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Surfin' Superior: Cold-blooded faithful hit the chilly fall waves along Duluth shoreline

Duluth, Minn. The cold November gales coming off Lake Superior have forced many locals to change from fall flannels to winter parkas. But for a few hardcore Duluth-Superior denizens, it's time to slip into the wet suit. While the Great Lakes ...


Duluth, Minn.

The cold November gales coming off Lake Superior have forced many locals to change from fall flannels to winter parkas.

But for a few hardcore Duluth-Superior denizens, it's time to slip into the wet suit.

While the Great Lakes are better known as transport routes for industrial shipping, a small number of locals are taking advantage of the lake as their playground. In particular, kayaking on Lake Superior has grown as a popular pastime.

"Well, there's this giant lake, and it just seemed like something had to be done with it," Mike Scholtz says.


Scholtz's words seem to drip with George Mallory-like contempt for nature.

Mallory, when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, answered only, "Because it is there."

Formerly of Fargo, Scholtz moved to Duluth three years ago and became an outdoor adventure columnist for the Ripsaw, the Twin Port's alternative news-weekly. Kayaking has become one of his favorite activities on the lake.

"It's like swimming without getting wet," says Jason Brewer of the Ski Hut.

Brewer says the Ski Hut has been selling and renting kayaks for years, but activity has risen sharply in the last half-decade. He estimates the number of kayak rentals for the last year to be somewhere around 70.

"It's a totally safe sport, if you're in the boat," Brewer says.

To rent a kayak from the Ski Hut, you first have to take part in a safety class. Once completed, kayaks can be rented for $35 a day or $50 a weekend.

Plenty of opportunity


The North Shore is dotted with prime spots for kayaking. An hour north of Duluth, Split Rock and Tettegouche State Parks offer a good area for landing and plenty of scenery.

For those willing to drive further, the Apostle Islands, just north of Bayfield, Wis., are a favorite spot for kayakers. The white sandy beaches and clear blue water allow exclusive access to the naturally formed sea caves and rugged coastline.

Brewer considers ideal kayaking conditions to be early in the morning, when it's foggy and misty.

Scholtz agrees with the solitude of paddling out on a cold day, saying that at times you can look over the side of the boat and see down 30 to 40 feet.

"Clear days offer good conditions," he says. "You don't get tired and you can look around a lot more and take in your surroundings."

The rough days, however, offer the excitement of fighting against the lake, surfing the waves and making it a real workout.

These days generally come later in the year.

The typical kayaking season runs from May or June into September, but those with ice in their blood will fight the waves through November.


Time to suit up

On the last Sunday of September, Scholtz and I make our way through renovated Canal Park, across the lift bridge to Park Point beach.

The air temperature is 46, which makes the 52-degree lake water seem downright balmy. The wind is gusting between 20 and 25 mph, creating waves four- to five-feet high.

The beach is desolate except for one man tying his dog to a washed-up trunk of drift wood.

His name is Bill.

Dressed in shorts and an insulated jacket, he is an avid kayaker and lives for days like this. He says he'll ride the waves until late fall.

"I went out in that storm last November and that was just awesome," Bill says. "The waves were pretty tough, and if you got sideways you just got ravaged."

That storm, last Nov. 27, saw waves 14- to 20-feet high crash over the piers, tossing basketball-sized rocks from the lake onto the boardwalk. The storm ripped up a 100-foot section of the boardwalk and caused $200,000 in damage.


As Scholtz prepares his 17-foot kayak for a ride, Bill charges into the lake, riding over one wave only to disappear behind it within seconds.

Scholtz steadies his kayak on the beach at the end of the surf, sits in and scoots himself into the lake.

The waves crash over the boat, but he cuts through using the double-ended paddle with both hands to steer.

After fighting waves for 10 minutes, he angles the kayak around and surfs a large crest back into shore.

Taking the plunge

With my turn up, Scholtz helps me into the kayak. Wearing a wetsuit that covers only my knees to my neck, the cold, wet wind stings before I even settle into the boat.

He suggests starting off back paddling into the lake to experience riding a wave in without having to turn around.

After less than two minutes of bravely trying to push back into the surf, I am flipped into the lake. I pop up from under the boat, only to be greeted by the cold air and a series of waves that knock me down.


We pull the boat back onto shore, empty it of water and get ready for another run. This time, I will face the lake to see the waves coming.

I push off again and battle into the lake. The cold spray of water breaking over the boat is invigorating and almost makes you forget your arms are going numb.

Almost as soon as it starts, however, my second excursion ends when I am flipped by a wave 10 feet from shore.

Back on the beach, I stumble towards Scholtz, who has been watching my technique.

"The problem," he says, "is that you seem to have no natural sense of balance."

I scoff at this, then catch myself falling into the sand.

Body beaten and feet cold, I scamper back to the car to change.

As I peel off the wetsuit and fumble into a pair of jeans, Bill races by with his dog and quickly lashes his boat to the roof of his Subaru.


As he drives away, he rolls down the window and yells, "I'll see you later when the waves really pick up."

I nod, then shut the door and turn the heat on high.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

If you go ...

Driving from Fargo

- 250 miles

- 4 hours, 30 minutes (approximately)

- $13.90 in gas (at $1.49 per gallon, 27 miles per gallon).

- Directions: Highway 10 East to Highway 210 to Interstate 35; or take Highway 10 to Highway 34 to Highway 200 to Highway 2.

On the Web

Info on Duluth

and kayaking there:

- www.visitduluth.com

- www.theskihut.com

- www.northshoreinfo.com/attractions

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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