Trial on the Tahquamenon
edited: Saturday, November 10, 2007
By Len McDougall
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Saturday, November 10, 2007
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A pair of professional guides battle a typhoon on the historic Tahquamenon River.
First Serial Rights
August 23, 2004
Trial on the Tahquamenon
August 18, 2004 dawned bright and sunny in Paradise, Michigan. Weather forecasters had warned that it might rain later in the afternoon when a westerly cold front blew into the Whitefish Bay region of Lake Superior, but for the moment the skies were blue and nearly cloudless. It seemed an ideal day for kayaking the Tahquamenon River.
I dropped my partner, Cheanne, at the Lower Falls of the Tahquamenon River, and helped her carry her Whistler kayak down a flight of narrow, slightly treacherous wooden steps to the river bank. Like myself, she also wore a wilderness guide hat from time to time, and she was scouting the river for a kayak tour she'd be leading in a couple of weeks. Part of the job lay in knowing where and when local wildlife was most likely to be seen, as well as knowing the most current locations of wind-downed trees and other obstacles on this living, always changing waterway.
When Cheanne was underway, headed downstream toward the delta where Tahquamenon empties into Lake Superior, I drove the truck to the public boat launch at the river's mouth, about 16 miles away. There, I launched my Breeze kayak from the adjacent shore of Whitefish Bay, and began paddling upstream to meet her.
The sun continued to shine brightly as I passed under the bridge of M-123, but the wind was beginning to gust. As I paddled past the Rivermouth Campground, anglers and campers along the southern shore watched almost intently as my little yellow boat slipped steadily upstream. Even a group of fishermen who were putting out in a 16-foot bass boat seemed curious enough to stop their launching activities and watch me. Nothing personal - these folks were merely exhibiting the same fascination that has made kayaking the fastest growing boating activity in America.
After a mile, I was fighting a strong, steady headwind that, judging from its effect on the treetops, was blowing at approximately 20 miles per hour. Being low in the water, the Breeze was mostly unaffected by the wind, and, except for the progression of foot-high waves that broke over her bow and sprayed me, I was making about 2 miles per hour against a 3 mile-per-hour current. On a calm day, my average upstream paddling speed on the Tahquamenon had always been about 3 miles per hour, so I was satisfied with my progress.
At about 2 miles, the sun became obscured by a thickening veil of clouds, and the headwind increased to about 30 miles per hour. I was cussing a bit as I dropped the boat's rudder so that I could concentrate more on stroking the paddle hard, while my feet controlled steering with the rudder pedals. Still, I continued to make good headway by lengthening my paddle strokes and pressing my legs against the boat's thigh braces to obtain more leverage. I hoped Cheanne was having an easier time of it on her way downriver.
Just before the 3-mile mark, I was distracted for several minutes by a family of river otters frolicking in the river's middle. There were 4 of these most delightful of nature's creatures, the parents and 2 half-grown pups, all popping up from the water to peer at me at random intervals while I fumbled to get my digital camera from its zip-lock bag.
In calmer weather, this would have been a terrific photo opportunity, but today, in nearly gale force wind, with waves washing over the deck, getting good pics bordered on the impossible. With camera strap held between clenched teeth to keep my precious Hewlett-Packard SLR as high above the spray as possible, I'd paddle the Breeze into position, then quickly exchange paddle for camera, and shoot as many stills of the jack-in-the-box otter family as I could before my boat was swept downstream. Then, I'd paddle hard to get back into position, and try again. I filled the memory card with blurred images of trees, water, and even the occasional otter, but none were worth keeping. I kept trying until the otters adjourned to their bank burrow, then, frustrated, I erased the memory card, re-bagged the camera, and continued upstream.
At 6 miles, I was still bucking stiff headwinds that hadn't abated at all, when I encountered another family of 5 otters. Conditions were the same as before, but this time the otters were bolder and more photogenic. Most of the shots still came out blurred and unusable, but a couple were keepers.
At just over 7 miles, Cheanne's turquoise Whistler came into sight from around a bend, about a half-mile upriver. I was sure she'd seen me as well, but I keyed the VHF walkie-talkie we both carried clipped to our flotation vests, and let her know that I'd sighted her boat. She arced a yellow paddle blade over her head in acknowledgment, too engaged in battling wind and waves to release her grip for even a moment. Even from a distance I could see she was fatigued from the constant exertion of paddling against a wind that, ironically, had been in her face the whole way, too. Logic dictated that it was improbable, perhaps impossible, that both of us had encountered stiff headwinds while paddling in opposite directions, but this was the Tahquamenon River, where the unlikely was almost routine.
Nevertheless, I was entirely unimpressed to find that the gale was somehow still against us after I'd turned my boat to head back downstream. My own second wind was holding, but it was obvious that Cheanne had hit the proverbial wall, where each paddle stroke had become a painful effort. Even so, she maintained a steady rhythm, matching my pace, and even pulling ahead of me now and again. She'd also lowered her kayak's rudder to better concentrate on paddling, and it was clear to both of us that we'd made the right choice by taking our best equipped boats for this trip.
Cheanne's spirits lifted when she saw the last family of otters I'd seen, but I knew well how burning muscles and aching joints can take most of the joy out of simple speech, so the bulk of our conversation came from me. Being a professional wordmonger, it was no great feat for me to keep my mouth engaged, but I also suspected that even annoying conversation was preferable to dwelling in silence on our physical discomforts. The miles slipped by slowly but steadily beneath our molded hulls.
When we were 3 miles from the river mouth, a park ranger from the campground passed by on an upstream patrol, looking for boaters who might be in trouble. He slowed to reduce his wake when he passed, but merely waved a hand at us.
Almost as soon as he'd gone by, thick black clouds began rolling quickly inland from Whitefish Bay, completely obscuring the already occluded sun. I really didn't like the look of this, and Cheanne echoed my unspoken sentiments with a more or less rhetorical comment about our needing to make speed for the truck. We both picked up the pace, and the wind seemed to respond by blowing harder. Cheanne stopped paddling long enough to put on her waterproof parka shell, and had to fight hard to escape from the downed trees into which she was blown during that brief recess.
Thunder rolled in from Lake Superior as we rounded the last bend before the Rivermouth Campground, a half mile distant, and the rain we'd been expecting began to fall. At first it was refreshing and cooling to our overworked bodies, but by the time we'd reached the campground, the skies had become dark as night under torrential rains, the temperature had dropped precipitously, and the already stiff wind was gathering in strength. We were both thoroughly soaked and verging on hypothermia when Cheanne shouted to me over the wind that she was putting in at the campground. She headed for shore, where campers huddled aginst the wind under umbrellas and hooded jackets, watching the pair of lunatic kayakers engaged in battle against a hurricane.
With the rivermouth launch a mere half-mile distant, I was unwilling to stop now, so I shouted over my shoulder that I'd be back in a few minutes with truck. I bent hard against the paddle, feeling stubborn and going against my own oft-repeated advice about not pitting oneself against the forces of nature.
I should have heeded my own advice, because I made less than a hundred yards before hitting a virtual wall of pounding rain and winds that had to be in excess of 50 miles per hour. Despite my best efforts, the Breeze's forward momentum stopped with such abruptness that its bow rose a foot above the water. With felt temperatures at an estimated 30 degrees, my already exhausted body instantly seized in the first stage of hypothermia; I was gripped by uncontrollable shivering, and I had to fight hard against cramping abdominal muscles that were trying to force me to assume a fetal position.
Uncle - I was not going to make the river mouth in this typhoon, and was in fact flirting with real danger. I spun the kayak toward the campground's southern shore, just downstream from where Cheanne had beached her boat, but I could barely see past my own bow in that driving rain. I leaned hard into the vicious blow that was now hitting me broadside and threatening to flip my boat, and dug deep with the paddle.
The Breeze remained upright, but even at an oblique angle her bow was driven into a sheer 3-foot bank with sufficient force to pitch me nearly out of the cockpit. I jumped up and planted my right foot hard against the sandy bottom, leaving my left leg inside the cockpit to keep the kayak from blowing away until I could secure the bow line. My cold-numbed hand closed around the rope just as the wind caught my boat with a broadside that turned the craft completely over, pitching me headlong into the river.
I kept my grip on the bow line as I scrambled to my feet and up the muddy bank to high ground, but the kayak was now swamped with murky water. Worst of all, my expensive - and professionally invaluable - digital camera had been completely submerged, its protective zip-lock bag torn away by wind and water during the rough landing. No time to worry about that now; I was shivering violently as I strained to haul the water-filled boat up the bank, and if I didn't get warm soon, the least I could expect was an upper respiratory infection.
When the kayak was safely grounded within the windbreak of forest, I fumbled with shaking hands for the dry bag tied inside its cockpit. From inside, I took an uninsulated wool shirt and pulled it on over my PFD (personal flotation device), which was itself providing considerable insulation over my torso. The rain was still being driven almost horizontally when I set out to find Cheanne, but my shivering had abated now that I'd withdrawn from the full brunt of the wind.
Visibility was limited to just a few yards, but Cheanne's boat had to be beached a short way upstream from mine. I spotted it lying overturned on a sand spit barely 50 yards from where I'd landed, then I found her standing against the leeward side of a large red pine, huddled into the hood of her parka shell and looking downright miserable. She wasn't shivering to the extent that I was, but both of us were in dire need of shelter.
"C'mon," I shouted over the howling wind and rain, "let's head for the bathrooms." The modern half of the Rivermouth Campground, where we'd landed, contained large heated restrooms, complete with showers and all the amenities. By the time we'd walked the hundred yards between our boats and the building, it was apparent the neither of us required the emergency warmth from a shower, but we happily sheltered under the roofed open-air aisle between restrooms while hard rain fell with a sound like sizzling bacon.
After about ten minutes, the rain lessened to a steady patter, and we decided to hike the half-mile to our truck. The wind had died to a mere breeze as we drove back through the Rivermouth Campground, still wearing our PFDs because they helped to keep our saturated upper bodies warm. Ironically, we loaded the kayaks onto the truck racks in bright sunshine under blue skies.
This unpleasant, but memorable, experience was just a thumbnail example of why the coastline of Lake Superior, the second largest body of fresh water on the planet, has so often become a graveyard for the largest ships since commerce across it began. Weather there can change from gorgeous to vicious in a matter of minutes; hurricane-force winds can quickly whip area waterways into terrifying places to be in a small watercraft, and while few recreational boaters are likely to find themselves caught in an unplanned adventure like ours, it always pays to expect that one will happen.