Lake Superior trip planning and 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.

Prepare for a safe trip

  • Plan your trip with a map and tell someone your plans before you leave.
  • Make sure your route fits your experience and fitness levels. The average kayaking speed is 2-3 mph. 
  • Travel with a companion or group, and know everyone's skill level. Discuss safety issues before leaving shore.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Study shoreline features and review exit points before launching. Cliffs may create water turbulence that prevents you from going ashore.
  • Always wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved personal flotation device. Each paddler is required to have one readily accessible.
  • Know the dangers of hypothermia and dress appropriately for cold water. (32 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.) Cold water is a killer -- wearing a wet or dry suit is strongly recommended.
  • Carry with you: maps, compass, water, spray skirt, float for paddle, whistle, emergency flares, sunscreen, snacks, and a waterproof container with a first aid kit, matches and extra clothes.
  • Fog can make visibility zero. Bring a compass and know how to use it.
  • A bright white light must be displayed on each kayak or canoe after sunset to prevent a collision.
  • Purchase a license for your non-motorized watercraft if it's more than ten feet in length. If you're not from Minnesota, check your state's laws.
  • The maps on this page are not adequate for sole use as a navigational aid. Utilize USGS topographic maps and NOAA charts of 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.

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