by Catherine Conlan
As the summer approaches and temperatures rise, people flock to Lake Superior for cool relief. Increasingly, they’re exploring the big lake on kayaks.
Northland outfitters and retailers don’t have hard numbers, but have observed there’s a steadily rising interest in kayaking.
“Statistics aren’t available, but I can tell you there’s been steady growth,” said Ed Kale, founder of Apostle Island Kayak on Madeline Island. His words were interrupted by a call from Missouri. After telling the customer how to ship a kayak, he confirmed, “It’s getting crazy.”
Larger crafts – sailboats and fishing boats – have always been on Lake Superior, but increasingly, kayak paddlers and kayak beginners are discovering lots to like about the sport. Increased opportunities for people to try it out – such as at festivals or through guided trips – have made kayaking a much more visible and less specialized sport.
“I think the appeal for kayaking is independence,” said Scott Neustel, owner of the Ski Hut in Duluth. “It’s a single craft, kind of like a bicycle. Kayaking is the same way. With canoeing, you always have to find someone else. Kayaking on Lake Superior...it’s quite an experience. You’re just a small speck on the large body of water.”
Lake Superior offers a wide variety of places to kayak and see the shore in a new way.
“On the North Shore, there aren’t too many places to paddle except the shore itself,” Neustel said. “There are a lot of places with sheer cliffs, and those are interesting to paddle – Silver Cliff, Palisade Head, Shovel Point – but you need to be aware that even though you’re close to shore, there’s no place to land. But really, anywhere along the North Shore is interesting, especially near the state parks. You’re not paddling past houses and you’re seeing Lake Superior in its wild state.”
Along the South Shore, Neustel said. “There’s the Apostle Islands and the sea caves, and along the Canadian side of Lake Superior, up by Rossport, Ontario, there are lots of islands. That’s a larger archipelago than the Apostles.”
“The only way to see Madeline Island is by kayak,” Kale asserted. His company offers overnight rentals so people can kayak to other islands and camp.
The rise in kayaking has continued for the last 10 to 15 years, outfitters said, trending with both environmental and health awareness. The Two Harbors Kayak Festival, which offers races and kayaking demos, will celebrate its 13th year in August, “and that event attracts about 500 people to Burlington Bay,” said Neustel, who serves on the event’s board. “It used to be, you’d see a car driving around with a kayak on the top and you knew who it was. Now, you don’t. And in my store, 20 years ago I had five brands of canoes and one brand of kayak. Now it’s the opposite. That’s how much it’s grown.”
It’s a fairly easy sport to learn, outfitters said, and many recommend trying one out at a festival or demo site before buying.
“… you can put (customers) into the most stable boats and then move them up into a less stable boat,” said Andrew Teichmiller, owner of Chequamegon Adventures Co. in Minocqua. “As they get to trying out maybe the third … maybe it’s less stable, but they’ve learned the difference in a short period of time and will feel like it’s the most stable boat.”
Teichmiller said a new recreational kayak can run about $500 to $1,000 with a “really nice” paddle and paddling life jacket.
“You can go nuts and spend thousands, and some people discover that’s what they want to do,” he said, but it’s not necessary. “Another thing about paddle sports is that no gas is required, so after that initial investment, typically most of our customers are in the type of boats where it’s a one-time investment.”
As with canoes or other boats, Teichmiller said, it’s possible to trade up. As long as it’s stored properly, a kayak will last a long time.
For paddling on Lake Superior, Neustel recommended a spray skirt, which is worn around the waist and makes a seal to keep water out of the cockpit; a paddle float; a hand-held bilge pump, and a wet suit.
“On Lake Superior, you need to dress for it,” he said. “If you do fall out, you need to have something that will keep you alive out there until you get back on a kayak.”
As with canoes and other watercraft, kayaks are specialized by size and shape for different types of water. A kayak for an inland lake would be dangerous on Lake Superior.
And while solitude and quiet are big draws for kayakers, paddling on Lake Superior is risky without a partner, outfitters said.
“A lot of people (paddle alone) on inland lakes on a calm quiet evening…but with changing conditions, you need to respect Lake Superior.
“The water is, for me, peace and quiet,” Kale said. “You can get away on the water. It very quickly becomes a life sport.”