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Historically, paddling small boats on open water has been the domain of explorers and risk takers. French voyageurs paddled into the unknown waters of Lake Superior in search of trade routes, sustenance and adventure. But times have changed, equipment has improved, and it is now possible for the entire family to experience the beauty and serenity of Lake Superior in a fun and safe environment.

Rick Erickson, a father of two pre-teen girls, and head of the Bayfield Kayaking Club, tells tales of setting out with other families for day trips on the lake. One spring excursion had the group paddling around ice floes in the patchy fog of late morning. Two younger girls sat in the middle of a tandem kayak as Rick and his oldest daughter shared paddling duties. The remainder of adults paddled along in solo kayaks. Later the group tied the boats together to form a kayak “raft,” and shared a lunch of scones, coffee and hot chocolate. “It was such a peaceful and memorable experience,” says Erickson, “something we could share together as family and friends.”

Superior Beauty

Although it is one of several points suitable for sea kayaking on Lake Superior, the area around Bayfield in northern Wisconsin offers the most to paddlers of all skill levels from novices to experts.

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, which runs along the Bayfield peninsula, includes 21 islands, 12 miles of shoreline, and more lighthouses than any other area in the United States. The islands offer visitors sandy beaches, spectacular sea caves, old-growth forests, excellent camping, and a chance to view wildlife such as bald eagles and black bears.

What makes this area particularly good for sea kayaking is that the islands offer a good deal of protection from the rough, unpredictable marine conditions that are common in other parts of Lake Superior, and the sandy beaches make for easier launchings and landings when compared to the rocky shorelines that are typical elsewhere on the lake.

The town of Bayfield offers excellent dining, shopping, accommodations and outfitters that can provide equipment rentals, instruction, and guided tours to take you and your family on trips out on the lake.

Spills and Chills

When most people think of kayaking, they think of white-water enthusiasts who pull daredevil stunts through rough, rocky waters for thrills. The boats that are used for river riding are very short, built for the quick turns required to navigate treacherous river waters. Sea kayaks, like the ones used on Lake Superior, are much longer, built to track a straighter line in the water and be easier to paddle over long distances. These boats offer a more leisurely ride while still providing an excellent head-to-toe workout.

Family outings on the lake will usually demand the use of tandem boats, which offer several advantages. Tandem boats are larger, and more stable when fully loaded. Having a partner in the boat means someone to help paddle when you need a rest and prevents novice or younger riders from getting separated from a group. A larger boat also means more space to stow gear for overnight and extended trips.

The first thing you notice when you sit in a sea kayak is how close you are to the water when compared to canoes and other boats. This is what gives the boat its stability and allows for ease of control in the water. Being this close to the water also means that you have a good chance of getting wet. Bring along waterproof shells, wool, and polypropylene for layering. Avoid wearing cotton, which loses its ability to insulate from the cold once it gets wet. Because the water on Lake Superior can remain cold well into late summer, it is recommended that children, and even adults, wear wetsuits when venturing out in the boats.

Paddle On, Dude

The technique used to paddle a kayak differs from the more common experience of canoeing. While body positioning in a canoe demands that the paddler “pull” his or her way through the water, a kayak stroke is more of a “push” stroke. While one end of the paddle is in the water the muscles on the opposite side of the body “push” the paddle through the water and move the boat forward.

There are several organizations (including Trek and Trail and Living Adventures, both based in Bayfield) that offer guided trips onto the lake. Trips vary in length from a half day to multi-week excursions that explore the surrounding areas. Most day trips don’t require previous experience or special training, and will include instruction in paddling and rescue techniques in the price of the trip. Boats and equipment are also available to rent, and most places that rent equipment will offer basic instruction, but to get the most out of the experience, it is best to go on an organized trip or hire a guide.

Guides are familiar not only with the resources, camping grounds and best places to visit, they also have a wealth of experience paddling on the lake and can provide the judgment needed if water conditions get a bit dicey. It is these types of unpredictable conditions (rough water, high winds, and cold weather) that may make you think twice before you pack up the whole family and head out on the world’s largest lake.

Family Plan

It’s important to note that safety and equipment issues can prevent younger children (ages 11 and under) from kayaking on Superior. Gail Green, one of the owners of Living Adventures points out that, “young kids don’t fit properly in the boats.” Tandem boats and boats that place children in between two adults do provide more stability and safety, but “Lake Superior has some serious water, and can be dangerous,” says Green. Mary Sweval, co-owner of Trek and Trail agrees that despite the protection that the islands provide, it is best to wait until children are at least 11 or 12 before venturing out on the lake.

There are other ways for families and kids to begin to experience kayaking before heading out into open water. Rick Erickson has been kayaking and canoeing with his children their whole lives and started his kayaking club as a way to get kids (ages 5-18) started in the sport in a safe, enjoyable environment. The club starts instruction during the winter months at the local indoor pool where kids learn how to handle river kayaks and play games that reinforce basic techniques. In the summer they meet once a week to go paddle for a couple hours on the lake. This portion of the club is open to families and in many cases will include barbeques, and other activities in which members can participate. You can learn more about kayak clubs in your area by going to

Bringing his own children on kayaking trips has been “a blast” for Erickson, but he has had to modify those excursions to accommodate his kids’ needs. Erickson suggests planning lots of downtime, with activities such as exploring and blueberry picking, where kids can relax and play away from the boat. Bring cards, play games, let the kids be kids and they will enjoy the outdoor experience a lot more. “The biggest mistake that paddlers make is trying to do too much or go too far,” says Erickson.

On the whole, sea kayaking provides a great way for adults and families to bond with nature and with one another. Gail Green puts it this way: “When you go out on Lake Superior, you know you’ve done something extraordinary.

Don’t Forget …

Most paddling schools and outfitters will provide the basic equipment.

  • Boat
  • Paddles
  • Lifejacket
  • Spraydeck (the kayak skirt that keeps you dry)

Here are some other items to keep suffering (and whining) to a minimum.

  • Sun protection: sunscreen, sunglasses, brimmed hat or visor.
  • Snacks and plenty of water: If it’s chilly, pack a thermos with soup, tea or cocoa.
  • A good synthetic layer to pull moisture off your skin (a wetsuit is essential in cold water).
  • Gloves or Pogies: Pogies are large mittens that attach to paddles. Both keep you warm – and prevent blisters.
  • Good river sandals or old sneakers (wear wool socks!)
  • Dry bags: To keep the gear (and lunch) from getting soggy.

Check It Out
Trek and Trail Outfitters in Bayfield, Wis.
Day trips for kids and families, and all the gear you need.

Paddlemasters Coastal Kayaking School Located in the Twin Cities, this program has a great philosophy, and offers excellent beginner programs for kids and adults.

Great Outdoor Recreation Pages

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