Lake Superior Paddling Safety

The many shipwrecks along the North Shore are tragic reminders of the power and fury of Lake Superior. That power is something every paddler must respect and not underestimate. The same dramatic features that enrich the shoreline experience, such as lake cliffs, can pose serious hazards to unwary paddlers. Placid summer waters can change in minutes to life-threatening conditions, and cliff areas can prevent paddlers from seeking safety on shore. Paddlers need to be prepared mentally and physically to deal with these conditions and possess the paddling skills necessary to assure their own safety and that of others. Local marine weather forecasts should be monitored before and during any trip on the lake. Paddlers need to understand the implications these forecasts have on overall lake conditions, as well as the shoreline area they plan to travel. Wave heights can be greatly increased by shoreline features and currents.

Safety training and gear

  • Seek instruction and practice kayak skills, including rescues, before paddling on Lake Superior. Be certain your boat has adequate bow and stern flotation and that you have access to a pump for emptying a flooded boat.
  • Each paddler must have a wearable U.S. Coast Guard approved personal flotation device readily accessible.
  • Each kayak or canoe must have a bright white light on board after sunset to be displayed in time to prevent a collision.
  • Other items you should carry with you: Spray skirt, float for paddle, whistle, emergency flares, water, snacks, sunscreen and compass.
  • Bring maps with you. Maps provided online are not adequate for use as your sole navigational aids. You can obtain USGS topographic maps and NOAA charts of the North Shore from a variety of sources, such as kayaking or camping gear retailers. Learn how to use maps and a compass for navigation before setting out on the lake.
  • All watercraft (including non-motorized canoes and kayaks over 9 feet in length) must be registered in Minnesota or the state of residence.

Safe travel

  • Always wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved personal flotation device (Life Jacket).
  • Be familiar with dangers of hypothermia and dress appropriately for the cold water (32 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit). Cold water is a killer?wearing a wet or dry suit is strongly recommended.
  • Travel with a companion or group. Know the skill level of other paddlers in your group. Discuss safety issues before leaving shore.
  • Study shoreline features on your chart and review exit points before launching. Remember, cliffs can cause additional water turbulence and prevent you from going ashore.
  • Choose your trip and daily travel distance in relation to experience, fitness and an average kayaking speed of 2-3 mph.
  • Fog frequently restricts visibility to zero. Bring a good compass and know how to use it.
  • Anticipate changes in weather, wind and waves by monitoring a weather or marine VHF radio and using your awareness and common sense. The National Weather Service broadcasts a 24-hour updated marine forecast on KIG 64, weather band channel 1 on the maritime VHF frequency from Duluth. You can hear a version of this broadcast by calling 218-729-6697; press 4 for Lake Superior weather information. You also can use the VHF radio to call for emergency help.
  • Check the weather before you head out. The National Weather Service Web site is a source of forecasts for regional weather along the North Shore.

Duluth-Superior Harbor safety

  • The Duluth Harbor is a major port in the U.S. Familiarize yourself with the rules of the nautical road, and stay out of the shipping lanes. When using the Minnesota and Wisconsin entrances, be aware that while inbound ships are easily spotted at some distance, the outbound ships are not visible from the end of the entrances. When paddling through the entrances, stay to the right side in order to not give up your right-of-way. Obtain a chart of the Duluth Harbor for specifics regarding shipping lanes.
  • Be aware of special paddling hazards in the Duluth-Superior harbor. Outgoing currents through the Minnesota and Wisconsin entrances can clash with incoming reflected waves to create chaotic paddling conditions. Stay near the shore and keep well away from commercial and recreational boating traffic. Fog can be a particular hazard in busy areas. Several areas in the St. Louis Bay may be subject to waterfowl hunting seasons.