In the Wolf’s Jaw on Lake Superior

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.

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