The goal for Sunday's paddle (9/26/10) was to do something as far removed from a point-to-point long distance crossing as possible. The plan was to do some gunkholing on Chicago's south lakefront. We were going to putter around, paddling as close to shore as possible, exploring harbors and assorted nooks and crannies and in the process work on some low speed boat control skills.
Lake Michigan had other ideas for Bill Burton, Zach Carrier, Dave Kaknes, Tim Philosophos, Denise Poloyac and I. By Sunday morning the promising forecast from a few days before had morphed into northeast winds of about 20 mph and waves in the 3-5 foot range. Fortunately, the water and air temperatures were both about 60.
We launched at the Jackson Park Harbor boat ramp. Gulf Coast Terry joined us and shamed us for our lack of packing skills by being the first on the water. As he is making a remarkable recovery from a freak accident that broke his neck--not while kayaking BTW--he accompanied us in the harbor and then puttered around on his own.
Autumn has clearly arrived. The air was clear and the clouds low. The sun lacked its summery intensity and, as a result, we paddlers got out our wetsuits and drysuits again. When Bill reported that he had left his wet paddling jacket in his hatch for the past two weeks, after wearing it for many hours on his Lake Michigan crossing, we became thankful for the brisk, dissipating winds.
We paddled through the harbor to the entrance. The water was starting to move a bit and we could see that the lake was quite rough. We moved steadily forward. When we got to the mouth of the harbor, where the north breakwall to the harbor takes a jog to the northeast, we knew were were in for a challenging paddle.
Waves trundled down the breakwall from the northeast and then were deflected out into the lake. This meant that we had substantial waves coming at us from our left and directly ahead of us. This made for some interesting paddling.
After clearing the tip of breakwater the waves become more regular and we had a decent passage to Promontory Point. Our intended destination was the shoals at 47th Street, which offered breaking waves several hundred yards from shore. We decided to stay in the area between 63d Street and the Point (55th Street), however, because that stretch offers several beaches with good landing spots while the stretch between the Point and 47th Street has no good landing spots.
We played in the surf and poked into the boat harbor around 58th Street. The entrance to this harbor is framed by two breakwalls. The incoming waves careened between the breakwalls and gave us a nice ride in. By about the bridge under Lake Shore Drive the water was jiggling as if someone was vigorously shaking the harbor entrance. The surface was covered by little peaks of water that kind of danced around and across the enclosed area. Paddling across felt like being on one of those automatic massage chairs set on high.
After leaving the harbor we played some more in the surf at 63d Street. Scott Fairy joined us and shot some video of the pleasant conditions--well developed waves and a decent--for the Great Lakes--wave period.
At the end we got a lesson in group communications skills. Zach told me that he and Dave were ready to leave and were going to paddle around the breakwater and into the harbor. I assumed that this meant that Bill and Tim were sticking around for some more surfing. However, when I looked back after a run to the beach I saw that all four boats were rounding the breakwall.
I headed for the breakwater in an effort to catch them and Scott kindly accompanied me. After all, Scott, Mr. Understatement, had described the conditions on the lake side of the breakwater as "big waves and lots of room for carnage." Scott reported that he had seen a sailboat leave the harbor and then quickly turn around and head back in once it hit the open water. Zach later reported that he had been knocked over by the sheer force of a non-breaking wave in this stretch of water next to the exposed breakwall. Fortunately, he rolled up.
We headed towards the group with the intent of dropping me off, but then I realized that it was unfair to leave Scott, accomplished though he is, in those conditions by himself. So, I asked him if he would accompany me back to 63d beach so I could train a bit more in these conditions. We paddled back, rode a few waves and landed.
The good thing about 63d Street is that the parking lot for the boat harbor is close to the beach house so it was a simple matter to retrieve my car. However, as the "victim" of imperfect communication among our group it drove home to me the importance of making sure that everyone in the group is in the loop. This is something that I know I need to work on, probably more than anyone in the group, and this little incident taught me a lot.
As I was loading the boat on my car I noticed a sailboat inching its way out of the harbor. When it hit the open water its mast started wagging back and forth, tracing a 45 degree arc. On a couple of occasions a breaking wave appeared to cause it to side surf. It looked like a recipe for seasickness. I felt that we kayakers were much better equipped for conditions with our relatively nimble and close to the water boats. Sure enough, the sailboat turned around and headed back into the harbor. I must say I felt a little smug.
Great day as we all stretched ourselves as paddlers, made the right decision to play where there were landing sites, and made it back in safely.