Kayaking Lake Superior's Shoreline

I didn’t paddle to the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula to do math, but as the frigid waters of Lake Superior wash over the kayak’s deck, I can’t prevent numbers from flooding my head. Wave height: three feet. Average water temperature: 38 degrees. Time before losing consciousness if unprotected in water that cold: about 10 minutes.

But it’s the smallest number in the equation, two, as in two miles, that troubles me most. That’s the temptingly short open-water crossing that my wife, Kristen, and I must traverse to reach Gull Rock, an island the size of a city house lot that’s home to one of my many obsessions, an abandoned lighthouse. On a calm day the crossing would take less than an hour. Today it could take our lives.

It’s the Saturday of a Fourth of July weekend, the second day of our trip. We paddled yesterday along the south shore of the Keweenaw, having launched at Bete Grise, a cluster of houses and a public beach about an hour north of Houghton, and camped Friday night as close as we could to Keweenaw Point, the extreme tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. We had planned to cross today to Gull Rock and the adjacent Manitou Island to explore their lighthouses and camp for the weekend.

But the lake had other plans. A current that flows along the north side of the Keweenaw has combined forces with waves left over from a recent northerly blow, and the whole seething mess is squirting through the channel between the mainland and the islands — the same channel we want to paddle. Making matters worse, the waves are colliding head-on with wind-pushed surf surging from the south. Boat captains call the resulting mayhem confused seas. A nice description, I think, as Kristen and I float in our boats, feeling the lake buck and convulse, the surface foaming with whitecaps.

The islands slip in and out of sight as we bob offshore from Keweenaw Point. As a wave lifts us up, Gull Rock Lighthouse appears on the horizon as a tidy little box, a Monopoly house that seems to float, its land so inconsequential as to be invisible in the rough seas. Manitou Island is a comforting green smudge to the right, larger than I’d imagined, and inviting compared to its smaller sister island. Beyond the islands is 90 miles of angry open water.

Then in a moment the island view is gone, replaced with a wall of blue as the boat drops into a trough with that good-yet-bad Ferris wheel feeling tickling my guts. Kristen’s eyes meet mine, and I know what that look means: No islands, no way.

We are paddling 18-foot expedition style sea kayaks. Tight fitting neoprene sprayskirts keep the waves out of the cockpit. Neoprene wetsuits will delay hypothermia if we capsize, and PFDs will keep us afloat. We have all the necessary safety equipment like a two-way VHF radio, flares and bilge pumps. After eight years of paddling we know all of our rescues and reentry procedures, but like most paddlers we have never had to use them. Nor do we want to.

So no matter how sweet the siren song of crumbling lighthouses and deserted islands at the end of Michigan’s northernmost piece of mainland, we are forced to brace against the waves, spin the boats around and slink toward a small, protected cove with our sterns between our legs. We still have a few more days, and maybe the waves will calm. Maybe.

Rewind to Friday, launch time, and nothing hints at the liquid pandemonium that would block our way on Saturday. A slight southerly breeze sighs across the sand as we load our boats with food and gear. We change into swimsuits and wetsuits at the bathroom building and push off into the shallow bay. The only sounds are the tinkle of water drops returning from paddle to lake and the slurping at the bows as we knife east toward the point.

Less than a mile from the beach the shore becomes more rugged, torn and gouged from geologic forces. No surface is left unmarked. Numerous small caves pock the surface of the low cliffs. We hug the land, paddling just feet from shore, trying to conceive of the eons needed to carve the filigree before us.

The lake surface remains undisturbed and the water nearly invisible as we glide over Buick-sized boulders on the lake bottom, which rises and falls like a submerged mountain range. We are so captivated by the show below that we’re surprised to look up and see a sea stack — a tower of rock rising from the depths to well above the lake surface. We slip between it and the shore, circling and gawking 30-feet up at a pair of gulls. The spire is their personal high-rise this nesting season, and they circle and squawk to make it clear we don’t belong in the neighborhood.

When we round a corner and see a white speck on the shore in the distance, we pick up the pace to investigate. As we get nearer, the sound of rushing water tells us it’s the frothy mouth of the Montreal River, plunging through a series of rapids as it spills into the lake.

A fisherman in red flannel stands knee-deep at the mouth of the river, casting spinning gear toward a rock structure offshore. He’s driven in to the dead end of a rugged two-track and hiked a couple of miles to the river, because the Montreal mouth is considered one of the local hotspots for species like salmon, steelhead and even the occasional coaster brook trout, monster fish that spawn in the rivers and live their lives in the big lake.

"How’s the fishing?" I ask.

He looks us over, eyes lingering on our bright yellow PFDs and running the length of our boats. "Beats working," he replies with a grin. He cocks his head and releases a long streak of tobacco juice the color of the tannin-stained river, then returns to his fishing.

We land our boats on a small gravel beach and head upstream to look for the river’s upper falls, marked on our map. After a half-mile trek on a well-worn path, we hear the thundering of falling water and know we’re close. A break in the trees reveals the river being squeezed and dumped 15 feet into a large pool. Tufts of foam drift in the air, held aloft by cool updrafts from the pounding water.

The mouth of the Montreal alone is worthy of a final destination, but we’ve only paddled about six miles from the Bete Grise beach where we put in, and we have three days of adventure reserved on our calendar. The pull of the point and its islands lead us back to the water and up the coast.The shoreline after the mouth of the Montreal becomes even more dramatic and exposed. Ancient forces have gnawed points of land into improbable shapes. A series of pocket beaches piled with smooth red stones interrupt the shore. No roads intrude this wild country, and few people willingly stop on this exposed Lake Superior coast.

During our break at the Montreal, the wind from the south increased. It now grabs at our paddles, nearly tugging them from our hands with each stroke. The closer we get to the tip, the more exposed and vulnerable we become. The weathered shore of the Keweenaw is a constant reminder of what the water and wind can do, and we are in no hurry to share the fate of the stones and driftwood, rolling rounded and smooth in the breaking waves.

Shortly before dark on Friday evening we surf into a small, ruddy-stoned harbor about five miles short of Keweenaw Point. It will offer some protection from the worst of the waves that have now built to frightening proportions, driven across 50 miles of open water from the Huron Mountains in the south.We drag the boats up from the clutches of curling waves and unpack the tent, stove and other gear we’ll need for the night. The woods are so tangled with spruce, birch and cedar that we’ll have to pitch the tent on the narrow margin of stones between the trees and water. Most of the shoreline from the Montreal River to Keweenaw Point was recently put under protection by the state and The Nature Conservancy with the promise of always being open to primitive, leave-no-trace camping like we’re doing.

All Friday night the lake punishes the beach just yards from our heads. Several times it floods my dreams, and I gasp awake, breaking the dark surface of sleep to gulp the cool night air. The glow of a distant town paints the sky orange back south along the coast, back towards civilization and safety. Though we can’t see it, we know the automated beacon of Gull Rock Lighthouse winks mischievously in the distance, daring us to come closer.

By Saturday morning the lake has calmed enough for us to paddle, but it’s still a bumpy ride. During the two-hour trip to Keweenaw Point we cut across the mouths of the cobble-strewn Big Bay and sandy Keystone Bay, staying well offshore to save time, but feeling unsettled and exposed on the open water.

By midday, though, the tumult of the lake increases — and that’s when Kristen gives me the look that says the crossing is off. We soon tuck into a protected, unnamed cove near Keweenaw Point. The sound of rabid waves is replaced by the droning of nectar-drunk honeybees bumbling among the beach pea blossoms. Kristen reads and sunbathes as I pace the beaches, hurling rocks at the still raging lake. There are no footprints on this beach. Not even animal tracks. This is true solitude, and I should be happy, but it’s not enough.

From here, the islands seem just off shore. Gull Rock Lighthouse rises above the lake like an exclamation point from the past that cries, "There are people here! We are clinging to a land where trees can’t grow!"

The half-acre conglomerate bump of Gull Rock has been home to a lighthouse since 1867. Gull Rock and its sister light on Manitou Island, constructed first in 1849, still mark the point in the shipping lane where freighters turn the corner around the jutting Keweenaw between Duluth and Sault Ste. Marie. Lighthouses like these are America’s ancient ruins, our mist-shrouded crumbling castles that housed not royalty, but servants all but forgotten. The first foreman hired to build Gull Rock light died while working in these brutally open Lake Superior waters. On a spring day in 1882 the keeper of the Manitou Light capsized his sailboat 500 feet from the island’s safety. Signaling desperately for help to his two inept assistants who watched from shore, he drifted to an icy death. His boat was found three months later, 50 miles away. His body was never found.

Ships — at least a half dozen of them since the end of the 19th century — have met their own fate on these islands’ treacherous shoals. The legendary storm of November 1913 forced a 450-foot freighter aground, entrapping 24 people and one dog for over three days in the ship’s ice-sheathed hold before all were rescued. The same shoals ensnared the Coast Guard Cutter Mesquite in December of 1989. The ship was a total loss.

I want to stand on that naked slab of stone that is Gull Rock, where someone once sent a flame into the night to keep chaotic waves and hidden shoals from goring the lake’s early schooners. Perched only a few feet above lake level, the Gull Island lighthouse has had to endure the pounding of waves and the crush of winter ice jams like few other beacons its size. Recently a group called the Gull Island Lightkeepers formed to help restore the light, but I want to see the building as is, a decaying testament to time and natural forces. But instead, Kristen and I are forced, like hundreds of ship captains before us, to take refuge while the lake howls.

We spend Saturday night here, hoping to cross in the morning. All night Gull Rock taunts us every five seconds with a white flash. On Sunday the lake still refuses to rest, and by Monday our long weekend has eroded. We have run out of days and now have just enough time to paddle the entire distance back to Bete Grise. The ghosts of ships and men will have to wait for calmer days.

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Aaron Peterson is a freelance writer and photographer based in Marquette, a short drive or a long paddle from the Keweenaw. To learn more about his work visit www.aaronpeterson.net.

Note: This article was first published in July 2006 and was updated for the web February 2008.

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