Kayaks are one of the best ways to explore caves along the Lake Superior shoreline.
Thrilling, accessible, family fun – but be prepared.
Joanne M. Haas
Kayakers have discovered Wisconsin's jamming water playground of 15,000-plus lakes separated by more than 12,600 rivers and streams meandering through some of the nation's most stunning terrain – punctuated with some mighty spectacular public parks.
"Wisconsin has so much variety in the sort of water you can paddle," says Darren Bush, the "chief paddling evangelist" and owner of Rutabaga, the Madison-based business dedicated to outdoor sports and recreation. "From the tiny little streams of southwestern Wisconsin to Lake Superior to the scenic rivers like the Namekagon and Bois Brule and on to the sandy-bottomed Lower Wisconsin. Don't forget the Door County Peninsula – a kayaker's paradise. It's all here."
It is nearly impossible to say exactly how many kayakers use Wisconsin lakes or how many Wisconsin citizens are kayakers who use Wisconsin lakes. One big reason is Wisconsin does not have mandatory registration of these watercraft. However, there are some numbers out there to show how the sport is exploding.
The nonprofit Outdoor Foundation in April reported kayaking was among the adventure sports that enjoyed a nationwide increase in 2010 from participation levels in 2009. The foundation's 2011 Outdoor Recreation Participation Top-Line Report shows kayaking for all participants age 6 and older increased 34.6 percent – that's 473,000 kayakers.
Roughly 10 million nationwide enjoy kayaking out of the nearly 138 million Americans ages 6 and older who enjoy at least one outdoor activity. That's 10.1 billion outings and, according to the Washington, D.C.-based foundation's 2011 report, kayaking is among those sports that showed "significant increases" in the last year or so.
Need proof? Drive anywhere in Wisconsin during the open water months. Seeing a kayak tied to a car roof is about as common as seeing the family's bikes secured to the rear bumper. Kayaking is one popular mainstream sport.
Makes you want to just grab any kayak, slide those hips in and join in the paddling fun, right? And that's the problem when something so accessible and fun attracts a lot of new participants. The good news is, it is an easily solved problem. The bad news is, if left unchecked, it can become a deadly problem.
Some kayakers are a bit too excited to get started. Sure, it looks easy enough to do, but there is a knowledge base and skill set all kayakers need.
Enter DNR Conservation Warden Supervisor Dave Oginski of Ashland and Bush, the owner of one of the best-known paddling shops around and the main force behind Canoecopia – the "world's largest paddling exposition" held in Madison every March.
Interested in joining the nationwide community of kayakers? Maybe you consider yourself an intermediate kayaker who, as Bush says, is a beginner with an attitude. Or, perhaps you've been kayaking and call yourself a veteran paddler. Whatever the case, read on for valuable advice from these two experts. Each man approaches kayaking from a different angle. Both are passionate about the sport and about keeping it safe and fun for all.
Lake Superior – Wisconsin's toughest paddling
Days after a kayaker died when a group paddle was ambushed by the unpredictable waves of moody Lake Superior, a concerned paddler called the Department of Natural Resources with this sobering soliloquy: "It seems like Lake Superior is where kayakers go to die."
Warden Oginski, a kayaker himself who enjoys Lake Superior paddles, knew exactly what the caller meant. He understood it as a kayaker – and as a law enforcement officer who has responded to boaters in distress or worse.
"Lake Superior is beautiful. Our shorelines and sea caves are awe-inspiring," he says of the national scenic route that includes the Apostle Islands – a popular site for the increasingly popular sport. "The islands are uninhabited. This is wilderness at its best. You can launch anywhere. It is inexpensive and it is a great thing to do."
Lake Superior offers exciting and exhilarating boating – no doubt about it. However, for the unprepared paddler, it can turn deadly and unmanageable for even the most experienced paddler in a matter of seconds. Still, Oginski says Lake Superior's reputation with some as the watery grave for kayakers doesn't have to be. But it will require preparation before tying the new kayak to the car roof and heading for the great lake.
"People develop some very good kayaking skills in other lakes and rivers. And they are confident in their abilities. But, it is a whole different world to tackle Lake Superior. You need to think about Lake Superior's environment – it's different!" Oginski says. "I don't know how to overemphasize this – you must respect the lake. The locals respect the lake. They understand how quickly the lake can change."
Ever wonder why it's uncommon to see a local resident fishing or boating at night, or even leaving their boats on the lake after sunset? "They know how Lake Superior creates its own weather – a single storm splits into two, or one forms right on the water."
And the sad thing for Oginski, he suspects the pre-paddle steps that could avoid a tragedy may not be on the radar of kayakers drawn to the internationally known lake.
The Lake Superior wake-up call
The case of a June kayaker fatality that prompted the call was eerily similar to an October 2010 fatality – same beach launch site, good equipment, experienced paddlers.
Here's the wake-up call: the best equipment and hours of kayaking experience on rivers and inland lakes don't matter much when it comes to launching into Lake Superior – a stunningly beautiful lake that can unleash squalls without warning, fueling winds approaching 50 miles per hour with 6- to 12-foot seas.
"Even with the best training, many people should not be trying to tackle kayaking the sea caves or the distant islands. You can keep it close to shore or in the bay and still have a great time," says Oginski, a longtime canoeist who added kayaking on Lake Superior when he assumed his warden supervisor post in 2007. "And my hunch is a lot of the kayakers are not as knowledgeable about the Lake Superior environment as they should be."
Oginski practices the steps and mindset he believes a kayaker should adopt as the routine preparation when planning a fun paddle in Lake Superior. (See Oginski's kayaking trip tips on page 10.)
He strongly urges the kayakers coming to Lake Superior to visit the National Park Service Apostle Islands office to talk with the rangers about conditions and grab a water map. Other options would be to check in with the local marinas and bait shops as well as some reliable weather websites.
"Even on the best days on Lake Superior the wind can switch. And if the forecast is for a wind switch, you need to be able to place yourself accordingly to be able to handle it," Oginski says. "It is so critical. It is life-threatening when you have a wind. Sometimes the wind forecast isn't exactly what you see. The waves could come from the tankers. You might be in your kayak and wonder, 'Where did these huge rollers come from?'"
Oginski enjoys the exercise and viewing the lake from the seat in his kayak. But it's all about safe outdoor fun. "I won't ever put myself in a situation where I put my life at risk."
And that may be the best advice of all.
Kayaking is paddling with the water
In 1990 Darren Bush went from being a dutiful state employee to a guy in pursuit of his passions. That meant working his way up from earning five bucks an hour selling canoes and kayaks evenings and weekends to becoming the outright owner of the independent family-owned Rutabaga Paddlesports several years ago.
"The line between work and life is pretty blurry if it exists at all," Bush says.
In addition to the mountain of retailer awards from various national outdoor magazines, Rutabaga also offers the Rutabaga Outdoor Programs – the largest flatwater paddling school nationwide with classes for all ages. Bush also has served on the Board of Directors of the American Canoe Association, the Professional Paddlesports Association and the Outdoor Industry Association Board.
Walk into Rutabaga on Madison's south side and, if you can find your way around the canoes, kayaks and every type of outdoor gear imaginable, you'll likely find Bush delivering a watersports primer of sorts to a customer.
"I love being out on the water in a kayak that fits me. It's like an extension of my body," Bush says. "After a while you begin to lose the distinction between where your body ends and your boat begins, sort of an aquatic centaur. You can really feel a connection to the water when you are so close to it.
"It's overly simplistic, but the way I put it is that you paddle on the water in a canoe... but you paddle with the water in a kayak."
Just like the rest of the country, Bush's business has seen an increase in kayak sales.
"The increase in sales in kayaks has been in the double digits every year for a decade," Bush says. "It has become a mainstream activity, not an extreme sport. That's easy to see when you consider the appearance of kayaking in mainstream advertising. It's considered normal."
How to pick your kayak
Twenty years ago there were two kinds of boats – the sea kayaks and whitewater boats. "As manufacturers realized that a middle ground was needed, the sport really took off," Bush says.
Those changes have led to a wide variety in materials, weights and prices.
"The most important factors in selecting a kayak concern the ability to lift it up. If you can't lift it, you won't use it," Bush says, adding the kayak also must be comfortable and fit your body. "Or, you won't last very long."
The first recreational kayaks were between 12 and 14 feet long and pretty Spartan," Bush says. "But that's where the growth is and manufacturers responded with very nice features that are comparable to larger, more expensive boats.
"Customers don't see a problem paying a few hundred dollars more for a seat that won't put their legs to sleep after half an hour," he says.
Bush says his customers include canoeists who also kayak, but the majority of his kayak customers are new to the sport. "We see groups of women who want to do something together, families, and folks who already cross-country ski or cycle and want to add kayaking to their repertoire."
Every kayak buyer at Rutabaga gets asked these kinds of questions:
Based upon the answers, Bush and his staff work to match the appropriate kayak with the paddler. "The seat comfort is way more important than subtleties in hull design," he says. "You can't realize the benefits of a design if you can't stand the seatback."
A little instruction goes a long way
Commandment number one from Bush: get instruction. "It's the best way to learn quickly some of the basics – and do it before you develop bad habits."
And instruction will rapidly increase your comfort in the kayak.
As far as places to paddle, Bush says it is up to the paddler but he suggests going where you plan to paddle the most to build those vital skills.
"That said, the bigger and swifter the water, the more you need instruction AND guidance," Bush says. "Practicing whitewater paddling in a slow river will not prepare you for a swifter current. Practicing self-rescue in a swimming pool will not prepare you for rescuing yourself in wind and waves."
There are several kayak symposia in the Midwest designed for beginners and novices to expert paddlers. It's a great way to get a jump on a skill set that might take you a year or two to develop on your own. Rutabaga presents the Door County Sea Kayak Symposium every July that is designed for beginners through intermediate paddlers, though there are a few advanced classes as well. The beginner classes, he says, are the most fun to teach.
Paddling is my passion. My wife once asked me what I'd do if I couldn't paddle anymore. I told her I'd keep teaching, because that would continue to increase the number of people learning to love the water."
Joanne M. Haas is the public affairs manager for DNR's Division of Enforcement and Science.