Fall Storm photo: Lost Lakes youtube video
Lake Superior is a place of extremes. Its volume would cover all of North and South America in a foot of water. Underwater visibility is 100 feet in places. Its storms are legendary and waves of over 30 feet have been recorded. The Edmund Fitzgerald was a 700 foot long “unsinkable” iron ore freighter that broke in two and sank in a November 1975 gale. According to Gordon Lightfoot’s famous song “the lake it is said, never gives up her dead”. This is actually true as the water at the bottom is too cold for bacteria to produce the gasses that would usually bloat a corpse and cause it to float.
Lake Superior can be oceanic. There is often swell that might not line up with the wind direction. The complexity of the waves resembles the ocean not a lake. A typical 20 mph wind running down the north shore will produce 4-6 foot waves. As wind approaches 30 mph 8-10 foot and larger waves predominate. A strong NE storm can produce 10-15 foot swell waves that are extremely fast and hard to catch. There are days, such as those with near gale force winds, that are simply too dangerous to paddle.
Tim Traynor: “The most spectacular routes finish in Duluth, surfing through the shipping canal and under the iconic lift bridge into the inner harbor. This requires a cautious approach as the entrance to the canal is between two long jetties and it is easy to miss the opening. Point to point downwinding on the north shore requires a NE or SW wind. Between Two Harbors and Duluth the coastline is rocky with some cliffs that get pounded by swell, and there are only a few safe launch points. Stoney Point is between Two Harbors and McQuade Harbor - 9.5 miles from Two Harbors and 6 miles from McQuade.”
Zach Handler: “Today waves are supposed to be 13’ on that run with 30mph winds all day…. I do it (this run) just a couple times a year as the 3.5 hr drive makes for a long day. When conditions are good enough to make it worth the drive it is usually fog and rain, and as soon as the waves kick up the water is 42 degrees. And there are only a few safe spots to land in the 16 mile run (Ed.: there are only a few good landings on the whole stretch between Two Harbors and the Duluth Lift Bridge); otherwise its all cliffs and boulders. When I am out there on big cold days I feel so isolated that I might as well be on the back side of the moon. It is really fun run but kind of sketch. When I finally get through the canal under the lift bridge at the end it kind of feels like I cheated death. I bet Tim (Traynor) does not get that feeling any more.”
Tim Traynor: (describing a gale warning Knife River to McQuade 2022 downwinder (video)) “The first limitation on the North Shore of Lake Superior is the limited launch and landing sites. Rocks and break walls are not forgiving. Add to this the fact that the the head of the Lake at Duluth gets highly confused and haystacky, especially entering and within the ship canal. The second consideration is of course conditions in open water, but at least you won’t be crashed on rocks or walls out there. By far the best place of launching and landing is Two Harbors but there are limited launch and landing sites up or down shore from there. I elected not to go into Duluth yesterday as I knew it would be getting very large. One of my main concerns there is getting dumped with people watching that may not understand and call a rescue, this has happened to me before elsewhere up the shore. So the bottom line is being able to get in and out reasonably. Launching at Knife River was still manageable but McQuade was starting to get sketchy when we finished. Yesterday was surprisingly messy, possibly due to a more northerly local wind and more easterly up the Lake? We had large waves coming from 2 directions which caused all sorts of havoc.”
Northshore Launch google map screenshots - click to enlarge
knife river marina, beach and island
Safety is a constant concern on Lake Superior. Be prepared for water temps in the 40s F (4-10 degrees Celsius)(cold water safety). In the summer an onshore breeze can push 65° F (18° C) surface water up to the shore and make swimming pleasant, but the next day if the wind changes the water will be 42° F (5.5° C) again. On stormy days fog and rain can destroy visibility, and GPS navigation may be needed to get in safely. There is Coast Guard support on the lake and on at least one occasion they have rescued a surfskier. DNR trip planning advice somewhat slanted toward sea kayaks but much of the advice is applicable for surfski trips.
Lake Superior Ice