Kayak To Go

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.

Molly pumping her kayak

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.

Molly's first time in the kayak
Molly kayaking McQuade Harbor

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.

Kayak folded in case

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.

Molly kayaking Lake Superior

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.

Kayaking shore by London Road

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.

Kayaking by 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.

Highrises on the shore

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.

My kayak at Lester River

Breaking Routine

We own a wonderful cabin nestled in the north woods facing a pristine lake.  A pontoon boat awaits, as do multiple kayaks, a fire ring and a sauna.  Inside a stone fireplace begs for a blazing fire.  So what are we doing renting a lake home?

Having put all our bike touring, lighthouse keeping and travel on hold for the foreseeable future, Rich and I decided we deserved a vacation.  A real getaway, on a different lake, in a dwelling with more space and amenities (including heat that doesn’t involve stoking a wood stove in the middle of the night), and new territory to explore.

New is the key word here.  A place with no expectations.  No chores.  No established routines.  Only possibilities.  Wonderful options.  The outdoors awaits, and I just know the indoors will delight.

Lakehome at Gunflint Pines

I pack all my notes for the pile of magazine stories I’ve promised to write.  But before the first night falls I set them aside, out of sight.  My head hits the pillow without setting an alarm.  I’ve already dismissed the idea of an early morning run or bike ride, kiboshing my daily ritual.  I’m off to a good start.

Our home for the week is on the edge of Gunflint Lake.  We came loaded with bikes, kayak, and hiking shoes.  I set about putting them all to good use.

Mornings on the large lake are my favorite.  Launching the kayak into the tranquil water I cling to the shore, exploring the deep rocky lake, peering into the woods to catch glimpses of cabins and lake homes.  Smoke from the forest fires out west reach us early in the week and creates eerie reflections, but can’t spoil my reverie.

Smokey sunrise by kayak

Strong winds keep me off the lake for a day, but in their wake the deep blue of the sky returns.  The air borders on freezing and the lake gives up her warmth.

Kayaking with lake mist Kayaking Gunflint Lake

The hills behind us are criss-crossed with hiking trails and I set out to conquer them all.  In the resort office I pick up a hand-drawn map, and get pointers on where the best overlooks are.  I can’t resist labels like Lost Cliff and High Cliff, which live up to their names.High Cliff over Gunflint Lake 1High Cliff over Gunflint Lake 2
High Cliff over Gunflint Lake 3

Rich and I set out to hike to Magnetic Rock.  It’s not a long walk, and I don’t know much more than that this rock has magnetic qualities.  I was not prepared for its sheer size.
Molly at Magnetic Rock

Fall colors grow more vivid by the day.  Yellows punctuated by brilliant gems of red illuminate the trail.

Rich hiking Magnetic Rock Trail Magnetic Rock Trail 1

I’m so busy watching where I step – over tree roots and around rocks – that my eye is easily drawn to nature’s minutia beside my feet.
Magnetic Rock Trail 2 Magnetic Rock Trail 3

Traffic on the Gunflint Trail tapers off beyond Gunflint Lake.  So I set out on my bike for the end of the trail – literally.Molly end of Gunflint Trail

Nightfall lures me back to the lake where I can hear the waves gently lapping while warming myself by a crackling fire.  Rich joins me and we sit, mesmerized by the dancing flames. 
Gunflint Lake Campsite

Five days of finding new things to do, seeing new sights, lingering over views, staring into fires.  None of it resembles my daily routine.

Kayakers – Courageous or Crazy?

It was just about a year ago that by coincidence we saw a group of kayakers shooting the waterfall on Amity Creek just across from our house.  It was a thrill to watch what we considered to be a group of dare devil kayakers.  Little did we know that there was an organized kayak race on its sister waterway, Lester River.

With its flow swollen by the spring runoff, Lester River becomes a roaring torrent for a finite period of time.  The near-record breaking snowfalls the last two winters boosted its rapids to a Class V rating on the International Scale of River Difficulty.  Wikipedia describes it as whitewater, large waves, continuous rapids, large rocks and hazards, maybe a large drop, precise maneuvering.  It is designated for “expert skill level.”  A natural draw for kayakers looking for a challenge.

IMG_3846This was the second year for the Lester River Race, and I eagerly made the short walk over to join friends to watch.  Race organizers had graciously marked paths from Lester River Road to the best viewing spots, and soon I was seated on a huge boulder looking straight across at a boiling waterfall.  Although it was only 40 degrees, the sun was warm and the hillsides, rocks and riverbanks were speckled with people assembled to watch the race.

IMG_3893 trimmedSpectating was a wait-and-see activity, watching the water seemingly for ages then finally spotting a kayaker at the top of the falls.  In a whoosh and a splash, over he’d go amidst roiling white water and bob up in the circular flow down below.  I snapped pictures as best I could, using the continuous shooting mode on my camera.  What I found most IMG_3894 trimmedentertaining after the fact was being able to see the expressions on the kayakers faces as they advanced down the falls!  Click on the photos to enlarge, and see for yourself.

One kayak made an appearance without its owner.  We wondered how far upstream he had capsized.  With an abundance of spotters and safety personnel along the course, we assumed he had been successfully rescued. IMG_3897 trimmed

The race was run in two heats, so we decided to try a different vantage point for the second set of competitors.  Moving upstream, we found long stretches of rapids, midstream boulders, low overhanging branches and other IMG_3959 trimmedobstacles.  There we were able to see the kayakers navigate seemingly unpassable waters.  And somehow they managed to make it look easy.

It was a great afternoon’s entertainment.  I wouldn’t dream of attempting it, but had a lot of fun watching those who did.  And I haven’t figured out if they are courageous or crazy.

 

 

 

Shooting The Deeps

Timing is everything.  We had just returned home from a trip to the Cities, and before we even finished unpacking we decided to go over to The Deeps on Amity Creek.  We could hear the roar of the water rushing over the falls and rapids due to the spring run-off, and wanted to see it for ourselves.  So we grabbed our cameras and headed over to the creek.

As we got to the end of our driveway, several vehicles passed us carrying multiple kayaks each.  Since the road is closed just above the first bridge of Seven Bridges Road, it could only mean one thing – they were going to kayak on the creek at The Deeps.  Really?  Are they actually planning to go over the falls?  Amazing!  Our pace quickened and we hastened over to the falls.  We passed a number of kayakers walking down from the parking lot. They were checking out the lay of the creek and the volume of the water before committing to kayaking on it.  But in short order, they’d made their decision and were unpacking their gear.  Wow – we couldn’t wait to witness this spectacle!

Sure enough, one at a time they put in just above the footbridge by The Deeps.  They knew what they were doing, sporting helmets and other protective gear, and there were spotters positioned all along the route for safety purposes.  Still, you could never have talked us into doing it!  Shortly after scooting the kayak into the water, they were paddling through the rushing water and heading for the bridge.  They expertly navigated through the boulder-strewn waters and then whoosh!  Over the falls they went!

IMG_0679

IMG_0674

We each positioned ourselves at spots across from the falls where we tried taking pictures – a tricky proposition in itself.  (Yet nothing in comparison to what those kayakers were doing!)  But eventually the desire to see the action up close drew both Rich and me back to the bridge where we could see it all take place from beginning to heart-stopping end.

IMG_0690After a number of guys had gone down, one of the women worked up her courage and followed suit.  She’s the one in the blue kayak with an orange jacket.  After successfully making it to the bottom, her kayak flipped, and it took several tries to right it.  I just couldn’t imagine being submerged in those icy waters.  Her finish drew cheers from all her IMG_0693comrades, particularly the other women.

Rich took videos of the action. Here is the best one: Kayaking Video

What a thrill to watch!  It was such a surprise adventure.  We had no idea when we set out to shoot pictures of the falls that it was kayakers who would be doing the shooting at The Deeps.