Conor Mihell paddles out in historic surf on Lake Superior last week near Wawa, Ontario. Photo: Megan Gamble/naturallysuperior.com
The National Weather Service's Great Lakes coastal forecast website ranks high on the list of bookmarks for rough-water paddlers in the heart of the continent. When the lakes glow red and purple on the forecast, indicating waves in the 15- to 25-foot range, you can be sure that good kayak surfing is in the offing at the hundreds of sand beaches and river mouths scattered throughout the Third Coast. It seems like the lakes have been rougher than normal this late summer and fall, with NOAA predicting the season's first 20-footers on Labor Day weekend.
Surf season culminated last week when Canadian folk artist Gordon Lightfoot's iconic “Gales of November” came early. An intense low-pressure system brought gusty 60 mph winds to the north shore of Lake Superior on Tuesday and Wednesday (Oct. 26-27). The U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards promptly recommended that small-craft and lake-freighter mariners alike take shelter. And in the end the storm was the second-largest in Great Lakes history, with the barometer sinking to 28.23 inches of mercury. Meteorologists called it a "weather bomb"—the equivalent of a Category 3 hurricane and significantly larger than the 1975 November gale that sank the 729-foot Edmund Fitzgerald.
Naturally, the wild forecast was like a siren's call for the region's kayak- and board-surfers. I got the call from my surf buddy Ray Boucher, a sea kayak guide on Lake Superior who lives in the town of Wawa, Ontario, and I drove north to Michipicoten Bay on Wednesday. The next morning we took to the water. The wind dropped off, leaving a powerful 10-foot break, and creating exciting (and often overwhelming) conditions for surfing 16-foot sea kayaks. Exhausted by day's end, our energy was buoyed by spectacular late-day sunshine that made the waves a cold and sparkling, freshwater blue.
Post-surf at a greasy diner, Boucher summed it up this way: "The waves were smooth and green, higher, steeper and faster than usual," he said. "Rides were short and fast, ending in survival-mode enders and side-surfs in the huge foam piles. It was epic." — Conor Mihell