By Gail Green
Published in ‘Around the Archipelago’ Summer, 2013
When approached by the National Park folks for an opinion and subsequent safety article for their 2013 summer newspaper on “what is the most appropriate kayak for this Park?” the usual thoughts came to mind. I started hammering out something on kayak length, materials, safety features. This approach soon became tedious and uninspiring and more over, it really wasn’t at the root of what was going to keep people safe out there. Keeping in mind the audience and sponsor for the piece (authors are anonymous for the Park newspaper) I came up with the following:
As the world’s largest fresh water lake, Superior is in a class of its own. It’s a national treasure. It feels and looks like an ocean with seemingly endless boundaries and possibilities. A day on Lake Superior leaves you exhilarated, connected, restored. The Lake’s energy courses through your bones right to your soul. What a gift.
Many smaller bodies of water offer these gifts as well. But there comes a point when comparing Lake Superior to other inland lakes takes a dramatic shift and those wishing to engage with the Lake must transform their approach to one of an ocean-going mariner.
How do we do that? Often times in nature, the antidote is found in close proximity to the problem. A positive relationship with the Lake is not entirely unconditional; the Lake asks a few things in return for its transformative gifts and in the process of repayment we move closer to safe passage.
Respecting the power of the Lake is a good first step for kayakers in building an ongoing relationship; once here, you’ll want to come back. Lake Superior is truly an inland sea. Weather, navigation and buoyage are taken seriously and monitored by federal maritime agencies. This is a bottom line of knowledge you must have to initiate your relationship with the Lake and it includes paying attention to equipment, your level of training, the surrounding environment.
When it comes to making recommendations about paddling the Apostle Islands, local outfitters and agencies are in a bit of a dilemma as they walk a line between cautious warning and wholehearted encouragement. They’ve seen clear weather transition in a heartbeat to a thundering line of squalls, water temperatures plummet from 70 to 50 degrees with a change in wind direction, down drafting gusts scatter kayakers like leaves across open channels. They’ve also seen the joy and smiles on people’s faces as they walk away from a great day on Lake Superior.
There is much discussion within the bureaucratic and public communities of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on the amorphous subject of what exactly is appropriate equipment and experience for these waters. The Park Service and US Coast Guard mandate and enforce certain rules and regulations. The rest of the protocols are dictated by the Lake and the paddler’s judgment.
Because it is an inland sea, a bone fide sea kayak, accompanied with commensurate skills and safety knowledge to use it, is the appropriate vessel for Apostle Islands paddlers. Sure, there are places and days where recreational kayaks, sit-on-top or pedal-style kayaks and stand up paddle boards provide a terrific experience on the Lake. And certainly there are individuals who have the expertise to bend the rules and push the edges. But are you ready to make these differentiations and decisions for yourself, friends and family?
It is an earned privilege to safely paddle Lake Superior. Reframing your expectation about this Lake should be at the top of your trip planning to-do list and don’t leave home without it. Think about going with an outfitter your first time on the big Lake, you’ll learn a lot. Take a rescue class on your favorite inland lake. Read some books, watch some videos.
Not only is the time and effort you put into preparation fun and informative, you’re paying forward your commitment to the Lake and laying the foundation for a healthy and vibrant long term relationship. What a gift.