My parents had me in one form of a boat or another since I was about six weeks old and I never left. I was 11 when I first pondered circumnavigating Lake Superior by sea kayak. Two family friends had completed a historically cold lap of the Lake. For the past 25 years the trip has lived in my head. I left from Red Cliff, Wisconsin on June 20th headed west towards Duluth, and returned 53 day later after covering roughly 1,300 miles. I was my own traveling companion throughout the trip but met great new friends and travel partners along the way.
By nature I am a list-maker and if you saw my 16-tab Google planning sheet entitled “Ben’s Trip Brain” you’d laugh. So 16 spreadsheet tabs later, I offer you my five essentials to circumnavigating Lake Superior.
5 essentials for circumnavigating Lake Superior
1 Fully adjustable ferrule paddle
The injury I most worried about was over-usage. I chose the Werner Cyprus bent shaft paddle. I’m right handed but played around with left-hand control and varying degrees of feather. I only almost flipped 8.5 times while figuring it out.
2 The SPOT
I did all of my navigation by map and compass. One piece of tech I did bring along was a SPOT device as an additional safety precaution. A feature I grew to love was the nightly blurb I would send out to a short list of friends and family with my GPS coordinates. It was a one-way street so no one could contact me but they could get a glimpse of where I was and that I was off the water safely. It turned out to be a fulfilling way to keep contact that protected my wish for being unconnected and others’ wishes to follow along with my trip.
3 The no-plan plan
You plan and prepare to the best of your ability so things run smoothly. However, I like to leave lots unplanned, especially routes. One has to be open to the serendipity of passing up a freshly groomed lawn as a campsite and instead sharing the overgrown bush of an abandoned marina with two other kayakers you’d never met who also happened to be circumnavigating the Lake. Also, if someone in a powerboat offers to catch you fresh lake trout, fries it for you, and makes you a margarita—do that too.
4 The 6 Ws
Wind. Weather. Waves. Water covered. What’s next? Whatever else. These words were what started my daily reflection each night. I charted my progress, listened to the weather radio, planned the next day and jotted down highlights and expectations—a must for any journey.
5 Support network recipe
Friends willing to scour the depths of Google Earth and Weather App Land to imagine your life that day, one friend willing to cross the Atlantic and meet you in Sault St. Marie for six days of paddling companionship, family willing to drive hours on end to cook you a meal, deliver a re-supply, or swap out a boat because you snapped your skeg, and countless others to help create the right chemistry for you to even imagine the trip.
With this trip I expected and sought a mental and physical challenge. Over the course of 53 days you experience all that the Lake can offer. Day 28 while paddling through Lake Superior Provincial Park was that day—a heavy headwind, strong seas, cold air, intermittent rain, lunch with a local guide, a mother and two bear cubs, the peaks of my paddling skill, the depths of my exhaustion, hot tea under a tarp while listening to the rain, chatting with a few overland hikers, creamy polenta, 6Ws, read, rest, repeat.
A sunset shot of Pukaskwa on Lake Superior. | Feature photo: Ben Herman