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  • Writer's pictureJustin Pahnturat

Great Lakes Adventure Journal: Kayak the Keewenaw

Kayak Adventure in the Keewenaw

Kayak Guide Justin paddling along the Keewenaw Peninsula
Kayak Guide Justin paddling along the Keewenaw Peninsula

If you were to look at the massive 31,000 mile spread of Lake Superior from high above you would see a large point of land near the bottom middle extending nearly 150 miles to the center of this inland sea. This stretch of land known as the Keewenaw was named by the Ojibwe Native Americans, simply as 'a place of crossing' but its geology is made up of rapidly-cooled lava flows from nearly a billion years ago. These basaltic rock formations, igneous rock rich in copper and iron, give the Keewenaw Peninsula a rocky, mountain-like terrain covered in thick evergreen forests as the waters of Lake Superior crash and carve out a stunning shoreline.

It was late September 2022 and for the past a week and half all I have been doing is kayaking and living out my car. Kind of dreamy just roaming from place to place by myself, no real schedule or pressing itinerary other than catching great wind forecasts at amazing kayaking spots all along Lake Superior. My professional guide season had just ended and found myself living that ever blissful period of post-season freedom with pockets full of cash and having time off to do nothing... and everything!

I began my autumn adventure on the north shore of Lake Superior... I had been as far north as Grand Marias then to Tettegouche, Palisade Head, down to Split Rock Lighthouse. From there I headed to the Apostle Islands for some sea cave exploration and now I found myself cruising along highway 26, headed north to Copper Harbor in Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This would be my first visit and I was absolutely stunned by the beauty upon arrival.

The Keewenaw just feels so natural, ancient, and mystical. Old growth white pines and hemlocks and firs with reddish-brown rocky outcroppings in geometric patterns against a backdrop of endless blue freshwater sea, cold and deep. Dramatic hills and bluffs gave the feel of mountains in the distance and they had the same exhilirating effect and rising terrain, making the peninsula feel even wilder as the road climbed along covered in green forests.

As I was driving up through sunshine in Houghton it was now extremely foggy with very limited visibility no more than 20 feet in any direction. The fog was thick as a tire fire but only added to the dreamy feel of the Keewenaw. You can feel it in your gut when you are all the way up there. That somehow, here a person could re-connect with the fierce and wild natural world. I was now driving down a small single lane road that traced the shoreline with many curves and steep hills making for an exciting cruise that made me turn the music up. I saw a sign for a park ahead, Esrey Park, which was really Agate Harbor on the northern shore of the Keewenaw. As I pulled in for a water check I noticed a trailer full of sea kayaks. A quick glance at the water at that moment and I guarantee most people would look at the 2 foot wave swell and extremely foggy conditions and say no way, that's crazy! Yes, it was very beautiful to see Lake Superior and blue-grey steel crashing with healthy vigor and punch but to think someone was running tours... After all, I'm a tour guide and know the limitations of skill for some folks in the water so I just assumed it was just some guides having fun in the off-season because paddling in tough conditions is not for those who lack the athleticism, proper skill sets or training required to surive what the Great Lakes can throw at you.

So as I checked conditions my gut was telling me tomorrow would be best. The wave swell was doable for me but the fog on an unkown coastline of Lake 'effin Superior during late fall as a solo expedition paddler new to this area seemed sketchy. I decided a good meal, some scheming with online map access and wind forecasts and a joint was a much safer route. Another rule for paddlers of big waters is never go out there tired or weak or with a bad head... you need 100% focus and functioning skills because the consequences on Lake Superior are serious. Part of being a successful sea kayaker lies in sound decision making. There are times you can break the rules but laws of nature have to be followed, the water is boss and will always win and I have learned over the years that "discretion is definitley the better part of valor." As a tour guide I professionally analyze weather and water conditions and then gauge the abilities of the humans involved. One of my strengths is to accurately read the language of the water, it keeps me safe as well as the folks entrusting me with their lives. Connection is why I paddle and when you do it right the feeling is electric. Deeply connecting with the water should be the only goal of a great sea kayaker, even more so than distance or bragging rights, the thing we are really seeking is deeper than that and cannot be expressed with words.

Beautiful day on Lake Superior near Copper Harbor
Beautiful day on Lake Superior near Copper Harbor

I love the water. Even the water check without kayaking brings some satisfaction that at least you were there to talk to the water. I talk to the water every day, the water speaks to me, we have a relationship and a bond.

As I was heading back to my car and passed the trailer I was greeted by a very friendly and exuberant guy in a wetsuit who was a local sea kayak guide! After a fun, Hey, I'm a guide too! thing , it turns out, he had just gotten back from a kayak tour and I was impressed he could get people in and out on these current conditions so he immediately had my respect. He did stress that the people he just took out on tour were extremely athletic which made tour even possible. Not only was the guide fun to meet but I also gleaned some insider tips on where to camp for the night in my van and the choice spots to paddle the next few days. Wherever I travel I meet awesome fellow guides that offer great conversations, insider tips on best spots to paddle and camp and help with my boat or whatever. I love being a guide and the culture of guides because we all speak the same language and understand working really hard in beautiful places in the world for little money. Worth it.

The sun setting and the dark night sinking in I headed north to town for some grub and beer. Plan was to get up early in the morning and hit the water for sunrise calm and spend a rainy night somewhere in the Keewenaw wilds. I'm not a fan of crowded, loud mainstream camping. I prefer a secluded beach, or the woods, dark and deep and quiet, except maybe for the sound of water. I took a walk around Copper Harbor in the rain but since I live in a tourist attraction type locale not much interested or surprised me. I bought a beer at the local brewpub and dinner in the form of camp food at the general store. Before I left town I stood outside the Tourism Center, the only functioning internet access, to check weather and maps and tomorrow I planned to launch from Esrey via Agate harbor up to Copper Harbor.

It was still the grey uncertain dawn when I climbed out of the back of my Toyota Rav4 bed in my underwear to take a glorious morning pee in the dark grey chill. I brewed hot coffee and oatmeal for breakfast right away and by the time the first rays of day broke through the clouds I was already dragging my kayak to the water. A hazy mist rose in the crisp morning alongside the even colder Lake Superior air on the water with a light swell slapping the agate covered shoreline. Oh these mornings on the water, I think one of the things that really hooked me with kayaking is that I just get to see the water so often that it became familiar as an old friend in all these morning moments launching out to sea.

I was the only car in the parking lot and there was not a soul in sight when I launched. Perfection. The day was fresh and suddenly as I paddled out the clouds lifted and revealed the deepest blue sky with golden light breaking through. And I just smiled in the bliss of freedom of this adventure that now was just another day of my life. I felt like a wild animal and smelled the part and already the adventure was off to a great start as I paddled out past the odd, three fingered shape Agate Harbor with 3 bays with water between the fingers, just like Wild Bones said, as well as a nautical online map I'd checked the night before. At the last finger point of land I crossed through a narrow shallow channel which made the tip of the last peninsula an island in Lake Superior.

It was really pretty paddling through the peaceful tree-lined channel but as soon as I got to the other side the Lake came alive with 2ft swell crashing in along the red volcanic, rocky coastline. Lucky for me, I'm kind of a wave guy. I dream about them, study waves and watch videos of waves, I chase them, even catch waves to surf with my sea kayak. All it takes is one wave caught and you will spend the rest of your life seeking that thrill and bigger. But for expedition paddling like this, experience with waves really comes in handy because I can judge shorelines with ease to avoid the wrong kind of breaker in the wrong place as well as constantly adjust my hips and boat to the waveform and dance with the chaos rather than paddle through in shaky fear. I paddled on north to Copper Harbor, I kept watch on time and landmarks to find my way back and know what to paddle around and avoid as small bluffs and rock outcroppings dotted the shoreline. But as I paddled along feeling so very content I wondered to myself if there is really a way to spend the rest of my life doing this? And by this I mean find a way to always be the adventure and live your dreams on a daily basis. As the hours went by I gazed upon elevation in the distance rising like mountain silohuettes from the water.

Everything was fine, water conditions were pleasant and doable for the most part. I was loving my vagabond kayak life and feeling very content with myself when I paddle out a couple miles from shore as I headed north but looked behind me to see a very thick fog to approaching from the south. While I was getting within range of Copper Harbor I knew I had to turn back but I couldn't from this position. I had to make a very quick decision, like the ones we practice in rescue trainings, and stick with it. This moment happens to all kayakers and it's really the truest test. My snap decision: point my bow directly for shore and sprint back to get a read on the shore and keep my bearings and then paddle south for a maybe 4-6 nautical miles back to my beach. The thing I did not want to do is paddle out into the middle of Lake Superior in thick blinding fog. I headed back, short of my goal. The northern exploration would have to wait for another time and since I was not familiar with the coastline I knew zero visibilty through rock gardens and inescapable bluffs would be a challenge. I paddled as hard as I could and I'm a well-conditioned dude that can get a boat really movin' but the fog caught me and before I knew it my visibilty was instantly reduced to about 10 feet from the bow of my boat. I only had a mile to go before I heard the waves crashing and it was a relief once I got close and knew I'd gotten myself back to shore.

But I still had a long way to go in fog that cut my visibilty down to 10 feet in front of my bow. Once I got to the wavebreaks I used the sound of waves hitting the shoreline to help gauge my proximity to the shoreline and the sound was comforting. The thick fog made me feel like I was paddling with my eyes closed and dreaming. Such a surreal moment of my life but also metaphorical. This must be what it's like to paddle through a cloud I laughed to myself. I pointed my bow south. The limited visibility made the ride feel so much longer and it was not always easier tracking a straight course as every now and then a strong swell came in, sweeping the stern of my kayak along as I paddled non-stop. I tried not to focus on the destination that felt very far away but pay close attention to my immediate situation in my small radius and my paddling techinique with each sweeping wave. I knew had to stay close enough to shore to keep my bearings but not too close that I got hit with big, breaking waves against hidden rock gardens. One of the cool things about working as guide is that I meet people from all walks of life and I've met a few Service Men and Women over the years, I remember a Marine told me how they are trained to deal with pressure and use a simple formula of breathe, hydrate, move foreward to keep focus when things hit the fan. Sometimes that's all you can do in tough moments: focus. Be here now. And that's what I do and try to remember when I find myself in a jam on the water. At 38 degrees farenheit the consequences are real and stakes high if you value your life. I was now paddling blind with limited support.

Sea Kayaking has taught me to trust myself, my boat, my skills when things get tough. One of the things you learn as a good guide is to make pressure situations somehow enjoyable when conditions should not be enjoyed. Responding to challenges and attitude is everything in this life and sea kayaking. That and a robust sense of humor.

And so I paddled on through the fog, feeling amazed to be so alive at this very moment on the water and a bit scared at the same time. I try to do 2-3 things everyday that scare the *bleep* out of myself, not just one.

Nearly two hours later I found myself pulling into a croweded Esrey Park. I will admit I was so relieved to find the same beach I launched from earlier that day. An older couple was sitting at a picnic table on shore as I paddled up and looked at each other in disbelief as I stumbled to shore breathless from the foggy, wavy, ice cold waters dragging my 17ft long kayak. The old guy snapped a picture even but I didn't mind, he was jolly soul, told me about his chilhood visits this very park as I loaded my kayak and peeled off my gear. He was great conversation, another person stopped and gave me 3 blueberry muffins...they were awful but hey, the effort still counts. It was like the beauty of the Keewenaw had everyone stoned with kindness and happily chatting with strangers. After the old couple left it was just me on the beach feeling beat and satisfied, I cooked up a big, melty ham and cheese sandwhich and sat on the agate covered beach awash in the rough and tumble Lake Superior surf as suddenly, you guessed it... the sun came out and burned off the thickest fog I'd ever seen in my life as I happily devoured my hot food, hair still wet from the adventure and already scheming on the next.

- Kayak Guide Justin

Taking a break at Agate Bay
Taking a break at Agate Bay


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