It’s not easy being small. I can’t reach half the shelves in my kitchen, and even carrying my toddler grandchildren can prove a challenge. So the idea of hoisting a kayak overhead to perch in a rack on top of my car is a non-starter. Which is a problem.
In my old age I have decided I need more independence. Perhaps it’s COVID, prompting me to find ways to enjoy outdoor recreation on my own, without relying on anyone else to make it happen. My activity of choice is kayaking, which is fine if I’m at the cabin, content to drag our weighty boat down to the dock and plunk it in the lake. But what about further exploration? New lakes to discover, shorelines to cruise, rivers to reconnoiter. There has to be a way.
With a little searching, I learn that there are two options: an “origami” folding kayak and an inflatable kayak. The first offers lightweight, high performance vessels with a hefty price tag. Not my bag. The second has a wide range of choices, from an oversized floatie to tough white-water models. I focus my research on something in the middle and soon zero in on Advanced Elements kayaks. Offering high quality inflatable materials with a strong fabric covering is a good start, but they also feature built-in aluminum ribs in the bow and stern to provide tracking that rivals a hard-shell kayak. It doesn’t take long to narrow my selection down to the AdvancedFrame Sport Kayak. At 10’5″ in length and a mere 26 pounds that packs into a carrying case that is 30″ x 17″ x 8″ I know I’ve found my kayak. The next model up has a few more bells and whistles, but packs another 10 pounds. This time it pays to be small – the sport version is enough for me.
But what about set-up and take-down? Will I spend all day on the shore just getting the thing ready for my adventure? A few YouTube videos calm my fears – it looks to be pretty slick. I press Add to Cart, throw in a double-action hand pump and wait for it to arrive.
My timing is not ideal. Early November is not the best season in the far north to venture out in a kayak. Especially when the nearest body of water is the largest of our Great Lakes, and extremely cold. But the weather gods look upon me with favor.
As the sun begins its descent on a clear afternoon in the 60s, I take my new kayak up to McQuade Harbor for its maiden voyage. A short trial run. As advertised, the kayak unfolds easily and I make quick work of pumping it up. About two minutes to fill the main chamber, followed by another minute for the floor. Half a pump inflates each of the deck risers and I’m good to go! In total, less than 15 minutes from the back of my car to water readiness.
I’m delighted to find low docks in the safe harbor where I can slip my kayak into the water and ease myself into the cockpit. It takes only a few swift strokes with my paddle and I already know that it feels like a “real” kayak. Even when I venture outside the breakwaters into the Big Lake, the boat takes the mild waves well and tracks nicely along the shoreline. It feels good.
Deflating the kayak proves to be equally easy. And it folds into its case with room to spare. I’m impressed with any manufacturer that understands that at the end of my excursion I’m not interested in fighting with my kayak to wrangle it into a tight space.
Two days hence, flat water and warm sunshine beckon. I won’t get another chance this year, so I tote my kayak down to the mouth of Lester River. No dock this time, only a rock beach so I gingerly float my kayak in the shallow water, wade out and climb in. I find I don’t need more than a few inches to clear the rocks and soon I’m skimming across the calm water.
I’ve been waiting years for this moment. I grew up in this fine city of Duluth, always admiring the houses on London Road with prime real estate on Lake Superior. Ten years ago we moved back here, and I’ve been dying to see what those houses look like from the water. Today I’m going to find out.
Houses are mirrored in the calm water as I cruise by. Even within a short distance, I find a huge variation in the backyard shoreline. Some homes boast lawns that slope gently down to an accessible pebble beach – definitely among the elite minority of landscapes. More often the yards meet a steep drop at the water’s edge. Some cliffs defy access, leaving homeowners with a splendid view but the inability to touch the water that laps or pummels their shore. In between are a myriad of inventive approaches. Ancient walls of stone, brand new cement retaining walls, enormous boulders holding back the lake’s fury – all in desperation to hang on to the land that the lake would like to claim. Where a bit of beach lies at the base of the cliff, homeowners exhibit great ingenuity with ladders, steps and guardrails to guide them down.
I’m fascinated by the rear view of the homes. Windows stretch across wide expanses, decks stretch across, stories climb high, all to take in the lake’s beauty. Old gazebos and small bath houses occasionally populate the shore, echoes of the golden days in which they were erected. And I paddle past the granddam of estates, Glensheen Mansion.
Homes give way to high-rises, as the senior care center and apartments loom above the waters. My arms begin to tire, I feel a twinge in my elbow and my legs tell me they have been static for too long. But still I press on. I pass the expanse of ledge rock I scrambled over this summer, pursuing my grandchildren who are far more nimble than I.
The Aerial Lift Bridge taunts me from afar. In my dreams I would journey down to the stately structure and ply the waters between the piers to pass under the roadway. But I will leave that for another day. Turning my fine craft around, I retrace my route and examine the homes once again, from modest to grand standing shoulder to shoulder on this Big Lake.
Having dipped my paddle into the world of exploring new waters, I sense it is only the beginning. I beach my kayak knowing we will make a great combo. Me and my kayak to go.