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)