Solo Kayaker Waits Out Storm
Minneapolis Star Tribune, 17 August 2003
© 2003 by Greg Breining
IMAGINE THE COLDWELL PENINSULA—a dark fist jutting from the Ontario shore of Lake Superior, five miles across, with rocky knuckles. Poised on one knuckle, like the stone of an outsized ring, was Foster Island. I sat between the fist and the stone, as the wind whipped the lake into a frenzy of whitecaps.
I was partway through a two-year project—to take a series of kayak trips around all of Lake Superior. It was late September. The birch had turned yellow; the tamarack dusky gold. I had hoped to squeeze in one last trip before autumn storms ended my kayaking for the year.
I had set out that morning, paddling to the knobby contours of Pic Island. The wind rose through the morning. The building waves worried me. I returned to the mainland, taking shelter in the tiny bay behind Foster. There I waited for the wind to drop—it usually did in the afternoon— before returning to my car, several miles to the west.
Instead, the wind blew harder. I sat in perfect calm, but to the right and left, waves pounded the rocky cliffs. I dared not paddle through such heavy seas. Especially alone. I hated the idea of dying anonymously and mysteriously. Better to wait out the storm.
With hills and cliffs on three sides, I could tune in the Thunder Bay marine station only by walking around the beach, holding the radio high and tilting it just so. According to the 4 p.m. report, the wind would stay in the south and build through the night and tomorrow, with waves growing to more than 6 feet.
Not far from where I anxiously paced the shore, German prisoners of war had been held at three camps. In April 1941, 28 Luftwaffe officers and U-boat veterans escaped Angler Camp through a series of tunnels. The escapees soon realized the genius of locating prisons in the wilds of Superior. Where could they go? Within a few days, all had been shot or rounded up.
On my beach, I realized I, too, was a prisoner. With the highway several miles inland, with the wind churning Superior into a froth, where could I go? I set up my tent.
During the summer, as my girlfriend, Susan, and I had paddled the Ontario shore, we rarely met other travelers. We saw many signs of life from days gone by—the Ojibwe rock paintings in Lake Superior Provincial Park, the abandoned logging community near the mouth of the Imogene River, and the mysterious Pukaskwa pits along the shore of Pukaskwa National Park. But except for these ghosts, we almost never had company, and I didn't expect any now.
Bad weather had occasionally put us to shore—more because of Susan's limitations than mine. And so I didn't take being wind-bound personally, a reflection on my own weakness as a paddler. Caring for someone else had made me feel stronger, if only by allowing my own fear to remain hidden. Now, the wind exposed me for the coward I was. I didn't like it.
Besides, I really wanted the company.
The morning broke sunny and windy. Whitecaps beat the reefs beyond Foster Island. Still, I could hope. I ate breakfast, struck the tent and packed the boat with the intention of sneaking out from behind Foster and around the point east through Devils Gap. I could reach the highway at Coldwell.
I wedged into my kayak and stretched the spray skirt over the cockpit. I trembled, remembering how tense I had been in the waves yesterday. I'd feel better, I thought, if I practiced an Eskimo roll. I had never rolled this kayak with this paddle with all my gear aboard and all the clothes I wear in late September. A roll would be good. It would restore my confidence.
I pushed off into the sheltered bay. Without another thought, before I had a moment to reconsider, I hit the cold water face-first and a second later hung upside-down, staring upward in disbelief through the clear water at the deck of my boat and the silver sky.
What had I done? Screw up now—then what would happen to my confidence? I imagined myself completely unnerved, sitting on this beach until the lake turned flat calm. That might not happen till December. It annoyed me I was this afraid. How often had I failed to roll a kayak, even in turbulent waves? Hardly ever. But I had not been alone. That was the difference.
I reached toward the surface with my paddle, swept slowly in a broad arc, snapped my hips, and popped to the surface. It was that easy. Now I was ready. But as I paddled from behind Foster Island, a swell rolled beneath the boat and then the horizon disappeared behind a wall of water. Two more large waves followed. I looked out on a lake in pandemonium and retreated to the bay.
I set my tent again and made lunch. There wasn't much to do. Hiking was miserable, with cliffs, bogs and thickets of black spruce all around. So I brewed tea. I read. I watched bumblebees work over the last of the summer's goldenrod. I paced from one end of my beach to the other. It was 160 yards long; five laps equaled a mile. I made a habit of walking a mile, counting each lap. If I felt anxious, I walked another mile.
I cooked sausage, rice and black beans. I smoked a cigar. I listened to the 8 p.m. forecast. Bad news. The wind would continue through tomorrow, with waves of 6 to 10 feet.
When I was a teenager, I fancied myself a rugged loner. I read Jack London and books about camping and woodcraft. I imagined myself exploring wild country for days or weeks on end. Then one summer, after a weekend at the lake cabin, my parents drove home to work, leaving me to fend for myself for the week. Almost immediately, a black anxiety descended, betraying my sense of myself. I remembered that so well because I felt something so very similar now.
The next morning, a switchy wind cut through my bay. The radio report: waves 6 to 10 feet. Wind still from the south. Thunderstorms likely. There was no decision to be made — no decision except what to have for breakfast.
I began walking the beach early, startling a merganser near shore. It ran across the water, never opening its wings. It must have wondered, What is he doing here?
I talked to myself, at length and with vigor. I made lunch, boiled tea and read travel stories. Gretel Ehrlich wrote that the Chumash Indian of California faced long waits for the weather to break before paddling to the Channel Islands. They sang of their crossings: "I make a big step. I am always going over to the other side."
The 4 p.m. report: more bad news. A gale warning had been issued for western Lake Superior; winds of 40 knots or more. I dragged my kayak nearer the tent. I guyed one peak of the tent to a tree and the other to the boat. The physical preparation was easier than the mental. When would this end?
I decided to walk a mile. Then I walked a second mile. Then a third mile. And a fourth and a fifth. Susan would be worried. But she would be fine. Worry is not fatal. Or even harmful. But I had to keep my mind on the tasks at hand. Don't get hurt. Keep food safe from rain and bears (though so far I had seen no sign). And look for an opportunity. A good opportunity. That perhaps was the greatest danger: to give in to anxiety and impatience. Nothing, after all, was wrong.
Modern life hadn't prepared me for sitting in one place and keeping my own company. No radio. No television. No distractions from private thoughts. I imagined an Ojibwe holed up in a small cove with a birch-bark canoe, waiting for the chance to move. I wondered if he, like the Chumash, danced to prepare for a crossing—to invoke the spirits and, more important to a western mind perhaps, to instill patience. Patience. Preparation and patience.
Drizzle fell through the night. I slept as late as I could, but by 7, I could sleep no more.
The 8 o'clock forecast: Gale warnings for all Great Lakes. An intense low-pressure cell sat on northern Ontario. When it moved eastward toward Quebec, the wind would switch to the northwest and diminish. But that would not happen until tomorrow. In the meantime, winds ran to 40 knots and waves to more than 13 feet. Thirteen feet, my god, nearly the length of my kayak.
Surf continued to explode on the reefs. But something was different. I ran to the end of my beach and looked to the gap between Foster and Pic islands. The wind seemed to have switched toward the southwest. If so, I might be able to sneak into Devils Gap. I couldn't tell. I decided to paddle out and look.
My hands trembled as I cooked breakfast and struck the tent. Gusts of wind blew across the beach — but it came from the west. Yes. Blow, blow all you want. The wester the better.
I loaded the boat. I looked around camp—fondly, I would say, but my fondness depended on not returning anytime soon. I hopped into the kayak and pushed off. The water ahead appeared calm. As I neared the point and moved out of the shelter of Foster Island, I began to feel the southwest wind.
Rounding the point, mere swells surfed my kayak toward Devils Gap. The more dangerous waves ran far out on the lake, a long way off. As I passed between the mainland and Detention Island, the seas fell and the wind died.
Gray fog draped the black rocks and soaring hills. Devils Cove seemed not the least bit devilish, but a paradise of gorgeous wet rocks and the solid colors of creation. I had escaped from the shadows of my own loneliness and emerged, as an eagle flew overhead, into what seemed to me the most beautiful place on earth.