Sea kayaking in the Heartland

  • Article by: BOB TIMMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 19, 2014 - 2:31 PM

A local family heads to the south shore of Lake Superior for their first encounter with this captivating sport.

Rocky outcroppings towered over sea kayakers just north of Red Cliff, Wis., during a half-day paddling excursion near some of the Apostle Islands.

Photo: Bob Timmons •,

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I’d like to say we heard the mystical call of the north wind before my family packed and headed toward northwestern Wisconsin. Maybe we heard it, or maybe we just needed a quick vacation to one of our old reliables: Lake Superior, a freshwater sea of possibilities.

Whatever the motivation, off to the Bayfield Peninsula we drove last August for a long summer weekend. Sure, we had relaxation in mind, but we particularly looked forward to the half-day of sea kayaking I’d booked with a local guide. It would be a new adventure on familiar territory.

Until then, our family of six had only basic kayaking experiences — nothing of the sea variety. After poking about on area lakes in simple kayaks for years, Bayfield felt the right time and place to try something more ambitious and adventurous. Maybe even a little dangerous, should an unexpected challenge arise on temperamental Lake Superior.

We lodged in Ashland, Wis., but headed the next morning for our true destination about 25 miles away and just north of Bayfield. We rolled into the sleepy town of Red Cliff, Wis., and found our way to Living Adventure, an outfitter whose guides promise a day of kayaking know-how, lake history and entry into the pristine beauty of the Apostle Islands.

Offering as many as 2,500 guided trips a summer, Living Adventure seemed like the perfect gateway to the sea kayaker’s world. When I made the reservation several weeks earlier, I was presented with the business’ menu of possibilities: half day, full day or overnight. I chose the afternoon half-day trip of a little more than three hours because it made sense for our level of experience, plus I liked the price (about $60 per person).

We arrived and found that our Living Adventure guide, Paige Olson, looked very much the part. Part whiskery mountain man, part surfer dude in board shorts and flip flops, he scored instant cred with the family, particularly our four children, ages 12 to 19. Broad-shouldered and tanned, he was casually waiting for our arrival. Meeting Olson made us all the more pumped to get on with the adventure. The trip, however, had to be honed on land before it was burnished on water.

Olson methodically detailed each of our two-person sea kayaks. From the deck hatches to the pedal-operated rudder to the leg supports for comfort, the instruction came in waves. It was enlightening. It was daunting. Who knew sea kayaking on Lake Superior was so complicated?

We mimicked proper paddling technique and smart kayak entry (“butt-foot-foot” works best). We fumbled with our life jackets and spray skirts. Finally, we were afloat on Buffalo Bay, just across from Basswood Island.

The Apostles and their pine-shrouded beauty filled our horizon. Our first moments connecting paddle with water and heading north seemed ridiculously sublime. The water was uncommonly still, giving it the look of polished glass. So much for buffeting winds or angry swells. In fact, the notoriously icy lake’s water was remarkably warm. We even left behind our wet suits, those staples of Great Lakes fashion.

The calmness sharpened my senses: the warmth of the high afternoon sun, the occasional puff of a breeze to cool the brow, the uniform lines as our kayaks carved their way northward toward Schooner Bay. We cut into the water, listening intently for Olson’s cues.

A stunning, infinite world

Flat, stable days like the one our family experienced can quickly turn over, particularly for vulnerable kayakers caught in the wide, open water.

“The winds are wicked and irregular,” Living Adventure Director Gail Green said when we connected a few weeks after our outing. “Once you start crossing to the islands, it is a whole step up in range of gear and knowledge.”

But taking that step is part of the reward. If you invest in Lake Superior and remember who’s in charge, the lake will respond in kind.

As we moved past the red sandstone cliffs carved by wind and water and time, I became less focused on the mechanical act of moving the kayak and more attuned to this stunning, infinite world just hours from our home in the Twin Cities. My mind wandered and expanded. I knew then that I’d want more than this half-day outing could provide.

We found the Big Lake — and the Apostles — compelling on multiple levels. The history of life on and around the islands, from the Ojibwe and voyageurs to the commercial fishermen and the lost ships, is deep and rich. Deeper still is the lake’s effect on the spirit.

These words from Green best capture the mystical qualities of our first sea kayaking experience: “[Lake Superior] is full of history, facts and science, and yet you can also experience it on a different level,” she said. “Something deeper, something life-affirming.

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  • Paige Olson, a guide with Living Adventures, steadied the kayaks while paddlers cooled off in Lake Superior.

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