Bucket list worthy, right? Kayaking the Pictured Rocks is one of those #puremichigan activities that you dream about all winter, organize a whole vacation around.
And it makes total sense. The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is home to hundred foot sea cliffs, waterfalls that cascade into Lake Superior, and sea arches. It’s beautiful.
Lake Superior, the largest lake in the world, is also deadly and the Pictured Rocks is one of the most dangerous kayaking locations on Lake Superior. The Lakeshore has miles of cliffline exposed to the full force of the Lake, few landing opportunities or exit options, and no cell service. Once you’re in, there’s no stopping. You’re on your own.
Just this month, September 16th, two kayakers died at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
image of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore taken from a sea kayak.
Tourism & the Pictured Rocks
Once upon a time, the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore was a small park in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, relatively unknown. The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore has seen an increase in tourism every summer, reaching 1.2 million visitors in 2021. Meanwhile, in 2014 the park saw just 528,000 visitors.
Some attribute the rise of tourism in the Pictured Rocks to the #puremichigan ad campaigns, travel bloggers “discovering” and ad nauseam covering the area, the general influence of social media, or just the fact that there are more people in the world and they have to go somewhere, but either way tourism has made it’s mark on the Pictured Rocks.
While hiking the Pictured Rocks is also popular, kayaking is the “bucket list item” for many visitors. It’s also a lot more likely to end badly.
I’ve talked before about kayaking safety on Lake Superior. I’ve worked as a sea kayaking guide on the Lake for several years, in the Apostle Islands, have solo paddled the Pictured Rocks, and have seen and experienced the lake in a variety of conditions. I won’t break down sea kayaking safety in this article, but feel free to revisit my on the topic.
Among Munising residents, tourism is often considered a “problem”, and certain outfitters chief offenders. From complaints of leaving kayaks lining the entirety of the beach making it inaccessible to other visitors, to launching kayaks in unsafe conditions, to stories of guides forgetting their participants, the one specific outfitter’s story is a little bit of a nightmare.
Read any number of their ridiculous (hilarious) one star reviews.
This review is especially concerning. In all of the sea kayak trainings I’ve attended or led, situational awareness (at the very MINIMUM knowing where your boats are and making sure no one has flipped) is the most important part of kayak guiding. Making sure your people don’t need to swim to shore and rescue themselves is literally the main point of your entire job.
If you’re interested in kayaking the Pictured Rocks, I highly recommend you check out Pictured Rocks Kayaking instead.
Lover’s Leap, one of the most iconic arches in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
What’s actually safe on the Great Lakes?
Increased tourism has put Pictured Rocks on the map, and those same travel blogs like Pure Michigan that popularized the park also provide inaccurate or incomplete safety information.
sea kayaking the Pictured Rocks cliffs.
This Pure Michigan article “A Beginners Guide to Kayaking in Michigan”, states that sea kayaking, done on open water, is suitable for tandem, inflatable and touring/sea kayaks. This is not true.
Sea kayaking refers to the type of kayak— a sea kayak specifically. Do not take an inflatable kayak out on the Great Lakes. Like, just don’t do that. I don’t know where in the world the writer got the idea that an inflatable kayak can be used for sea kayaking, but that is incorrect and dangerous.
It’s also worth noting that not all tandem kayaks are created equal. A tandem sea kayak is stable and a good choice for Lake Superior. A tandem sit on top kayak, or a kayak with an open cockpit, is not.
ask yourself: how will I get back into the boat if I capsize in waves? If you don’t have a plan that you’ve practiced in big water, don’t go.
The article also states that the Pictured Rocks are a good trip for beginners. This is also not true. Conditions on Lake Superior vary wildly. Just because the day the writer took a trip was suitable for beginners, doesn’t mean tomorrow will be.
All of this misinformation is published on michigan.org. When a seemingly reliable source says that the Pictured Rocks are a safe kayaking trip for beginners is it any wonder that the park sees harrowing rescues, sometimes deaths, every single year?
Part of the problem lies in the culture of travel blogging itself:
Anyone who is savvy with words can position themselves as an authority on a topic they know very very little about. The cumulative effect of dozens of travel bloggers writing incorrect things about kayaking safety is that you find dozens of articles on Google and Pinterest written by people who are great writers, but don’t actually know anything about the outdoors. This presents an incorrect and dangerous image of what the Pictured Rocks and Lake Superior look like.
Our National Parks are not Disney. You are not guaranteed a sugar coated, Instagramable experience because a travel blogger or influencer posted beautiful photos and promised it is a “beginner level” paddle.
Meanwhile, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore itself has excellent resources on paddling safety in the park. I recommend you check this page out for the Park Service’s resources on kayaking in the Pictured Rocks.
The issue is, the National Park itself (obviously) doesn’t write clickbait. The verbose and accurate safety messaging on the Park’s site is discouraging for beginners, and not presented in that beautiful, scannable travel blogger format. The Park doesn’t want beginner paddlers out on Lake Superior. No one wants to be told you can’t or shouldn’t do the thing you planned your whole vacation around.
In contrast to the Park Service, travel blogs that say you can take an inflatable kayak, and it’s easy, all promising a “tropical like” destination.
We seek out information that tells us what we want to hear. If Rachel* at Conde Nast Traveller is telling you what you want to hear, why listen to the Park Service? They have to say all that for liability, right?
*this is not a real person, rather an amalgamation of all the middle aged travel writers who are actually not good at their jobs.
You don’t have to paddle to experience the Pictured Rocks; the “coves” along the Beaver Basin hiking trails are a beautiful spot for swimming.
In 2016, three men launched from Sand Point in the Pictured Rocks bound for Miner’s Beach, just four miles away. Quickly caught in 6 foot building waves and gale force winds, the group was unable to reach their destination. One by one, each of the men capsized, and despite having practiced paddle-float self rescues, none of them were able to T-rescue each other.
These men were relatively experienced and had all the right equipment. They made a few errors in judgement, and found themselves in a life or death situation at the Pictured Rocks. All three men survived, but not because they got lucky.
They lived because they had the correct gear, were wearing drysuits, and once they were already in that life or death situation, had enough training to know what to do to survive.
You can read an excellent write up of this incident in Men’s Journal here.
The message of this incident, of many, is ultimately this:
Your good equipment alone does not keep you safe on the water. Your experience keeps you safe, and your judgement calls keep you safe.
Spray Falls from the hiking trails.
In 2018, I solo paddled the Pictured Rocks. It was one of my first solo paddling trips and I was nervous. I chose the day carefully, monitored the marine radio, and double and triple checked all my safety gear. It worked out perfectly for me for the first half; the Lake was glassy calm.
On the way back into the beach, the wind shifted, just as the weather said it would, to a southwest wind, a small headwind and 1-1.5 ft chop. I wasn’t worried at this point. By the time I landed at Miner’s Beach, it was calm again in the protection of mainland.
Before I left, I made small talk with a couple who had brought their Wilderness Systems Pungos, a small open cockpit boat that would probably not fair well in the waves out at the cliffs. I asked where they were coming up from, and if they liked the area.
Then I asked if they’d checked the weather forecast for the evening.
“Yup, it’s not supposed to storm,” the man said, confident.
“Nope, should be clear skies. Just so you know the wind has already started to pick up and it’s supposed to build. Here,” I said, pulling out my map and lining it up so they could see where they were now versus where they were going. “If you look out at the cliff line now, notice how you can see flashes of white at the base? Those are the waves hitting the cliffs. It looks calm where we are, because the wind is coming from sort of behind the land. Once you’re out there and in the waves, the waves will hit the cliff then bounce up and double up, so even if you’re in one foot waves, every now and then a bigger one will hit you from a weird direction.”
I talked with them a little longer, and gave them my map to keep, circling my favorite hiking trails and waterfalls with a sharpie marker. They decided not to kayak the cliffs after all, and went to watch the sunset at Spray Falls.
sea kayaking the Pictured Rocks cliffs.
I think a lot about that conversation when I hear about kayaking accidents. I’ve tried to talk many people out of launching their boats in potentially risky situations, and I haven’t always been successful. I think the important part is connecting with someone as a person first, and making sure they know that it’s not that you think they’re stupid, and it’s not that you don’t think they’re good enough.
It will never not make me sad to hear about kayaking deaths on Lake Superior. I love the lake a lot, and have put tons of hours into helping other people have the experiences on the Lake that I have.
It makes me incredibly sad to think that two people wanted to have a beautiful day out kayaking on Lake Superior, and something went wrong, and it turned into the worst and last day of their lives.
Details of the recent deaths at the Pictured Rocks haven’t been released, other than that the conditions where waves 3-5 ft, occasionally to 7ft, with gale force winds to 40 mph.
On Lake Superior, weather in the typical sense is irrelevant— it doesn’t matter if it’s raining. It’s the wind that matters. Gale Force winds would’ve meant all kayak tours were cancelled, along with any of the boat tours that usually help kayakers in distress. Gale Force winds meant the safety nets that usually exist were down that day.
Weather reports from the region have Gale Force winds coming from the south/southeast on September 16th, 2021.
Pictured above is a screen grab of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The red arrows represent wind direction (southeast), and the pin is the point from which the kayakers would’ve launched.
It’s important to note that with a Southerly wind direction, you cannot see the waves until you’ve been pushed away from shore. It’s likely that the group began their paddle in deceptively calm waters— near shore, the kayakers would’ve been in the lee, or wind shadow of the land.
It’s also likely that with 40mph winds, the kayakers were quickly pushed by the wind away from shore, and out into the larger 3-5 ft waves.
I think it’s really important to emphasize with accidents like this that these people were not stupid. They did not launch in to what they thought were dangerous conditions. The lake is changeable, and deceptive, and they got unlucky. They just didn’t know.
Articles like this one from the Detroit News say that “the kayakers died in the absolute worst Lake Superior conditions”. Comments on Facebook ask “what in the world they were thinking!?”.
While the kayakers did not die in anywhere near the most nasty of Lake Superior conditions, they did die in a perfect storm. It looked calm from shore and likely continued to be calm for the beginning of their trip, but the wind was strong enough to push them out into cold, open waters with much larger waves, and no hope of fighting a Gale Force wind back to safety.
It could’ve happened to any number of the paddlers who visit the Lakeshore. It was an easy mistake to make.
Kayaking in the Pictured Rocks only gets more popular with every passing year, and that trend isn’t likely to slow. Parking lots are full, human excrement is found on trails, and park officials are considering charging a fee to help offset damages caused by visitors to the park.
It’s hard to say if something like this is the right move, especially since the outdoors are already so difficult to access for lower-income families, but it’s also hard to imagine another way to make the increased strain on the Pictured Rocks sustainable.
Personally, I don’t know the answers. It’s pretty clear that the residents of Munising don’t love the onslaught of tourism (though I will note that the people generally opposed to tourism in Munising and in Grand Marais are people who have themselves moved from the city to these towns seeking solitude; their frustrations seem to be based in a false sense of ownership in an area they have no actual claim to, an “I was here first” sentiment. These people tend to be angry that someone else might also want to enjoy the solitude of the Northwoods, not unlike themselves).
It’s pretty clear that we need to be better about our safety messaging around kayaking and other outdoor activities (@puremichigan). We need to be more conscious about our impact, and find a way to support our parks. Is a fee at the Pictured Rocks the answer?
(hopefully someone more qualified than me can answer that question.)
For better or worse, the internet and the modern world have changed the outdoors; we too need to change to protect our environment, our sacred places, and ourselves.