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THE SKELETON COAST: Paddling Lake Superior’s Desolate Southeast Shore

Kayaker on Lake Superior's shipwreck coast

I’ve spent the last few summers working as a sea kayak guide for Woods and Water Ecotours in Hessel, Michigan and loved every minute of it. The long days, working with clients, teaching lessons and kayak surf sessions with the guides all added to the mystique. In the fall, reluctant to let go of my summer freedom as I went back to engineering school, I would go kayak surfing on Whitefish Bay when the gales of November would come slashing out of the north. The Big Water has a way of stripping away everything that isn’t important. It becomes just you and the Lake.

Tim Gallaway on the beachFor a spring expedition I decided on paddling from Munising to Sault Ste. Marie, about 150 miles of lakeshore. Included on this route would be the famous Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Whitefish Bay and miles and miles of deserted shoreline. I was hoping to see how my skills stacked up against the mighty and fickle Lake Superior along a stretch of shoreline that I’ve heard referenced as The Skeleton Coast because of the large number of shipwrecks and empty, desolate shoreline. Apparently the name denotes the shore between Grand Marais and Whitefish Point. The name is a bit silly, but I like it and it still imparts a sense of the area. There are very few roads that come anywhere near the water and only a few houses are clustered around Grand Marais and Whitefish Point. Cell phone coverage is non-existent so if something goes wrong you have to fend for yourself. One way or another I was going to have the big adventure like those written about in kayak magazines. After a few weeks of pouring over charts, weather maps, and reading everything I could find on my route (which is surprisingly little), I started packing.

My living room was covered with equipment. My drysuit hung over the back of a chair. My paddles were leaned against a corner. My tall neoprene boots sat flopped over against my PFD. To anyone else it looked like a mess, but to me it was perfectly arranged. And there I was, in the middle of the gear explosion, packing away layers, equipment and my anxieties. Before a trip is always the worst for me; my brain runs frantically thinking about things I might need right up until I leave. But when I get on the water I am in my element, it’s just me and the Lake.

The plan changed before I even started due to huge waves rolling in at Pictured Rocks. Eight-foot waves and Force 6 winds (25 to 30 mph) on a cliff lined shore wasn’t what I had in mind nor was it safe. So I changed the plan, and I would head onto The Skeleton Coast out of Grand Marais the next morning once the weather calmed.

Kayak camping on Lake SuperiorHeading out of Grand Marais I was met with 3 to 4 foot swells and a bit of a tail wind. That first day went by quick. I was still in the honeymoon phase of the trip where I was indestructible and unstoppable. The nagging fatigue of solo marathon paddling was as foreign to me as the social lives of the sturgeon at the bottom of the Lake. But I had to stop eventually. About 4 o’clock hunger got the best of me. I headed toward shore and landed through a short steep dumping wave and dragged my heavy boat out of the water with legs that refused to bend after sitting for 6 hours. When I had time to look around I found I was on an empty, sandy beach. There was a small river flowing into the lake at the back of the beach and a trail vanishing into the woods on the other side of it. I was alone in the wilderness. It was picture perfect.

I was on the water before seven the next morning and heading east. I like getting out early when I paddle. The cooler air means you can paddle harder without getting sweaty in your drysuit, which turns into an oven bag when it gets warm and bakes you in your own juices. Unluckily, a strong east wind cooled the air as the day progressed, and I was going straight into it. The wind grew stronger all day. If I stopped for even a few moments I was blown backwards. It was miserable paddling. The wind fought me all day and the shoreline was an uninterrupted ribbon of sand. If the weather didn’t wear me down then the boredom and toil of paddling along the empty shore would.

Crisp Point Lighthouse beachI passed the mouth of the two-hearted river and camped east of the Crisp Point Light on a beach where cobblestones floated on the windblown sand like islands in a tropical sea. Black sand ripples flowed between the stones and sparkled in the brilliant sunset light. Driftwood abounded, and the only footprints I could find were my own.

The day was draining. There isn’t much more disheartening for a paddler than a solid, unyielding head wind. A climber or skier knows that the up-hill exertion will end and they will have gravity on their side for the way down. A kayaker isn’t so lucky. I was drained, physically and mentally, but I was making good progress. I would be off of The Skeleton Coast with one more good day’s paddle.

Kayak camping on the shipwreck coastAll the while my third day I watched Canada grow closer and closer on the horizon. It started out as a mere smudge and had been growing with every stroke. Even with winds on the bow the sight of Canada kept me going strong. I saw lots of eagles that day, sitting on the shore all handsome and regal, but no people, no footprints, no tire tracks, no telephone poles. It was refreshing to be so alone on the water. But, wearisome too. I had no one to push me, or talk me out of being bored by the endless sand shoreline. No one to see me struggling against the wind, which became blustery and colder and straight out of the east. The Skeleton Coast was taking its toll.

My heart nearly lept out of my chest when I saw the lighthouse at Whitefish Point, the biggest landmark of my trip. I pulled my boat up on the cobble stone shore by the ruins of the old dock and headed into the Lake Superior Shipwreck Museum to use a phone. I got a few odd looks from the few people wandering around the shipwreck museum. I was in my dry-suit after all. I guess it isn’t often a kayaker wanders in.

rocks on a Lake Superior beachI pushed off an hour later and headed around the point. I was now in familiar waters I had paddled before but the wind made it a whole new place. The wind was now stronger than it had been the whole trip. The point was a confused mess of waves coming from all directions at the same time. I made it through the point break at length and headed south now into Whitefish Bay. The waves were now big. Five to seven feet on open water and pushing up taller in the surf near the beach. With the beam-sea and winds it was all I could do to stay out of the surf zone. Surfing kayaks is one of my great passions in life but this was different. My boat was heavy, sitting low in the water, and sluggish. I had to brace through spills every few minutes and then paddle out from shore again so I wouldn’t get caught in the surf. I was feeling the same desperation that thousands of other travelers from the first natives and voyageurs to those who work the ore freighters had felt as the lake swelled around me. After fighting my way south for four hours, only covering 6 miles, struggling constantly to stay out of the surf I came to a conclusion. This trip was done.

I didn’t want to go any further. My mind was set in this conclusion when I drifted into the surf zone and a breaker crashed over my head and put me into a spectral green room of freezing cold lake water. My water bottle got ripped off my deck while my hat somehow managed to stay on my head through the break. I let myself get washed into shore and started looking for a cottage with people in it. I spotted a woman in the window and walked up after beaching the boat. I knocked on the door and asked to use the telephone. They were real water-angels. They let me use their phone, helped me haul my equipment to the road, fed me dinner, and they even got me interviewed by the local paper for an article about un-motorized transients. I told the reporter to spread the word about my lost water bottle in case it washed up on shore. No one has called to say they’ve found it.

It was a bittersweet conclusion to the trip. I fell asleep that night in my own bed instead of on a beach, listening to the sounds of civilization instead of lake waves. I only paddled about half the distance I had planned on before the lake told me to go home and I was wise enough to listen. I realized I could be content in knowing I had made it that far and had the sense to bail while I could. I did paddle the length of The Skeleton Coast and that was good enough. Trips don’t need to be like those in the magazines to still be an amazing experience. Even if you have to bail you’ll still end up with a great story. I proved to myself that I had nothing to prove by taking chances and pushing myself along. I don’t fear the Lake, I respect it and its changing moods more than ever. What I learned most from this trip though is that before you try to face something as powerful as the Lake you must first respect its strength and understand your own weaknesses.

Tim Gallaway on a Lake Superior beachThis is a guest post from ACA L4, Coastal Kayaking Instructor and Greenland kayaking expert Tim Gallaway. Read his other contributions: Head North to Old Woman: A Lake Superior Kayaking Adventure and Ninja Paddling – The Path of the Ninja Paddler. Check out his website Kayaking to the Sea.

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