We knew Labor Day morning will be stormy before we even left Chicago. Family and friends took a short 2-mile paddle from Hurricane River to Au Sable campground in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Once there, we listened to the weather radio intently hoping that the forecast will change. It did not: 15-20-knot NW winds gusting to 25 for Monday. Plan B was to paddle the kayaks two miles back to the cars on Sunday night and hike back in for the last night. Unfortunately, by the time we got to it on Sunday night we missed the arrival of strong headwinds from the NW. The whitecaps were ubiquitous as far as the eye can see and the paddle upwind that night was hopeless for a group of novice paddlers.
We went to sleep that night hoping again, hoping that the conditions will subside the following morning. Futile hopes did not stand a chance in the face of the forecast of increasing NW winds over Monday and into Tuesday. In the morning, we woke up to sustained 20-25 knot winds and 5-8' waves with the epicenter right around the Au Sable point. The waves were perfectly developed and neatly spaced after a night of steady wind. I loaded my stability-challenged Nordkapp HS as the first boat to be transported back to Hurricane River parking lot. Breaking out through the surf zone was exciting but routine. Once out, I was surprised that the waves did not become tamer as expected. On the contrary, they appeared to rise up, steepen and, from what I could tell, were actually bigger than the breakers in the surf zone. Perhaps the launch spot was somewhat protected by the Au Sable point or, perhaps, the long surf zone brought down the size of the breakers next to shore.
Be that as it may, in the distance to the northwest awaited the Au Sable Point with menacing breakers extending a long way from shore. The progress into the wind with a loaded boat was steady but slow. I am not sure I was even reaching 2 knots. Then I saw one large wave pass. Then another. They were steep, too steep for comfort, but they did not break. I would have to paddle far off shore to avoid an accidental encounter with a breaking monster while rounding the point. If I were to capsize and drift into the surf zone, it was very possible that I will not be able to re-enter and pump out. The shoreline around Au Sable was sheer rock. The risks started to compound. Add to that my slow progress and plan B made no sense any longer. After about 20 or 30 minutes of paddling into the wind, I turned around and surfed to back to shore landing on the rocky coast in less than 5 minutes. Without even trying (actually, I was trying to avoid surfing) a caught one of the longest and fastest surf rides of my life. The boat just stayed in the green of a steep wave without broaching or sliding off of its face.
The rest of the story was a lot of hard labor carrying boats and gear to the lighthouse over the narrow hiking trail and then to the Hurricane River parking lot over a gravel road. We were extremely lucky that a park ranger allowed us to drive our cars over the park service road to retrieve the last three kayaks. We only had to carry three of the six boats the entire 2.5 miles. The remaining three only had to be carried the quarter of a mile from the campsite to the lighthouse. Another ranger at the lighthouse was very kind to let us borrow a pair of park service wheelbarrows.
We gambled! Paradoxically, the only one in the group who made the right call to paddle in the flat conditions of the early afternoon on Sunday was my sixth-grader son. The rest of the group decided to go for immediate gratification and enjoy a hike to the top of the magnificent dunes. By the time we returned, the winds had whipped up waves beyond the abilities of this unpracticed group. We called the nature's bluff and, turned out, she was not bluffing. We had an exit strategy and a back-up plan, and the plan was safe, just not a very good one.
Feasibility of paddling out of these conditions for an experienced paddler? Personally, I consider head winds up to 20 knots as something in which a practiced sea kayaker can make passable forward progress. The outer limits of conditions in which I would choose to paddle, to be sure, but, in emergency, short distances can be covered against a force of this magnitude. On this day, several other things added up and continuing with the plan ceased to make sense.
The first thing I felt when I paddled out through the breakers alone was exposed. What an incredible comfort it is to have a paddling partner by your side. Confidence was quickly sapped by the absence of support and safety net. Waves that looked clean, organized, well-spaced, and warm from shore were far from friendly once on the water. It never ceases to amaze me how different waves feel and look from the cockpit.
Second, the amplifying powers of headlands and shoals turned the easy 1.8-mile 30-minute stroll in the park into a 3-mile and potentially a 3-hour slog. Simple real-life embodiment of the navigation principles I've taught so many times—time equals distance over speed. If you multiply yesterday's distance by two and cut the speed to less than half, time grows geometrically. I did the math on the water and saw what an obvious losing proposition the continuation of the journey was!
And that's before the consideration of safety. I did not feel threatened wearing a wetsuit less than a mile from shore in 70-degree water with an on-shore wind and swells. Had the worst happened, I think I would have made it to shore unscathed. The possibility of a damaged or even lost boat, on the other hand, was very real. The waves that size can easily rip it out of one's hands and hand it over to the meat grinder on the shoreline where waves meet sharp rocks. My old Nordkapp has many faults but it is my first real boat and I have a fair amount of sentimental attachment to this genuine floating piece of kayaking history—not to mention the gear inside it.
At the end of the day, everyone was very tired but safe at a dinner in Grand Marais, MI.