Ray Boucher's idea of kayak surfing isn't tinged with salty spray or flattened by high tide. The Wawa, Ontario-based sea kayak instructor is among a growing contingent of whitewater and sea kayakers surfing the freshwater waves of Lake Superior and the rest of the Great Lakes. And now, come autumn, after the relatively calm days of summer, the Great Lakes are set to erupt in gales and walls of overhead breakers.
There's good reason Canadian folk artist Gordon Lightfoot sings about Lake Superior's autumnal gales in his epic ballad The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. After absorbing the heat of summer, Lake Superior's water temperature typically peaks in August or September and slows the movement of wind-generating low pressure systems across its sprawling 350-mile expanse. The result are strong, persistent winds and regular storms that can produce violent 30-foot waves, like the ones that pitchpoled and sunk the 729-foot Fitz in November 1975. What's more, these storms often envelop the entire Midwest region, producing equally towering seas on lakes Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario.
Boucher's favorite place to surf on Lake Superior is the mouth of the Michipicoten River, on the lake's northeastern Canadian shore, where river currents intersect deep-water swells to produce powerful breakers. "It's as close as you'll get to tidal race surfing on freshwater," says David Wells, the director of Naturally Superior Adventures, an outfitter based at Michipicoten River. This weekend, Wells is set to host the annual Surfing Superior Confluence, a three-day gathering of rough water kayakers (http://www.naturallysuperior.com/workshops-and-events/surfing-superior-confluence.html).
There are countless other places to surf on the Great Lakes. On the south shore of Lake Superior, the sweeping sand beaches of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore bear the brunt of northerly winds. Further west, the finger-shaped Keweenaw Peninsula offers good waves in multiple wind directions. Beaches on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan support healthy communities of surf kayakers, including Michigan-based paddler Keith Wikle, who regularly posts reports on his blog (http://gokayaknow.com/). This year, Wikle is hosting the first-ever South Haven Freshwater Surf Jam on October 16. There are also underground rough-water cliques on Lake Erie in Cleveland, Ohio, and at the Toronto-area beaches of Lake Ontario. And starting October 14, White Squall, a Canadian outfitter based on Lake Huron's Georgian Bay organizes its own four-day Storm Gathering (http://www.georgianbaystormgathering.com/).
- Conor Mihell
For animated Great Lakes wind and wave forecasts, click here.