A SUPERIOR EXPERIENCE
“Winds becoming 25 miles per hour out of the northwest: gusting to 40: waves three to four feet.” Of all the words to be broadcast on my hand-held mini NOAA weather radio, these were the last I wanted to hear. Along with two friends I was kayaking on an exposed coastline on Michigan’s upper peninsula in Lake Superior. For the moment we were safe on a beach in Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore but were not supposed to camp there. I suppose in an emergency, like the one which was fast approaching, we would not have been fined or arrested for seeking shelter from a storm in a zone where camping was not allowed, but we did need to make the three-mile crossing from Miner’s Castle back to Grand Island from where we had just paddled, if we were to complete our circumnavigation of the island. Returning to the island would also allow us to find good wave- and wind-free shelter from the coming windy, WWE-style body slam fast approaching. From our exposed position we really had only one paddling option: beating into the waves coming in at us against our forward starboard quarter and heading back to the island. To paddle along the shore would position us parallel to the waves and that was not an option worth even considering, given the steepness of the waves and the rising winds.
We were on the shore of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, not the Soft Sands National Wading Pond. We were on untamed Lake Superior, not a neighborhood retention pond. Lake Superior is a mean lake with bipolar disorder and more instant mood swings than a teenaged girl. I had no desire to become one more of Gichegumee’s victims, a miniscule version of the Edmund Fitzgerald. To the southwest were mile after mile of vertical cliffs planting their feet into the beachless water, which is exactly what created the stunning beauty of the park but which left us no place for shelter. To our northeast was the mirror image of unrelenting, unforgiving cliffs with no more concern for others than a pretty blonde in a red convertible. There were no possible landings for miles in either direction. The steep, wind-driven waves were already morphing into small white caps. Paddling parallel to shore would have exposed us to waves hitting us broadside for several hours while seeking shelter from the stormy seas. Steep, breaking waves on one side and vertical, beachless cliffs on the other. Like hyenas circling their weakened prey, klapotis–or rebound waves–reflecting back off the cliffs would have been attacking us at will, turning my companions and me into wave sandwiches with us being the juicy filling. We were staring into what for all small craft mariners is a nightmare.
The issue became one of the English language, of grammar, of vocabulary. The word in question was “becoming,” the word used by the automated voice on the NOAA weather radio. Does “becoming” guarantee certainty? Or does “becoming” mean “sort of-possibly-maybe-potentially”? Does the word “becoming,” when associated with the two o’clock time in this weather report, mean that the winds will just be starting to become strong or will they already be strong at two? We could already feel the winds freshening. We could already see the waves were bigger, steeper and more frequent. Was this beginning or was this the apex? It was two PM, the time the stormy weather was predicted to have started. As leader of this little group on this three-day trip, it was up to me to call the shots. “If we leave immediately we should be in the lee of Grand Island before the worst of the wind and waves hit us. Let’s go for it.”
My paddling companions agreed. They were relatively new to paddling, having never made either a surf entry nor paddled in stormy seas. However, they were physically fit, athletic, quick learners, and comfortable in the boats. Everything ever done in the history of humanity has to have a first time. My paddling buds were about to get theirs.
We pivoted our beached boats till our bows pointed towards the surf hitting the shore. The waves were not huge, but they were frequent, with little time or space between them. An issue looming larger than the waves, however, was the risk of hypothermia in the event of immersion. Even during the summer, the waters of Lake Superior are never warm; in fact, they are downright dangerously cold – 48-degree cold. The biggest risk of capsizing a kayak is during a surf entry or exit. We had ample dry clothing and camping gear stowed in sturdy waterproof dry bags inside our boats. I figured that if one, or all of us, capsized during the surf entry we would abort the crossing, warm up in dry clothing and hide behind some trees and dunes until the storm blew over. We would cast ourselves at the mercy of the park rangers. For me, being raised on the shores of the Caribbean and then having served as a missionary for many years in Baja, Mexico on the rugged coastline of the Sea of Cortez–and as someone who tends towards cryophobia–the cold waters of Lake Superior are a soggy version of Hell.
Kurt and Kent climbed into their boats and affixed their spray skirts firmly in place in order to keep the waves from breaking into their kayaks. Like gorillas they used their arms and hands to push their boats down the steep sands of the high energy beach and into the water. I stood behind the first boat, my hands on the stern. As a particularly large wave broke and the water rushed up the beach I yelled out to Kent, “Now! Paddle, paddle, paddle.” I put my whole body into it and pushed Kent and his boat through the roiling white water on the beach and into the roiling white water of the lake, taking advantage of the surge of water from the broken wave which was now rolling downhill back into the lake from which it had been ejected. Kent paddled furiously and made it to deep water before the next wave could wash him back to shore.
Next it was Kurt’s turn. We repeated the process. Big wave, water rushing up hill, water rushing down hill, pushing, paddling, receding water, success.
I was the last man on the beach. I climbed into my 19-foot fiberglass sea touring kayak which was heavy, fully loaded for a multi-day camping trip. Doing the gorilla hand walk I inched my boat into the water, the waves doing their best to push me back, or worse yet, to turn me parallel to themselves. The math would not have been in my favor. Nineteen-foot boat, a bit over a foot high at the highest point on the foredeck, being slammed by breaking waves traveling at close to 20 MPH, with water at 62.43 pounds a cubic foot –being parallel to those crashing waves was a fight I could not have won.
Once again, wait for the biggest wave. The white water roared up the beach floating my boat. One last shove with my hands to take advantage of the water now rushing back into the lake. Grab my paddle and start paddling hard and fast, desperately hoping to make deeper water before the next set of big waves crashes ashore. I punched through the next waves, the cold water washing over the deck of my boat. Safely protected from the water by the snug spray skirt and dry paddling jacket, I did not get wet other than my face. Suddenly I broke through the surf zone and was in deeper water, which, while still rough and cold, was not quite as dangerous as that of the surf zone.
The three of us regrouped offshore and began the three-mile crossing. The seas were steep and choppy, the wind was strengthening, but the worst, at least the chaos of crashing waves on a shoreline, was behind us. The risky surf entry was now nothing but a wee bit of our personal history, a newly learned lesson in seamanship, a confidence enhancer and a story to tell . We were still gambling that the full body slam of the wind and waves which were likely still before us would not hit till after we had made the crossing. Every paddle stroke carried us that much closer to safety and relaxation. It wasn’t long before the northern extension of the island began to offer us protection from the worst of the wind-driven waves. The closer we got to the island the smaller the waves became. Behind us the waves still rolled toward the now distant shore we had left, their whitecaps still dancing like little lambs across the surface.
We arrived safely at the island and into the flat calm waters in the lee of the now friendly cliffs. Out of the wind we floated lazily along, had a leisurely lunch adrift, and simply looked with awe at the beauty of the cliffs, forest, waterfalls and sea caves of the island. Looking down we gazed through the transparent waters of Lake Superior to the beautiful rock-strewn bottom thirty feet below us.
We still had one more long, hard, muscle-tiring slog ahead of us as after rounding the southern tip of the island. We had to beat straight into strong, relentless headwinds as we paddled to our campsite on the far northern shores of a small bay. But it was hard paddling, not dangerous paddling. We pulled up onto the sand of Murray Bay beach and exited our little craft. As the crow flies we had covered 20 miles that day. As the coastline meanders, the winds pushed us off course, and we explored coves and caves, who knows how many miles we paddled? Once again Lake Superior had lived up to its name in every possible way.
This mini expedition was our annual “TEAK” adventure. TEAK is the quirky, humorous, insider acronym standing for The Evangelical Allied Kayakers. The original “founders” of this group were all members of TEAM, The Evangelical Alliance Mission – hence the goofy acronym. While many of us are still with TEAM, that is not a membership requirement. Now we are simply a fun-loving group of men trying to follow Jesus who really enjoy kayaking, camping, good conversation, adventure, and a time to get away from it all in a healthy ambiance. There are no dues, no membership lists, no officers, and no entry requirements other than providing your own seaworthy touring kayak, camping gear and paying your share of the cost of the meals and gas. Starting in 2014, when I hope to move back to Baja, Mexico, TEAK trips will likely once again usually be in the Sea of Cortez.