AT the point of no return, I started thinking I may have made a big mistake.
Standing proudly between the border of the United States and Canada, Lake Superior is an intimidating body of water that truly earns its name. Superior is the largest of the Great Lakes of North America and contains more water than the other four lakes combined. With a maximum depth of 1300 feet, if spread out, it would cover all of North and South America in a foot of water. It is so large it generates its own weather.
Looking at a map of Lake Superior, you notice a piece of land sticking out into the middle from the south shore, a place known as the Keweenaw Peninsula. Last week, my friend Nathan and I circumnavigated it.
At the base of Keweenaw (pronounced “kee-win-aw” by locals) sit the twin cities of Houghton and Hancock, connected by a bridge over a canal that cuts across the base of the peninsula. The bridge itself is a wonder to behold, the largest raisable bridge in the world. It has two decks, one for cars and one for snowmobiles, and used to accommodate train traffic. The entire bridge raises to allow for boat passage. On this day it was both our starting point and finish line.
Nathan drove his 16-foot motorboat, a vintage Arrow Glass from the 1970s that he resurrected, in which he carried a passenger or two for various stages of the journey. I was the skipper of my 8-foot Aqualark, a boat about the size of a wave runner powered by an outboard 25-horsepower motor. Everyone was unanimous that tackling Superior in such inferior vessels was a mistake and many pleaded that we at least keep in constant contact so rescue authorities would know where to recover our bodies.
We did our homework and watched the weather forecasts closely. The optimum day arrived, and we headed out around 9 in the morning, expecting a seven-hour run for the 135-mile trip. The first leg was uneventful as we cruised north up the canal toward open water. Entering the main body felt like landing on another world. The air temperature dropped about twenty degrees and the water turned angry at our approach, as if to say, “who dares challenge me in such flimsy craft?”
For the next two hours the lake punished us with heaving waves and swells. It took a while to set the trim on my boat and it proved difficult to plane in such mixed seas. In a larger and heavier vessel than mine, Nathan had an easier go of it, but conditions tested his skills as well.
The situation calmed a bit as we headed for Eagle Harbor and our first rendezvous with the land team, friends and family who mirrored our voyage on land and stood ready in case of emergency. We decided to press on to Copper Harbor at the tip of the peninsula and enjoy lunch at Mariner North, my favorite restaurant in that neck of the woods. I ordered the fish sandwich of course.
A few miles after Copper Harbor, about the time we reached land’s end, I started having serious doubts about the trip. The water at the end of the peninsula was extremely choppy. Swells from all points of the compass converged in a swirling maelstrom that threatened to overwhelm my small craft. The boat heaved and jerked through the pounding waves as my back ached from the strain. It was the only time during the voyage that we contemplated calling it quits. Nathan and I talked it over and decided to press on to see if the water improved around the bend, which it did. We boated into a shallow flat and the lake smoothed over considerably, saving both our bodies and our fortitude. Even though we were only half-way around, we knew we could make it.
The run back down the peninsula from the tip was noticeably easier than the run out, though it was not without its difficulties. The water alternated between calm and rough, the wind picked up and died down. But five hours later, seeing the south entrance to canal caused a feeling of joyous success to sweep over us. The final few miles up the canal to the boat launch felt more like a victory lap than a boat ride.
Others have circumnavigated the Keweenaw Peninsula, but I doubt anyone has done it faster or in a smaller vessel. Friends urge us to call Guinness to see where we stand, but I will leave it alone. I feel much better about Lake Superior now. It does not seem so intimidating any more.
BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.