk assessment evaluations that need to be made when deciding whether or not to paddle in conditions.  Skill level is the most important followed by correct gear and a float plan  with a number of bailout opportuities and options.  If it had become real nasty we were prepared to poach a campsite on either Bear or Raspberry.  We had both emergency food and adult beverage along for that very contingency. Never ever ever launch because you 'just have to get back' for something.  The most important thing to remember of course is the title of this very blog.  The lake is indeed the boss and that needs to be respected and taken into accout at all times.
(Helicopter rescue photo courtesy of National Park Service Rangers. Thanks for the image and everything else)

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Getting Better and some Rallying

 The annual Great Lake Sea Kayak Symposium is in the books.  Attendance was down a bit but the usual flood of late registration chaos insured the usual course and instructor shuffling while the big lake threw in some weather that cancelled some tours and modified others. In other words, the more things change the more they stay the same.  What the lake did provide was great conditions for learning.  This is not the best for tours, especially the beginner tours that are booked as 'tranquil' but for getting better on big water it was excellent.  Thursday we did a beginners primer on Sable Lake and worked through a syllabus that was developed by my buddy Jerome Rausch for our SKOAC club.  A solid 10-15 knot wind from the west allowed us really put paddle stroke and boat control skills into play.  Its one thing to tell people that their boat will blow away if they do a wet exit and don't hang on to it.  Its another thing to watch it blow away. The new sport of log gardening, paddling into, out, and around fallen trees in the water was discovered, and the folks in the class went on to bigger and better skills work on bigger water the next two days.   
Friday was boat control in the morning and open water boat control in the afternoon.  We awoke to 15-20 knots right out of the north and waves that began somewhere on the Canadian shore a couple hundred miles away.  Mike Looman, our Current Designs / Wenonah czar, led this session while I mainly tried not to confuse people.  Once again the Grand Marais harbor provided nice shelter and conditions got bigger and gnarlier the farther one ventured up the channel toward Gitchee Gumee proper.  Perfect learning conditions.  That afternoon was open water boat control.  Alec Bloyd-Peshkin, a man with whom I share a birthday, albeit a couple years apart, and David Johnston, the Canaidan Ambassador to the UP, ventured outside where the seas had subsided in the afternoon but were still plenty big enough to challenge people as they turned their boats on top of the waves.  Again, its one thing to tell people that a bow or stern rudder works better going into conditions or with a following sea but the big lake points this out very clearly when she's rockin'. Saturday was bluebird weather which made for a nice relaxed tour from the Hurricane River to the Grand Sable Dunes and back with a stop at the Au Sable light.  We also found two of the three shipwerecks along the stretch of lake known as the Shipwreck Coast. Sunday morning found me working with John Browning on boat repair. My NDK Explorer was the perfect example of a boat sorely in need of repair.  The keel strip is beginning to wear, the gel coat on the deck is cracked from various maneuvers over the years, and there is a two inch crack in the side where it half blew off the pickup and struck the side of the bed.  I had hoped, being a basically lazy person, that JB would actually fix the crack and was just a little disappointed when he just talked about how to fix it. I could not complain however as the whiskey tasting at the back of his van on Saturday evening was sublime and satisfying as usual, especially with Ray Boucher tending bar.

The next event on Lake Superior to get better while having fun, next co-ed event anyhow, is the brand spankin' new Bayfield Paddle Rally in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.  It's the weekend after Labor Day with great coaches and a fair amount of the chow included.  The Fat Radish in Bayfield will be catering the event and trust me folks, that's a very good thing.  My buddies at Trek & Trail decided it's time for a paddle event again in the Apostle Islands area with the last one being the Gales event, hamstrung a bit by a ridiculous government shutdown at the time.  One of the reasons the Apostles is a world class paddling destination is that the island group always seems to offer a lee to paddle in.  Plan B, C, & D are usually available to ger on the water no matter the wind direction and the scenery never disappoints.  Here's the other little secret that I hesitate to even mention.  It is absolutely the best time of the year to visit Lake Superior.  The water is about as warm as it's going to get, the bugs have all surrendered, the three day blows which can strand you on an island don't start until about three weeks later, and.....the best part....the crowds have disappeared.  We have done a Fall trip with some cronies since 2000.  It always starts the Tuesday after Labor Day and usually lasts a week.  The Apostles, Silver Islet, Rossport, the Slates, Lake Superior Provincal park, it really makes no difference.  The most people we've seen during this trip,  including power boats, is six.  For the week.  The hot ticket for the Bayfield Paddle Rally in my humble opinion would be to tack a 3-4 day island camping trip on to either end of the event.  Or camp at one of the excellent campgrounds in the area, Thompson West End in Washburn, Dalyrymple in Bayfield, or Town of Russel at Little Sand Bay, and do day trips.  Excellent motels and B&B's in the area and you can get a room that week, trust me. The weather is typically cooperative as well.  The key, now that we are all in mid season paddle form, would be to get the registration in and booked.  While late entries always seem to be accomodated it is indeed a PITA.

One more unique kayak opportunity in the Apostles.  Safety boat for the Point to LaPointe Open Water Swim coming up on Saturday 6 August.  Safety boat volunteers get a nice T shirt, a $25, gas card from the IGA, and breakfast on the island before heading back to Bayfield.   Just email Scott Armstrong,, and he will get you hooked up.  The start is spectacular, the finish line is joyous, and you might even get to nudge a swimmer back on line with your paddle as they resolutely head for Basswood instead of Madeline Island.

We hope to see lots of long skinny boats up in the Apostles in the next couple months.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Return to the Slate Islands - Lake reasserts Boss status

 It's time to get back in the groove with the TLITB blog, especially since I can now see the Boss from my window and am about 95% retired.  I am not sure if the lack of posts was due to the chaos with moving, disengagement from work, or the sheer laziness of throwing two lines and a picture up on Facebook.  In any event it's time for a bit of extended writing.

Way back in April our friend Rick, a guy who paddled all the way around Lake Superior on the two weeks a year, 11 years plan, suggested a trip to the Slate Islands in far northern Canadian shore of Gitchee Gumee.  Wife Kathy jumped on it immediately, the VoiceOfReason quickly weighing the pros of revisiting one of our favorite spots on the lake.  DaveG, a man of no small amount of outdoor experience himself, jumped at the chance to round out the foursome.  We got things dialed in, filed a formal float plan, and headed to Terrace Bay.  Little did we know that Lake Superior and the Slates would be tossing us a few Bert Blyleven quality curveballs. 

The first curve was waking up to fog that barely allowed us to see across the highway, accompanied by a giant red blob on the radar that appeared to be slowly heading in our direction from somewhere between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay.  We decided that we could easily beat the storm and had gps waypoints on the Slates as well as the venerable nav charts, bearing compass, and clear plastic navigation tool.  JB would have been proud! None of us particularly mind a blind crossing other than the lack of scenery, and the fog really softens anything that we did see for a very nice ephemeral quality.  We paddled at a steady 3 knots for about two hours and hit Mortimer Island, almost literally because according to the gps we were only 125 meters away when the cliff loomed out of the fog.  After skirting around Mortimer into the inner islands we saw tents at the first two camps we passed.  We later learned that was the sum total of visitors in the entire archipelago.  We camped at a spot we called the junkyard for its pile of debris of  an old camp that some boaters had thrown up years ago and then let go to hell.  We then encountered curve #2, a biblical plague of black flies and mosquitos.  We were prepared with bug shirts and the famous 'bat cave', Dan Cookes rugged adirondack style mosquito tarp combo but still took casualties as we dug the gear out and got things set up . The ruggedness of the tarp  ould soon be tested.  One of the disconcerting things about the Slates is that the Thunder Bay VHF marine forecast can't be picked up and the Pukusawa / Marathon forecast is on the wrong side of the typical storm approach.  The pitter patter of rain hit the tent around 11pm and the defecation hit the rotation around one am Monday morning. Curveball # 3 in spades.  Two solid hours of wind, including a couple microbursts that bent the tents down on top of us, tried to shred the bat cave, and knocked down somewhere between 40 and 50 rather substantial spruce and balsam trees in and around the camp.  Camping tip: It's much better to batten down everything when its not raining, dark, windy as hell, and you are in your underwear at 2am.  We later learned that this same cell killed a man and severely injured his son in the BWCA when a large white pine fell on his tent.  It also nearly electrocuted some young girls on an Outward Bound trip with a lightning strike, knocking four of them unconscious and causing 2nd degree burns on others.   It was a bad night in the north country.
Just before we went to bed pre storm a couple wolf researchers from the Ministry stopped by to check their traps in the area.  They had trapped and collared a wolf that morning.  Apparently a couple years back when the lake froze three wolfs strolled out on the ice and liked the tasty caribou and snowshoe hare treats they found there.  The researchers came back the morning after the storm in their Zodiac to check on us, let us know they were OK, and inform us that a tree fell on one of the tents that the two ladies and temporarily trapped one of them.  Rick and I went out fishing and stopped by to see how the women were doing.  They had driven 18 hours from east of Toronto,  a semi annual trip, seasoned women about our age who have husbands that just don't like to camp.  They had been hacking at trees for three hours getting their camp back in shape.  One was napping but the women that was vertical told us she had to crawl out of her sleeping bag and long johns to get our of her tent.  Fortunately it was just branches that pinned her down.  In the end we were all either lucky or benefited from a guardian angel.  Before we left we attended a show at the Big Top south of Bayfield.  It was the opening of the 2016 season and one of the Anishnabe elders, Red Cliff tribe of Ojibwa, smudged the crowd with burning sage and told us that it would chase away bad luck and negative thoughts. There was also a rosaryor two in dry bags. Who knows? 

The rest of the trip was bluebird weather, favorable winds and seas, and diminished insect attacks.  The scenery was spectacular as we circumnavigated Patterson Island and viewed the Sunday Harbor light.  Rocks, cliffs, and view of the Canadian mainland were all fantastic.  One of the highlights was the old clawfoot tub, the wood fired hot tub, at the Come N Rest camp  on McColl Island.  It wven has a piece of playwood to avoid burning ones tender ass when you clim in and ease into the hot water.  Unlike a lot of hot tubs the water just keeps getting hotter as long as the fire is stoked and my guess is that a person would be hard pressed to find a better view.   Lake Trout were caught and eaten and the return crossing was on bright sun with full visibility and a very accomodating quartering SE sea over our right shoulders for a nice push back to the mainland. Our landing and launch site was on a long cobble beach in Jackfish Bay, about 250 meters up and over the Canadian Pacific main track that connects eastern and western Canada.  By the time we had dragged boats, gear, and our aging carcasses to the vehicles we were ready for the traditional post paddle community bump of Irish whiskey.  But the storm still had one lingering surprise for us.  A lot of the electronics in both cars, including clocks, warning lights, compass, etc., were screwed up from what must have been a very close lighting strike.  It was a fitting end to our Slate Islands adventure.