Pure Michigan: Kayaking Lake Superior

Summer on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula brings a host of possibilities for outdoor adventure. Last week, I talked about the amazing mountain biking that can be found there, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. The U.P. sits on the edge of Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, which means there are ample opportunities for paddling excursions throughout the region as well. Whether you enjoy whitewater rafting, flat river paddling, or sea kayaking, there is something to appeal to every kind of kayaker.

My base of operations while on the U.P. was Copper Harbor, a town of just 80 permanent residents who take pride in all of the outdoor adventures they have just out their backdoor. The small town sits on the banks of Lake Superior, and while the hills overhead make for amazing mountain bike riding, the lake offers endless opportunities of a different variety.

Covering approximately 31,700 square miles (82,103 sq km), Lake Superior more closely resembles a sea rather than a like. That means, most of the kayaking is done in sea kayaks, which are longer boats that trade maneuverability for stability. The day I was out on the water, the conditions were so smooth that just about any kayak would have sufficed, but a long boat designed for the sea cut through the water nicely, making it easy to get up to speed, and cover solid distances without much of an effort.

As with my mountain biking adventure, my group rented our equipment from the Keweenaw Adventure Company. The expert guides from this locally owned shop were able to quickly and easily set us up with all the gear we needed, and matched us to boats that were fitting for the size and level of experience of the paddlers. A couple of the journalists that I was traveling with had never kayaked before, but their apprehension was soon quelled by putting them in a tandem boat with someone that could help get them through the experience.

Before setting out, the staff from the Adventure Company gave us an orientation on the most efficient way to paddle, how to turn the long sea kayaks, and what to do in case our boats tipped over. Fortunately, that never happened while were out on the water, so while those instructions were valuable, they weren’t needed.

Before too long, we were on the water and setting out from a small, protected cove, for the lake itself. Following a long, harsh winter, the lake has been slow to warm up this season, and the temperature hovered around 40ºF (4.4CºC) even in July. Because of that, we were forced to wear wetsuits, which would help insulate us from the cold temperatures, should any of us be unfortunate enough to fall in. As I said, fortunately that didn’t happen, but the cold water was probably the biggest danger we faced that entire day.

Once out onto the lake itself, we hugged the shoreline, and soon were making good progress across water that was nearly as smooth as glass. That isn’t always the case on Lake Superior, where massive storms can create big swells at various times. Unlike on an ocean or sea, where the moon can create tidal patterns, the water on the Great Lakes is more affected by weather conditions, with changes in pressure creating tides in a completely different, and more unpredictable fashion.

A natural phenomenon known as a seiche (produced “sayshe”) occurs when high pressure pushes down on one portion of the lake, creating higher water levels on another. This isn’t often as pronounced as a big tidal pattern, but it can create dangerous conditions at times.

That certainly wasn’t the case on my afternoon out on Lake Superior. I couldn’t have asked for better conditions, with a warm sun shining overhead, a slight breeze bringing cool air across the open water, and surface conditions that couldn’t have been more perfect. The water was incredibly clear, allowing us to see a variety of things just beneath the surface, including an array of large rocks, the remains of an old dock that had been destroyed decades earlier, and even the occasional fish. A marker buoy – made from an empty beer keg – marked the spot where a ship called the John Jacob Astor had sunk in the harbor back in 1844.

As we paddled down the shore, the old Copper Harbor Lighthouse came into view, standing guard over the entrance to the harbor as it has since 1848. During the day, it makes for a nostalgic image, harkening back to a bygone era when lighthouses were provided important navigational clues for ships coming and going along the Great Lakes.

Now days, more sophisticated GPS and radio systems have replaced these relics, but they remain an important part of our history none the less. If you ever visit Copper Harbor, I recommend taking a visit to the lighthouse, as it provides an excellent look at the life of those who manned these important stations. When my group took the tour later that evening, we even spotted a large bald eagle perched amongst the tall trees there.

Once we had paddled for a distance, our guides decided we were ready to turn our boats out across open water, and make our way towards Porters Island, a small chunk of land that separates the harbor from Lake Superior itself. By now, everyone was feeling comfortable in the cockpit of their kayak, and we soon rounded the edge of the island, with nothing but open sea off to our side. Moving away front he relatively safety of the shoreline gave you a sense of just how vast Lake Superior truly is, as once you passed beyond Porters Island, water stretched unbroken to the horizon. It was an experience that was both exhilarating and humbling at the same time.

Before I knew it, we were turning our boats back into the protective little cove, and ending our paddling adventure. Much like my experience on the mountain bike, it was just enough of a taste to whet my appetite, and encourage me to want to return to the U.P. once again in the future to explore the paddling opportunities further. I feel like kayakers will discover that Michigan’s wild backcountry can provide them with a wide variety of great experiences, and Lake Superior is just one of many excellent places to paddle.

Beyond that however, visitors to the U.P. who are not there kayak should take the opportunity to give it a go as well. The trained staff at the Keweenaw Adventure Company will provide you with all of the skills and equipment necessary to head out on the water for a fun adventure. They will ensure that you stay safe at all times, and sea kayaking on Lake Superior is a safe, fun introduction to the sport. It is also a beautiful destination to enjoy a paddling excursion as well.

To find out more about what the state of Michigan has to offer, visit Michigan.org.

Kraig Becker

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