Superior Kayaking in Minnesota

Steve Fagin paddles through a cave Aug. 20 on Lake Superior at Minnesota's Tettegouche State Park.

Over the years I’ve heard many sounds while kayaking – roaring rapids, crashing waves, rumbling thunder, whistling wind, pelting rain, quacking ducks, barking seals, crying loons, splashing whales, screeching eagles – but last week was a first: calling human voices, from high overhead.

“Climbing! … Climb on! … On belay! …”

Dangling about 100 feet from ropes anchored atop Shovel Point on Minnesota’s Lake Superior, a group of rock climbers slowly lowered to the water directly in front of my wife, Lisa, our son, Tom and me. Not far away at Palisade Head more climbers belayed down sheer cliffs and scrambled back up.

Welcome to Tettegouche State Park on Lake Superior’s North Shore, about midway between Duluth and the Canadian border – a 9,346-acre outdoor-lover’s paradise with 22 miles of hiking trails, 12 miles of cross-country ski trails, with access to pristine wilderness, tumbling waterfalls, the Sawtooth Mountains, and some of the best freshwater paddling on the planet. In addition, a section of the non-motorized recreational Gitchi-Gami State Trail leads to and from the park, which, when completed will link Two Harbors and Grand Marais.

Tettegouche is only one segment of a vast stretch of undeveloped public land along the North Shore, including the 3.9-million-acre Superior National Forest in the Arrowhead Region between Minnesota and Ontario. More than a quarter of the forest is designated as a wilderness reserve known as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Then there is the lake itself, which spreads over 31,700 square miles, about the size of South Carolina and 24 times larger than Long Island Sound.

Lisa and I spent the better part of a week in the tiny North Shore township of Tofte, where Tom has been a kayak guide this summer on Lake Superior and on some of the smaller nearby bodies of water where paddlers retreat when conditions get too rough on the world’s largest freshwater lake. Indeed, several days of our visit the wind and waves on Superior kicked up into seas that would have generated small-craft warnings on Long Island Sound, but during our afternoon paddling at Tettegouche we enjoyed a gentle breeze, sunny skies, balmy temperatures and smooth water.

The towering rhyolite bluffs at Palisade Head and Shovel Point, formed by light-colored volcanic rock more than a billion years ago, contrast with the blue-green basalt bedrock that lines much of the shoreline. The scouring of glaciers and wave action over the eons also created caves, arches and grottoes that we were able to paddle into and, in some cases, through.

“This is wild!” I exclaimed as we slipped into one cavern and emerged 50 feet later through a tunnel-like opening.

“Good thing the waves are down today,” Tom said, noting that Superior’s characteristic chop often make such maneuvers more challenging. He and Lisa paddled a tandem kayak while I went solo.

We also pulled ashore on a nearly deserted pebble beach. During several hours of paddling we saw only one canoe and a couple other kayaks near shore. Best of all, there were virtually no motorboats anywhere and not a single Jet Ski.

Because of its rocky, rugged shoreline there are few good places to launch any kind of vessel, and even at Tettegouche we had to lug our kayaks for several hundred yards up and over steep banks. Needless to say, the effort was worth it.

Tom and I also went out on a somewhat rougher day in Tofte and I began to understand why paddlers often head for smaller lakes.

In addition to refracting waves that bounce off cliffs and create confused seas, waves on Superior have a tendency to ride up tilted rocks along shore and slide back down, creating powerful cross-currents and eddies.

And then there are large rollers that gain considerable fetch over long uninterrupted stretches of open water.

It’s no wonder that Superior over the years has been the site of numerous shipwrecks, including the 1975 sinking of the fabled freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald, made famous by the Gordon Lightfoot song. All 29 aboard perished when the vessel, battered by 35-foot waves, sank in 530 feet of water.

Happily we encountered no such conditions during our visit.

We also rode our bikes, hiked and swam – albeit briefly in the 58-degree water. Tom said he found ice in one of the lakeshore caves on July 1.

On the last morning of our stay, Tom and I climbed 1,526-foot Carlton Peak – barely a bump, but prominent enough in relatively flat Minnesota to provide a sweeping view of the forest, with its mix of oak, maple, pine, spruce, birch and aspen, as well as the Temperance River valley, Taconite Harbor and the mist-cloaked lake.

No doubt such an image inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to pen his 1855 epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha”:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee

By the shining Big-Sea-Water,

Stood the wigwam of Nokomis

Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.

Dark behind it rose the forest,

Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,

Rose the firs with cones upon them;

Bright before it beat the water,

Beat the clear and sunny water,

Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.



Lisa Brownell and Tom Fagin emerge from a cave beneath Palisade Head.
Lisa Brownell and Tom Fagin emerge from a cave beneath Palisade Head.
Steve Fagin, foreground, and Tom Fagin launch their kayaks onto Lake Superior from a beach in Tofte, Minnesota.
Steve Fagin, foreground, and Tom Fagin launch their kayaks onto Lake Superior from a beach in Tofte, Minnesota.
Smooth paddling on Lake Superior.
Smooth paddling on Lake Superior.
A rock climber rappels down a sheer cliff at Shovel Point on Lake Superior.
A rock climber rappels down a sheer cliff at Shovel Point on Lake Superior.

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