After years of contemplation, months of training, and weeks of planning and weather-watching, four CASKA paddlers crossed Lake Michigan at the drop of a hat -- journeying from Chicago to St. Joseph, departing on Saturday night, September 11, and arriving in the late afternoon of the next day.
The four of us -- Tom Bamonte, Bill Burton, Sarah Hartman, and Haris Subačius -- had long ago selected an optimal time of season, and then carefully watched 10-day forecasts to target a perfect day for departure. All week, Sunday night was looking promising. But on Saturday, Sunday night was looking less appealing -- higher waves and shifting winds. And scheduling conflicts were mounting in the following week.
On Saturday morning Sarah sent an email saying that we should all be surfing in the waves being kicked up by the east wind and then stick around while the winds shifted to the west to ride over to Michigan. Tom thought Sarah was joking but checked the forecast anyway and saw that from early Saturday evening until late Sunday night the forecast was indeed for west winds at 15 mph or less and 1-3 foot waves. Not perfect, but better than we'd seen over many anxious days waiting for the lake to settle down, accompanied by a few mutterings of "maybe next year." A precious weather window had opened. Further waiting would mean longer nights and colder temperatures. As Bill said of the west winds that would hopefully be pushing us toward our destination, "they call them prevailing winds for a reason..."
Suddenly a possible "Go" decision for Sunday night turned into "GO NOW!" for that very night. After a flurry of emails to make sure we could all get packed and shuttled, launch was set for just a few hours later at Leone Beach, on Chicago's far north side. There would be no mid-day power nap, no pre-trip meal ritual. "Charge the radios, pack your gear and food, send me your emergency contacts, and let's go!"
We were delighted to be met at the put-in by two intended teammates, Tom Heineman and Humberto Garcia, who for personal reasons in the last days were unable to make the trip. They, along with our families and other friends, helped make short work of unloading at the beach. Haris presented each of us with a glow stick color-coordinated to our respective boats. We tied these to our foredecks to let us see each other and avoid using blinding torch lights. A few quick hugs, snapshots -- and suddenly we were afloat on an adventure that had seemed like it would never come. It was 9:30 p.m.
We later learned that there was a bit of adventure on shore right after our launch. Humberto had parked his truck on the beach so his headlights could help us pack. This attracted the attention of the police, who descended just after we pushed off. The police told our shore team that the beach was closed and inquired what the four of us were doing in the lake. When informed we were crossing to Michigan, the police shook their heads, said "good luck with that" and departed, presumably happy that four nuts were headed to another jurisdiction.
The Land of Oz
Each of us had our own reason to Say Yes! to Michigan. For Bill, it was fulfillment of a childhood quest. Growing up near the shore, the lake had been a constant presence in his life. Even as a toddler he was captivated to hear of a mystical land beyond the horizon, too far to swim to, row to or sail to, his parents said; too far to walk to in winter, when the lake used to freeze out as far as the eye could see. He dreamed of crossing the lake under his own power, and reaching a place -- Michigan -- he never got to visit until age 10 or 12.
For Sarah the journey began two years ago when John Martin planted the seed of an idea that a trip like this could be possible. At the time, her lack of skill and conditioning left her unable to complete even a 20-mile day. For her, the crossing was a personal journey to become a paddler capable of enjoying the distance and expedition paddling that she loves, without ever again being a burden or a potential safety hazard to her teammates. "The more I learn and the more I paddle, the more I discover I need to learn and to paddle," she says.
Tom had done extended paddles with each of the others, including last year's five-crib circumnavigation of over 40 miles and an open-water crossing from Michigan City, Ind. to Calumet Park in Chicago earlier this summer. He knew he and his teammates were capable of making it across Lake Michigan, although he faced a psychological hurdle contemplating a 60-mile trip. What intrigued Tom about the crossing, in addition to bragging rights (let's be honest, folks), was the challenge of trying to make sure that people with different ambitions and varying approaches to risk came together and made a safe, efficient crossing. He hoped the trip would be uneventful and provide a good opportunity for Sarah and Bill to realize their larger ambitions. In his view, the more the crossing became just like any other extended paddle -- only a bit longer -- the better. In shape after a summer of biking and paddling, and realizing that at his age crossing the lake would not get any easier with each passing year, Tom believed this was his best opportunity.
Ever the enigma, Haris stood out in contrast. "I had absolutely no reason whatsoever to do this," he told us.
Luck Favors the Prepared Mind
We had each begun preparation in the winter months, with the intention of training for a crossing in late summer or autumn. Pool sessions and dry-land workout routines gave way to lake paddling with the arrival of spring. Summer brought a full paddling schedule for each of us -- to work up to a distance almost 20 miles longer than any of us had ever covered in a single day of paddling.
For the crossing, each of us used the kayak and paddle we were most familiar with -- Impex Force 4 with a Werner Cyprus for Sarah, Explorer with a Werner Ikelos for Tom, plastic Wilderness Systems Tempest 165 with a carbon-fiber Greenland stick for Bill, and a Valley Avocet with a Brača VIII min wing paddle for Haris. We each carried a spare paddle. All had tow-belts and contact-tow rigs, were well stocked with food and water, and had plenty of layers of paddling gear available. Three of us chose to wear wetsuits, and all of us had a splash jacket to protect our core from the water and wind. We carried bailing pumps and on-the-water repair kits -- tape and a quick drying epoxy -- and plenty of extra flotation.
We had strobes, aerial and hand-held flares, a laser, dye, lights, whistles, VHF radios and cell phones for attracting attention in case of emergency. Bill monitored three VHF channels most of the time. Tom had a SPOT satellite messenger and sent our position to our families at regular intervals. This device can also be used to send an SOS in an emergency.
A Monotonous Journey of Constant Changes
It's hard to describe -- but even though crossing the lake is a long traverse of a featureless, open expanse of water, the very distinct segments of the trip made it seem more like a journey along a path.
At the start, we were excited by our send-off and giddy to finally be underway. The lights of the city shined brightly behind us -- we could see the water and each other, and maybe even our compasses. It was easy to pick a favorite star in the east to bear on. We paddled with confidence; we rafted up together for food breaks every 90 minutes just because we knew we should.
The second segment of the trip began as the city’s glow faded and the slim moon set behind us at midnight. The sky darkened dramatically. Thousands more stars appeared -- breathtaking! But wait, which one were we following? The water disappeared around us; waves sneaked up and could only be felt. Compasses became invisible and teammates nearly so.
"Over here, Tom! Bill?"
"I'm here! Where's Haris?"
"Right behind you!"
We called out to each other constantly. The rougher the waves got -- the winds hit their predicted highs at about 1 a.m. -- the tighter we wanted to draw together. But we also had to avoid running into each other. Focusing intently on dimly-visible partners as they bobbed up and down led to creeping seasickness.
The lack of visual cues on this moonless night demanded great concentration. When a large set of waves approached, we could hear their tops break with a venomous hiss. We each executed many skillful braces and quick recoveries in the dark. At times, a large wave seemed to swallow the paddler in front of us. Fortunately, no one capsized. But we expended a lot of mental energy to keep paddling through the eight hours of darkness.
Rest stops were also challenging. Not wanting to blind ourselves with light, we fumbled in the dark as the rafted boats clunked together. Somehow Bill lost his headlamp. One time, in an instant, Tom's paddle drifted away. Luckily, we spotted it before it was lost to the night. Haris almost lost his paddle in a later raft-up as well. We learned to jam our paddles securely into our decklines rather than rest them on top of our boats. Paddle leashes would have been very handy and are recommended for use during breaks on the open water. Lashing boats together tightly with contact tows also helped to stabilize the boats but may have made the crashing of the hulls against each other worse.
Paddle on...in the distance a light appeared, possibly on the horizon, in the northeast. Is it a freighter? Which way is it heading? Soon it became two lights. Is it one ship or two? Right, those are the bow and stern lights of a large ship, and there's the green starboard light. As we got closer the lights moved in front of us. This ship would cross our path at a safe distance.
A second freighter later in the night was far less predictable. First, it appeared to change direction and head straight for us. Some ships navigate by autopilot -- no one would be looking out for us, and we probably would not appear on the ship's radar. Now it seemed to stop altogether and slowly turn to port, toward some destination in Michigan or Indiana. We exhaled with relief as this ghost ship moved off into the darkness.
Despite its many challenges, the night offered wonderful visual rewards. Behind us was the shrinking glow from Chicago. Above us was the great dark dome of the sky, filled with stars that we could see down to the horizon across the open lake to the north. We all wished we were more familiar with constellations in the night sky. What a wonderful show! We saw many shooting stars, including one so close to Earth we could almost hear it burning through the atmosphere. It left a visible contrail.
As the night dragged on, we wished for the sun to come up. Our eyes could trace the outline of the lower quarter of the lake from the sweep of lights along the shore. And every four seconds or so, the dark expanse underneath lifted as a wave passed. The night was less harrowing in these quiet moments, when a lull in the waves matched one's success in breathing and relaxing into an appreciation of more than just staying upright and on course. In retrospect, we wish we could have more fully enjoyed the quiet and the vastness of the dark in the center of the lake. Haris, in a more expansive mood, admitted he did have a reason to be on the trip, and this was it: "I just wanted to be out of sight of land on all sides for once."
Comes the Dawn
The glow from Michigan towns had been faintly visible at the horizon for most of the trip. We had reckoned which glow was coming from Benton Harbor/St. Joseph and steered towards it throughout the night. Now the whole horizon was turning a hopeful shade of purple. Stars began disappearing, and ghostlike teammates became merely shadowy. The color palette shifted several more times -- and then, the most magnificent red ball peeked mischievously over the waves.
Daylight made paddling easier, but brought its own disappointment: the Chicago skyline, still plainly visible over the shoulder. After a long, hard night of paddling, this hardly seemed fair. We also lost our guiding lights on the horizon. We took a longer-than-usual stop for “breakfast” -- we hadn’t really fasted -- and found ourselves energized. Haris was sprinting to catch waves. A few more hours of paddling put us out of sight of land on all sides, and Haris got his wish again, this time in daylight.
What signs would tell us we were drawing near land? Coast Guard radio transmissions from South Haven can be heard all over the lake. Seagulls don’t mean much; they venture far out over the water. Terns too -- they flit and dive so near to the boats; one swooped straight at Bill's head and nearly hit him, much to Haris's amusement. But we took all these encounters as hopeful signs we were closing in.
We scanned for sight of the Michigan shore. Haris insisted he saw a smokestack to the south in Indiana; Bill said it was just a mirage that could be seen anywhere one looked away from the sun. Sarah and Tom chose to believe Haris, putting hope above objective evidence for the moment.
But well before noon we did observe on the horizon features that were undeniably man-made. With no set landing spot -- Tom had just brought a chart with a menu of more or less suitable landing points -- we picked a random object on the horizon at a heading of 080 degrees and bore toward it.
The tiny object stuck up all by itself, like a baby's first tooth. We paddled on and on -- it never seemed to get any closer. Eventually other features sprouted to keep the lonesome tooth company. Now we were sure it was a water tower. We decided to make it an actual target, since water towers are often emblazoned with their town's name. We knew we were heading north of Warren Dunes and had several viable landing options between the dunes and St. Joseph. Everyone wanted to make a St. Joseph landing in order to get in a 60-mile trip and fend off the armchair critics who would certainly say that anything less than Chicago-to-St. Joseph does not count as a "real" crossing of Lake Michigan.
Won't that thing EVER get any closer? We weren’t exhausted; in fact, we were still having fun -- but we were eager to run out the clock on our big win.
Beyond our target Tom spotted what looked like a harbor entrance. Look how far north on the shore it is from the dunes -- could it be St. Joseph? Bill had gone there to paddle in April and remembered a water tower near the harbor entrance, and now one of just the right shape was clearly visible. There appeared to be a beach right next to it. Why won't it get any closer?
Hours went by as our tailwind seemed to be pushing the shore away as fast as it was pushing us toward it, even though we were keeping a good pace. The second water tower now read ST. JOSEPH. As the beach neared we could see figures. And wait! Yes! Bill's wife, Luan, and Tom's wife, Alice, and son T.J. -- our recovery crew -- were waving on shore! They had tracked us by the SPOT locator. We'd be on the road home as soon as we climbed out of our boats.
We side-surfed on little breakers, then turned toward shore and rode them up the sand. Popped our spray-skirts, leaped out -- and three of us promptly fell on our butts in the water. Legs would not work. Backs could not straighten. Tom was wiser. He watched the rest of us stumble and got out of his boat on all four of his extra-long limbs, looking much like daddy-long-legs. Somehow we beached our boats and staggered together for hugs and high-fives. It was 5:30 p.m. Sunday -- 20 hours on the water, 62 miles, and, as we later found on a fitness computer, 11,131 calories.
We may have floundered on the shore, but out on the water we never faltered. We stopped only when we needed nourishment or bladder relief. Bill had predicted that exhaustion, injury, or fatigue would not likely stop us -- but some stupid friction at a contact-point might. Sure enough, his rashguard had crept up, exposing his flanks to the elastic inner sleeve of his dry-top, which over the miles gouged a painful 6-inch gash above his hip. That was the worst injury incurred.
Looking back on our experience, what made us successful? You can put these in any order you wish:
- We may not be elite uber-paddlers, but we're pretty good, and well-conditioned
- We're cautious and safety-minded
- We began our planning by accepting that we might never launch. This was not a "we're going to do this regardless" mission
- Each person assumed personal responsibility
- We eschew interpersonal drama
- Individual team member strengths complemented other weaknesses
- We were well equipped and provisioned
- We were picky about conditions (wind, wave, temperatures) and forecast
- We discussed the trip extensively before launching so we had a good idea of our respective risk tolerances and trip goals
- We were motivated to accomplish the goal
- We were damn lucky
The most important piece of safety gear -- for any trip -- is a detailed and TIME-LIMITED float plan. Once you are missed at your destination and your float plan has expired, search and rescue can be activated immediately. The group can shelter in place, conserve heat, and prepare to signal to rescuers. This also means you need a combination of conditions and clothing that will let you survive on or in the water for a long time. We were grateful to have seasonably warm water on this crossing. It was reassuring to see Haris get out of the boat at every break and truly enjoy it.
One thing that did not get brought along on this trip was ego. Each of us, while reasonably confident in our own abilities, was respectful of -- but not awed by -- our partners' skills. We are all in complete agreement that none of us is an "elite" paddler. We were each equally hopeful to be neither the cause of failure nor the key to success. We did not have a designated leader or any defined roles. All decisions were reached by consensus. While this may not work in groups of every size or composition, it worked well for us. The only deference was in leaving the final weather analysis and launch decision to "Tailwind Tom" -- a man legendary for his uncanny ability to always have the wind at his back, even on a circular route.
Should you undertake a crossing? Unless you meet all the criteria listed above, definitely not. And if you do -- probably not. There are better, safer ways to challenge your skills, your endurance, and even your daring. An open crossing of this length is needlessly risky, and needlessly boring. Many highly skilled companions we invited on this trip declined because they already knew that. One Wisconsinite -- a former Navy man -- stressed this last point in particular. While we can't as reasonable folk really recommend a Lake Michigan crossing, each of us is glad we did it. Landing was pure joy. Bill claims to have not yet stopped grinning.
Clichés become clichés because they're said often, and they're said often because they're true: we did not conquer the lake. We approached her when she was relatively gentle and mild, and maybe got to know her a little better. We came away more impressed, if possible, with her stunning beauty, and yes, her size. She and her sisters are a unique treasure upon this fragile planet.
-Bill, Haris, Sarah, and Tom