Most sailors on Lake Superior have known fear.
Maybe they sailed into a deck-tilting squall, or were wrapped in fog amid shipping lanes with 1,000-foot freighters, or hoped that a barely submerged log didn’t find the rudder.
But these moments pass, and the apprehension subsides — except for one persistent reality that, ironically, is a big reason they cast off from the dock.
They’re on their own.
Under sail, they scan the horizon for a similar silhouette, for any evidence of a kindred spirit on the biggest lake in the world, where a coffee mug knocked overboard can tumble more than a thousand feet, through water colder than your beer.
Seeing no one, they assume the vigilant ease of the wilderness mariner.
Wilderness isn’t a word often used with sailing around here. We think of Sunday races on Lake Harriet, sunset cocktails on Lake Minnetonka, or wafting along the steep bluffs of Lake Pepin. Sailing conjures images of yacht clubs, splashy spinnakers, and string bikinis.
Not so much on Lake Superior, which lures a fleece-clad tribe of people curiously bound by their love of isolation.
When Mark and Katya Gordon untied their sailboat, Amicus, from the dock near Bayfield, Wis., diapers drying from the decklines, they were determined to leave Lake Superior to explore the world’s seas with their two young daughters. Within months, they wondered whether they’d left Paradise behind.
“We actually had a come-to-Jesus discussion about Lake Superior on a beach in the Bahamas,” Katya says, grinning at the ironic image. They returned the next year, in 2007, docking their steel ketch in the Knife River Marina on Minnesota’s North Shore.
“I love the pristine part of the lake, how — when you think about it — how few people sail on it,” Katya says. “When we’re sailing in May, we can go for days and see maybe one boat.
“You can still have a really authentic wilderness experience on this lake.”
You hear the same refrain from David Wiencke, a chiropractor in Columbia Heights, who for 11 years has sailed his 32-foot Westsail, Neverland, in and around the far reaches of Superior. He often sails solo, posting stunning YouTube videos of anchorages that make you sigh, as well as passages that make your stomach lurch.
“The moments of terror, or those nights when you sleep with one eye open, are the price you pay for that glorious moment when sailing across the lake is like a magic carpet ride,” Wiencke says. “On a really clear night, when the sky is so black and the stars go right down to the horizon, it’s like there’s a complete dome over you.”
He cherishes one particular night passage. The lake was completely flat, “so the stars reflected in the water,” he says. “It was like being an astronaut.”
Where fear and affection meet
Superior’s sailors accept their fears because they trust their boats, maybe even more than they trust themselves. A good boat will make up for misjudgments. It’s your best ally when a weather report goes wrong, or a decision proves unwise.
Rose Hansmeyer of Eagan recalls the time when she and husband, Tom, were on Sojourn, their 37-foot Alberg sloop, sailing from Rossport on the Canadian shore west to Isle Royale. A strong storm front arrived far sooner than forecast, kicking up Superior’s notoriously choppy waves that can send boats lurching and rolling into the spray.
“I was just trying to stay calm, trying to keep my sanity,” Hansmeyer says of how they cut and rode the building waves. Superior behaves like a sea, yet its inland nature can create waves both shorter and steeper than an ocean’s swells. An October gale in 2017 spawned a wave off Marquette, Mich., that measured 28.8 feet.
Then there’s that song lyric — you know the one: The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead.
“Lake Superior is dangerous in its own right,” Hansmeyer says with a sailor’s typical understatement.
They made it to Isle Royale. But then, as when death, or childbirth, or a kidney stone has been defied, the memories fade. In a safe harbor, Superior’s charms re-emerge. In Hansmeyer’s words, “She’s very endearing.”
This collision of fear and affection often comes up in sailors’ conversations. No one forces them out onto the water, so they can’t complain when a passage feels more like a thrill ride. But neither can they be content with sipping Dark ’n’ Stormys in the marina.
Even the indefatigable Bonnie Dahl, a legend for her definitive Lake Superior cruising guide, turns unexpectedly subdued when reflecting on the 40 years that she and husband Ron have sailed.
“There have been times, because of the weather, I’ve been so scared,” she says, almost whispering. “Sailing has, if I may say, deepened my faith. I remember times I’ve prayed, ‘Dear God, please take care of us.’ ”
“It’s also strengthened our marriage,” Ron adds. “It helps you to make decisions together.”
Then he grins at Bonnie: “Which is hard sometimes.”
She shoots him a look. And they laugh.
Fewer sailors with each generation
When life throws us a challenge, it’s easy to feel alone.
The feeling looms at home when the basement drain backs up on a Sunday. At work when “adjustments” are rumored. Within families coping with aging parents, sullen teens, ailing spouses.
Sometimes it feels like you may as well be sitting on a boat in the middle of a lake.
Yet, resources appear. We find others who are generous with what they’ve learned. We make allies, forge bonds. We learn how to solve our own problems.
Lake Superior’s sailors aren’t so different.
“I’ve got enough spare parts on this boat to fix anything and everything twice over,” Mark Gordon says.
Wiencke says that the need for self-sufficiency “is what keeps a lot of people away from the lake. You’ve got to be able to fix most things.”
This DIY ethic also sets sailboats apart from motorboats, he adds. If an engine problem proves stubborn, you still get a second chance with the wind and vast swaths of fabric at hand. You may not get anywhere fast, “but you can still get somewhere.”
It’s difficult to say how many people sail on Lake Superior. Its shores touch three states — Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan — along with Canada. Some people haul boats from their home lakes, or charter others’ vessels. Some boats rarely leave their marinas, used more as bobbing cabins.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has tracked an ebbing interest in boating on Lake Superior, mostly because of a lack of proper skills, or funds, or a big enough boat. For many Minnesotans, Lake Superior is just too far away, especially when we have, um, 10,000 or so other lakes from which to choose.
Bottom line, though, is that many consider it too untamed. The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, off Bayfield, Wis., is an archipelago of 21 islands, with five lighthouses and long beaches strewn with driftwood. Its neighboring marinas are home to the greatest density of sailors on the lake.
Yet 80 percent of this treasure is designated wilderness.
The Hansmeyers had sailed here before getting the itch for the Caribbean. For seven years, they kept Sojourn in warm saltwaters before finally returning to Superior.
What did they miss? Hansmeyer pauses. “The remoteness.”
‘What does Bonnie say?’
If there’s a ritual on Lake Superior, it’s opening a spiral-bound book and intoning, “What does Bonnie say?”
Bonnie Dahl is the lake’s grande dame by virtue of “Superior Way: The Cruising Guide to Lake Superior.” Not just “a cruising guide” but “the cruising guide.” The woman does not quibble.
Bonnie and Ron, who live in Rice Lake, Wis., were married with two youngsters when they went to the Minneapolis Boat Show and, almost on a whim, bought a 12-foot boat, “practically made of Styrofoam,” Ron says. In the checkout line at a grocery store, they picked up a book on how to sail.
Launching the boat on a nearby small lake, they left their kids, ages 3 and 7, onshore “for safety’s sake” and took off.
“I’ll never forget the thrill,” she recalls. “You’re moving and there’s no sound. The wind grabs the sails. It’s magnificent.”
They sailed across the lake, lodging against a patch of reeds. Then they realized they didn’t know how to tack the sails to return.
“We hadn’t gotten that far in the book,” Ron says with a hapless grin. “There were our kids, waiting on shore.”
A passing fisherman towed them back to safety — and toward a lifetime of research in which they’ve documented, since 1974, almost every conceivable anchorage on Lake Superior. The guide, first published in 1983, is in its fourth edition, with more than 12,000 copies sold.
Ron, a pastor, and Bonnie, a high school physics and chemistry teacher, were determined to spend their summers on the lake, yet were confronted by a dearth of reliable information about anchorages. So Bonnie began gathering it herself. Wherever they anchored their 30-foot sloop, Dahlfin, she drew a map of the shoreline. She took soundings, noting how quickly a particular bay gets shallow toward shore or where there are unseen shoals.
“A lot of the lead from our keel is on some of those rocks,” Ron says, laughing. Studying an anchorage “takes a long time. You have to look at the bottom to see what kind of holding ground it has, check the topography, learn what the winds are going to do.”
Here’s how she describes coming into Chippewa Harbor on Isle Royale:
Inside the entrance, there is a narrows that is tricky to pass through because of blocking islets mid-channel and surrounding shoal waters. In order to clear these, an S-shaped track has to be taken, keeping the first all-rock islet to port, the second island, which has trees on it, to starboard. It is important to give these islets wide berth since there are rock projections out from each end underwater. When passing through here it is a good idea to have someone as lookout on the bow.
The resulting guide remains a literary lifeline for anyone on the lake, with additional information on hikes, wildlife, fishing spots, history and where the occasional sauna may be found.
“Most people write a book once, but we’ve written this book over and over,” Ron says, grinning. But then he sobers: “People want to be safe on their boats.”
Sailing through climate change
Dozens of pencil lines mark a wooden pillar in the cabin of Amicus II, Katya and Mark Gordon’s ketch. Each mark notes the ever-rising heights of their girls: Lamar, who was in diapers when the family left for the Bahamas in 2006, and older sister Cedar.
These days, the Gordons’ fellow crew members more often are members of the public who sail with them as part of Sea Change Expeditions, where people learn to sail, but also see climate change up close.
In their 17 years on Superior, the Gordons have tracked rising water temperatures, even as diving into the lake still makes you gasp. Reports by NASA and the National Science Foundation call Lake Superior one of the fastest-warming lakes on the planet.
They notice how Amicus’ keel is dirtier these days, how the shoreline rocks are slimier. They used to consider May still late winter, “but now we’ve launched the last two years in April and are pushing November to come out,” Katya says.
Wind speeds also are increasing, fueling the lake’s growing unpredictability.
“The Apostles — we’re afraid to go there, just about,” Mark says, only half-joking. The picturesque cluster of islands creates the illusion of safety from the vagaries of the open lake, but actually fosters chutes of wind that can catch casual sailors unawares.
“For so many people, weather is just an interesting thing — an inconvenient commute or a rained-out game,” Katya says. “For us, on the lake, it’s our lives.”
‘The lake is the bond’
There’s a well-worn joke: The first rule of sailing on Lake Superior: “Don’t fall off the boat.” The second rule: “Don’t break the first rule.”
Yet tragedy can happen in an instant. The sailing community was stilled last fall when a man from Marshfield, Wis., was pulled overboard while untangling a line to the jib sail on a boat sailing near Washburn, Wis. He was an experienced sailor, sailing with an experienced partner.
Still, sailing deaths are rare. In 2017, nine people drowned in Lake Superior, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. One was the Wisconsin man. Another was a Michigan man on a pontoon boat swamped by a large wave. Five others were swimmers, and two were swept off shore.
All were drawn to Lake Superior.
“The lake really is bigger and more connected than the state or provincial lines,” Katya Gordon says. “Whether you’re a Canadian or a Yooper or a Minnesotan or from Wisconsin, the lake is the bond.”
Ron Dahl knows that his years on the water have made him a different person.
“When people do this for a length of time, it does change them,” he says. “I’d like to be able to pinpoint it and say it’s because you do this or that. But each individual changes in their own way.
“I think it’s humbling. There’s something in that term, because you’re dealing in circumstances beyond your control. You’re making the wisest decision you can, of course, but you can’t always know. People who try to force things often find trouble.”
Wiencke conjures similar thoughts about how the lessons of sailing apply to living ashore.
“If I feel like I’m just pushing against a force to do something, I back off and just go with it, go with the wind in my life,” he says.
Inevitably, there’s a time when the wind finally stills.
The Dahls no longer sail, a nod to pitting physical limitations against the biggest lake in the world.
But last fall, they drove around the lake in an RV, “just to be near it.” They stopped in various marinas, inevitably running into old friends.
“There is a special camaraderie in the tribe of sailors on Lake Superior,” Bonnie says. “Because of the remoteness, there’s a sense of community. We support each other, and everybody knows that.”