By Sam Cook, Published August 12 2007
The fog thins. Now the complete scene unfolds – a 200-foot headwall rising almost from the water’s edge, towering over our tiny watercraft.
It’s Palisade Head, one of the features we knew we would encounter on this eight-mile kayaking day-trip near Silver Bay and Tettegouche State Park along Minnesota’s North Shore. Duluth, Minn., native Scott Neustel, who chose the day’s destination, knows that seeing the shore from the water is a novel experience.
“It’s the view of the North Shore that nobody gets,” Neustel says.
Kayaking has enjoyed tremendous growth over the past eight to 10 years, and Lake Superior offers great opportunities for this historical form of travel. The South Shore, especially the Apostle Islands, lures kayakers to its sand beaches and sandstone caves. The North Shore is rugged and rocky, and the water is typically colder here than along the South Shore.
Like a pod of water bugs, our group of kayakers skims along on a perfectly calm lake. We gaze up at the tawny cliffs of Palisade Head. This is volcanic rock, geologist John Green of Duluth will explain later. Rhyolite, to be precise. It’s 1.1 billion years old.
Try to get your head around that span of time as you’re bobbing on this vast lake.
“You do feel pretty small,” Neustel says.
Just moments after launching our kayaks at a cobble beach near Silver Bay, a bald eagle drops out of a tree and wings along the shore, disappearing into the fog. Now, at Palisade Head, two peregrine falcons screech and circle high above us. Falcons have been nesting on this cliff for the past 20 years, says Duluth birder David Evans. This year’s pair fledged one chick successfully.
But up isn’t the only way to look when you’re paddling the North Shore.
“The views down are as good as the views up,” Neustel says.
So, we spend much of our time idling along, peering into the depths. The clear water, tinged an emerald green, allows us to see 10, 20, 30 feet down. Paddling over a submerged reef, watching the bottom fall away, gives you a spooky feeling, as if you, too, might be falling into the darkness.
The entire shoreline is fascinating from a kayak. We pass a couple of old commercial fishing shacks, a modern cabin tucked in the trees. But this stretch of shoreline offers mostly undeveloped land. The shoreline rock comes in house-sized blocks, sharply angled points, lumpy reefs and the occasional hollowed-out arch. We paddle through the arches simply because they’re there – and because we can.
Throughout this July morning and early afternoon, the fog never lifts completely. Inland, the day is muggy and pushing 90 degrees. Out here, on water that’s probably less than 60 degrees, we’re cool and comfortable.
Just past the mouth of the Baptism River at Tettegouche State Park, we find another headwall in the fog. This is Shovel Point, an anvil-shaped rhyolite cliff that rises to 180 feet at its highest point. Two rock climbers dangle from its face, working their way back to the top.
As we explore the shore in our kayaks, each of us is free to move about at will. We can poke in to examine a cliff or a wildflower. We can dawdle to bottom-gaze. We can cut off a bay or follow the contour of the shoreline.
“One thing I like about kayaking is that it’s independent,” says Hansi Johnson of Thomson, a member of our group.
It’s unlike canoeing that way, where the stern paddler chooses the direction.
“A lot of women really like kayaking,” Johnson says. “I think it’s nice to get away from that guy in the stern.”
We are mindful, as we paddle, that we’re on a huge lake where the weather can change dramatically. Most of us wear wetsuits, which would insulate us from the cold water if we were to capsize. Most of us have taken kayak paddling and rescue classes. We respect the power of the lake.
A sea-kayaker drowned on the South Shore near the mainland sea caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore earlier this summer.
“I think a lot of people think it’s an easy paddle out to the sea caves,” Neustel said. “But recent history has shown that kayaking skills are needed.”
After a short lunch on a secluded cobblestone beach, we load up to make the return trip to our put-in site. Just as we do, the wind freshens from the east, ruffling the surface. Everyone notices.
Before we get back to our landing, the waves are starting to build. Nothing serious. Just enough to remind us who’s in charge out here.
Sam Cook is the outdoors writer for the Duluth (Minn.) News-Tribune, a Forum Communications newspaper