Lake Superior is many things. Big is the obvious one. It is, after all, the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area – roughly the size of South Carolina. It might as well be the ocean, save for the salty spray, kelp beds and purple starfish. I’ve paddled many places, from the coast of Maine to British Columbia, from the Georgian Bay to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.
Hands down, my favorite place is still Lake Superior. Travel through the remote Canadian north shore archipelago through the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area, or weave through the stunning sandstone sea caves and past the long sandy beaches of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore off the northern tip of Wisconsin.
Either destination offers fabulous sea kayaking opportunities. And yes, you actually can, in calm conditions, paddle inside the sea caves. Big Blue has got everything: rugged cliffs, remote un-trampled islands, calm sandy coves, breathtaking cobblestone beaches, multi-colored rocks that beckon a geology lesson, all backdropped by a boreal forest draped in a kaleidoscope of moss. More notably, it’s still wild, and hence, Lake Superior dishes up some of the best wilderness kayaking there still is without shelling out for an international flight.
I’ve seen wolves with pups nesting in a cliff bank, giant porcupine roaming the beach in search of dinner, black bear lumbering along picking blueberries, brown trout swimming in the clear water, bald eagles perched in towering pines, peregrine falcons dive-bombing predators and otter and beaver swimming about. Tracks of moose abound, and to the east, a small caribou herd still frequents the most remote islands.
Lake Superior is real, alive, remote, wild, rugged and drop dead gorgeous. As for paddling, Lake Superior is a good teacher. She dishes up the whole spectrum of weather, from luscious sunny calm days, to stormy 30 foot waves that have claimed over 350 ships, including the famous SS Edmund Fitzgerald. You will learn about weather, forecasting, and when to stay ashore. Gradually paddling in wind and waves builds confidence in a boat. Learning to launch and land in surf hones those skills further. Navigating amongst the islands is not possible without learning to plot a course and staying attuned to your deck chart. Unlike a good teacher, Lake Superior does not care about you. She will not always be kind. Her temperament can be unforgiving, cantankerous and fickle. At some point, you will be humbled….as a mere mortal speck bobbing on a very large body of water, or falling asleep under an incomprehensibly large sky filled with more stars than you’ve ever seen before. Judgement, skills, prudence and teamwork are essential to a successful expedition, and this is especially true on the big lake. With proper training, experience and attitude, it is an unforgettable lake to explore.
One of my favorite Lake Superior kayak memories was learning to paddle in thick fog that descended out of nowhere. I needed to hone my sense of sound in order to decipher my position. I could hear surf consistently breaking off to the right, waves crashing intermittently on a rocky shoal to the left and a tiny bit of quiet directly in front of my bow — a safe passage channel lay dead ahead, confirmed by chart, compass and ear. In pea soup fog, sight was no longer the primary means to navigation.
A similar sensation often arises with the Voyageur Start. This is an o’dark-thirty start to the day, often around 3:30am, rising in the cloak of night to start the day. Kayak hatches are packed by headlamp, boats are carried into the water and we are setting out before sunrise, often in silence with a tight flock of kayaks. Small glow sticks and vigilance keep us herded together. Most courses will include a Voyageur Start at some point, typically in hopes of making miles on quiet water before the wind picks up, or knocking out a culminating 20+ mile day before lunchtime and a well-earned nap. There is nothing finer than being on the big lake with a group of paddlers who have honed their skills to be able to break camp efficiently in the dark, pack boats in silence, and slip off into the watery distance like a well-oiled machine, only to pause together and watch the red glow of the sun starting to break the long blue horizon line in the distance. Sunrise on the Big Lake…simply priceless.