Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of kayakers by sea caves © Robert Queen

Kayaks are one of the best ways to explore caves along the Lake Superior shoreline.
© Robert Queen

February 2012

Kayak Wisconsin

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.

Photo of kayaker in Lake Michigan 'surf' © Dean Kramasz
Kayakers love to paddle when "the surf's up" in Sheboygan on Lake Michigan.
© Dean Kramasz

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:

  • Where do you see yourself paddling? Rivers, lakes, ponds?
  • How much gear do you plan on taking with you? Enough for a day trip, overnight, a longer trip?
  • No kayak can do everything, so would you rather have a kayak that's more stable and slower, or more efficient and a little less stable?
  • Do you want a kayak that goes straight as an arrow, maneuvers like a sports car, or somewhere in between?
  • How important is the weight of the kayak? Are you putting it on top of your car? On a trailer? Leaving it at your cottage on the lake?

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.

A maze of channels and backwaters await

Go west: Lower St. Croix, Lower Wisconsin State Riverway

Sure, Lake Superior is living large in a kayak. But how about launching into one of the state’s 12,600 rivers and streams? Try the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway and the Lower St. Croix River for starters.

But, just like with Lake Superior, you have to do a bit of homework. Lucky for you, there are two DNR wardens who have done it for you: Conservation Warden Martin Stone at the Lower Wisconsin River and Conservation Warden Supervisor David Hausman stationed at the St. Croix River.

The Lower Wisconsin State Riverway: South of the Prairie du Sac dam

The Lower Wisconsin State Riverway : South of the Prairie du Sac Dam The Lower Wisconsin State Riverway is appealing for those looking to try out their sea and recreational kayaks. But, Stone says, don’t leave the canoes behind for what Stone calls the 92.3 "unimpeded miles" of riverway from the Prairie du Sac dam in Sauk County to where it meets the Mississippi River near Wyalusing State Park in Grant County.

"It contains a maze of channels and backwater areas for sea kayaks and recreational type kayaks," Stone says. "But kayakers need to be aware of conditions in these areas, as well as special regulations pertaining to the Lower Wisconsin River."

Here are Stone’s special reminders and tips:

  • A personal flotation device (a life jacket also called a PFD) is required for every person on board a boat, motorized and non-motorized;
  • The PFD must be a Type 1, 2 or 3 (meaning a wearable type, and not a seat cushion);
  • Must be U.S. Coast Guard approved; and
  • Be of the correct size for the intended wearer.
  • If you swim in the river, wearing your PFD is also recommended due to drop-offs and occasional swift currents.
  • Lighting is required sunset to sunrise. A light must be carried on non-motorized boats and shown in time to avoid collisions.
  • A special riverway law requires a waterproof container for trash in every boat/canoe and glass containers are prohibited within the riverway.
  • Camping along the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway is available on islands and sandbars, two state parks, and several private and municipal campgrounds.

The Lower St. Croix River: North of Stillwater, Minn.

"The Lower St. Croix River appeals to many to try out their sea kayaks," Hausman says. "The lower end of this national scenic riverway contains large open waters suitable for sea kayaks."

But, Hausman says, kayakers should note the following:

  • The lower portion from north of Stillwater, Minn., to the confluence with the Mississippi River. This area appeals to large power boats, so stick to shorelines. If possible, go out in early mornings or on weekdays because weekend traffic can be heavy.
  • Be prepared to deal with rough conditions due to boat wakes.
  • Learn how to re-enter your boat if you capsize in rough water.
  • Wear bright visible clothing and personal flotation devices (PFDs) so power boaters can spot you.
  • Be aware of strong currents at narrow channels and bridges.
  • Pick your area; the St. Croix River north of Stillwater and the Wis. Hwy. 64 bridge is quieter and more scenic.
  • If you are camping, plan ahead. Most beaches are privately owned, but camping is available in some areas. The National Park Service requires a camping permit on properties they manage.
Hypothermia: Outsmart a quick killer

Hypothermia is one of the greatest dangers for kayakers – and anyone who enjoys being out on the water. Usually considered a coldwater or cold-weather threat, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary says the serious life-threatening condition can happen in water as warm as 80 degrees. Kayakers need to learn about hypothermia and how to keep it at bay.


The condition occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it. This is a medical emergency. The Mayo Clinic defines hypothermia as occurring as your body temperature passes below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

  • Causes: Common causes for kayakers are exposure to cold weather or immersion into cold water.
  • Symptoms: Shivering is one of the first signs as it is your body’s attempt to warm itself. Constant shivering is a sign of hypothermia. As the body continues to cool, the symptoms intensify gradually and often without the victim realizing it.
  • Timeline of hypothermia: As the U.S. Coast Guard says, if you can’t get out in 5 to 15 minutes, you might not get out on your own power. Here is their timeline of symptoms:
  • 0-2 minutes after sudden immersion: Cold shock response that includes hyperventilating, rapid heart beat, increased blood pressure and gasp reflex.
  • 2–30 minutes: Functional disability. This can include constant shivering, slurred speech, mumbling, confusion, drowsiness, very low energy, apathy, poor decision-making, shallow breathing, weak pulse and progressive loss of consciousness.
  • 30 minutes and longer: Hypothermia cools body to the state of unconsciousness.
  • If your head goes under, drowning occurs in 30 to 120 minutes.
  • If your head remains above water, cardiac arrest and death occurs in 90 to 180 minutes or more depending upon water temperature, body size and more specific factors.

Prevent hypothermia

Here are tips from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary:

  • Dress for possible immersion.
  • Wear your personal flotation device – known as a PFD.
  • Fuel up. Eat healthy foods such as nuts so you have the energy to react to the situation.
  • Do not drink alcoholic beverages prior to or during your paddle. In addition to the impaired judgment you will have, alcohol makes blood vessels dilate and lose heat even faster.

What to do in an emergency

More tips from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary:

  • If you can't get to shore or back in your kayak, DO NOT SWIM as you will lose body heat even faster. Floating in your PFD is your best bet.
  • In 70-degree water, you can survive for about 18 hours while floating with a PFD.
  • In 70-degree water, you can survive for about 13 hours treading water.
  • In 70-degree water, your survival rate is about 10 hours swimming.
  • In 55-degree water, the survival window is 3.5 hours floating in a PFD, three hours treading water and two hours swimming.
  • In 35-degree water, the survival window is less than two hours floating in a PFD, one hour and 25 minutes treading water and about 45 minutes swimming.
  • If you are wearing a PFD, bring your knees to your chest to try to contain body heat. If you are with others, huddle together to save heat. If you are wearing a Type 3 life vest, do not draw up your knees. Instead, keep your legs together and arms at your side while leaning back to keep your face out of the water.
  • Keep your head above water.
  • Get medical care as quickly as possible once you are out of the water.

Get informed, be prepared, and you can enjoy every paddle.

Oginski's kayaking trip tips: They're life-savers

Conservation Warden Supervisor Dave Oginski offers tips and websites to make your kayaking trip to Lake Superior one you’ll recall for a long time.

  • Use the right kayak and get a bold color: There are different types for swift water, inland lakes and big water. Go to a reputable outfitter and work with a knowledgeable salesperson. Purchase or rent a kayak that will be easy to spot on the water. There will be other watercraft and kayaks low in the water, making them harder to spot.
  • Take a course: You'll learn stroke and rescue techniques, as well as other cool stuff about the sport. Ask a reputable outfitter in your area or check out the list of websites below. Also, consider an introductory, four-hour course, Paddlesports America, which has been approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and is the official course for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. Then, practice what you've learned again and again.
  • Practice life-saving skills: The biggest fear in kayaking is flipping over. Master the skills to get yourself back up, pump out the kayak or help a buddy out of an emergency situation. Practice in a shallow area or even a pool.
  • Kayak skirt will not save you: The kayak skirt is made to prevent water from entering your craft but it's not fail-safe in turbulent seas. It offers limited protection.
  • Paddle with buddies: You're safer and it's more fun. Tell someone your trip plan so they can contact help if you fail to report.
  • Wear a colorful life vest: There are comfortable personal flotation vests made specifically for paddlers. Do not paddle without wearing one. And go for a bright color or bright pattern that will make you easier to see while on the water – red and yellow are good choices.
  • Your trip gear bag items: Take a dry bag and pack smart. Here are some valuable items: a cell phone, dry clothes in the event you do get wet and need to stay warm, a hand pump should you flip and need to empty the craft, water shoes, and a compass or GPS so you know where you are. Lake Superior is known for fog. Another valuable item is a portable marine radio, known to have saved a few kayakers' lives. Other good items to include: towline, waterproof matches, food and water, an extra paddle, first-aid and repair kits, signaling device (flare kit), whistle and maps. Wear a hat and sunscreen.
  • Wet suit or dry suit: Pack one. Lake Superior stays chilly, making the chances of hypothermia great. Again, talk with a reputable outfitter.
  • Register your kayak: It is mandatory in Minnesota but voluntary in Wisconsin. Chances of you getting your kayak back should it be lost are better if those who find your kayak can find you.
  • Valuable websites:
  • For wind and weather: Lake Superior Surface Wind Forecast Guidance and National Weather Service – Lake Superior
  • National Park Service – Apostle Islands – Kayaking
  • Bayfield Chamber of Commerce: Bayfield Chamber of Commerce
  • Where-to-go pages showing state-by-state kayak clubs, schools and training centers: Kayak Online
  • National Association of State Boating Law Administrators
  • The American Red Cross can teach you CPR, swimming, lifesaving and more.
  • U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary – Boating Safety Education