Kayak Safety

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Lake Conditions

Lake Superior is renowned for its cold temperatures, rough seas, fog, and sudden squalls. Boaters should monitor marine weather forecasts and be constantly alert to changing conditions. Average daytime high temperatures range from 60 degrees Fahrenheit in May, to the upper C's in mid-summer, to the mid-60s in September. Average lows vary from 40 degrees in May, to the upper 50s in mid-summer, to 50 degrees in September. Average water temperatures in May and June are only in the 40s. Even in late summer, surface temperatures rarely exceed 60 degrees, except in protected bays. Average summer winds blow at from 5 to 20 knots with waves of from one to four feet. Winds of 30 to 40 knots and 6 to 12 foot seas are possible. NOAA’s National Weather Service forecast office in Duluth has both nearshore and open waters forecasts for Lake Superior as well as weather readings from the data buoy at Devils Island.

Bayfield Weather - 7 day Forecast.
Nearshore Forecast - Within 5 miles of the shore. Port Wing to Sand Island to Bayfield Wisconsin.
Offshore Forecast - Lake Superior west of a line from Saxon Harbor Wisconsin to Grand Portage Minnesota beyond.

If conditions on the lake are too rough and considered unsafe you might want to consider an alternative place to paddle for the day or booking a guided trip with an authorized kayak outfitter.

 
Two people standing on a beach next to kayaks pointing out at the lake.
Getting ready to launch at Little Sand Bay near the historic Hokenson's dock.

NPS Photo

Paddling Concerns

Be visible. Sea kayaks ride low in the water and are difficult for other boaters to see, especially during rough lake conditions. Always keep a lookout for approaching boats and use your paddle or flag to alert boaters to your presence. Brightly colored clothing can also improve visibility.

Be alert to changing weather and lake conditions. Extreme weather conditions may be encountered at any time. Lake conditions may change and become dangerous without warning. Always observe and evaluate wind and wave conditions before entering the water. Monitor the nearshore and offshore marine weather forecasts for the Apostle Islands area.

Be prepared. Besides your PFD, wet suit, spray skirt, whistle/emergency signal device, bilge pump, and weather radio, consider bringing: lighting device, self-contained stove, extra paddle, compass, maps, first aid kit, insect repellent, tow line, rain gear, waterproof matches, and dry storage containers.

 

Emergency Procedures


If you have an emergency on the water try calling 911 or use marine channel 16 to reach emergency help. The U.S. Coast Guard and Park Rangers monitor marine channel 16. When talking with first responders always make sure to specify your location. For non emergency incidents call (715) 779-3397 (park headquarters in Bayfield).

We recommend that all boaters use the NOAA lake charts #14973 or #14966.

Have a float plan. A float plan includes travel details and trip expectations for a friend or relative in case you are overdue. A thorough float plan should include:

1. Boat operators names and emergency contact information.

2. Boat descriptions: size, colors, and distinguishing features.

3. Survival equipment on hand.

4. Communication capacity: cell phones or marine radio.

5. Trip expectations: departure date and location, arrival dates and locations, return date and location, and when they should contact authorities if you are overdue.
 
A person in a kayak assists another person in the water with the front of their kayak on top of their own.
Assisted T-rescue technique.

NPS Photo

Self Rescue Skills

Do not exceed your skill level! If you are new to sea kayaking, it is recommended that you take a guided trip with an outfitter. Ask NPS staff if you have questions concerning weather, safety regulations, or destinations.

It is essential that you are able to rescue yourself and perform an assisted T-rescue when paddling in the Apostle Islands.

  • Know your gear and how to use it. Practice your skills on an annual basis.
  • Be capable of re-entering your kayak from the water. If re-entering is not possible stay with the capsized boat.
  • Use the buddy system. Stay together with your group and conduct your water sports within the skill level of the group's least experienced member.

The American Canoe Association offers online instructions and guidance for all national paddlesports including kayaks, rafts, stand up paddle boards (SUP), and canoes.

 
Big waves hit the sandstone cliffs creating sea spray.
Rough lake conditions create big waves that come crashing onto Devils Island near the sea caves.

Photo/ S. Palmer

 

Sea Cave Safety

Sea caves are enticing but can be extremely hazardous in rough seas. Rebounding waves can make boat handling difficult, if not impossible. These shorelines do not offer safe landing sites and should only be visited when conditions are calm. It is easy to underestimate distances between destination points. Allow plenty of time to accomplish your intended route. The Meyers Beach sea caves are approximately 1.5 miles from Meyers Beach launch site and extend for another 3 miles along the mainland shore line.

We suggest paddling no more than 10 miles per day for beginners or 15 miles per day for seasoned paddlers. Be sure to inform a friend or relative with your travel plans so that someone will notice if you are overdue. Park Rangers and the U.S. Coast Guard monitor marine channel 16. Try to notify a park ranger if conditions force you to change your plans.

 
3 foot waves on lake near tree lined shore.
3 foot waves rolling towards shore.

NPS Photo

Cold Water Kills

Lake Superior’s average summer surface temperature is 59°F / 15°C.
Hypothermia can occur in as little as 10 minutes.

If you fall out of your boat you have:
1 minute to orient yourself and float
10 minutes before the water starts to numb your extremities and make moving difficult.
1 hour before the cold water kills you.

Learn how to get back into your boat quickly. Always wear a life jacket. Learn more about
cold water safety.

 

Ask Yourself

Remember, before you go paddling ask yourself:

1. Do I have the right boat for the location?
2. Do I have a life jacket for each person?
3. Do I know the marine forecast?
4. Can I save myself (get back into my boat from the water)?
5. Did I tell friends or famiily where I am going?
 
A black bear in a forest with the front paws on a log.
A black bear caught on camera in the park.

NPS Photo

Wildlife Safety


Black Bears
Islands like Stockton, Oak, and Sand host resident bears, but bears can swim to any of the Apostle Islands. Never approach a bear, even to take pictures. Keep at least 50 yards away. Never feed a bear. There are several ways to avoid a close encounter with a bear where you camp or picnic. Reduce food odors by washing dishes and cleaning the kitchen site after cooking. Use minimal amounts of water to clean dishes and broadcast that wastewater on the ground at least 50 yards from camp. Do not keep food, garbage, or toiletries (such as toothpaste or soap) in your tent. Bear proof food lockers are provided at all campsites within the Apostle Islands. Food must be locked in the food lockers except during meals. Where food lockers are not available (primitive camping) hang the food cache in a tree away from the tent and at least 12 feet from the ground and five feet from the trunk. Do not bury, scatter or try to burn food scraps. Bag garbage and pack it out. If you encounter a bear near a dock, campsite, or picnic area, use tone of voice and body posture to show you are in charge, yell and make noise until the bear leaves the area, then report the encounter to park staff.

Insects and Ticks
Biting insects can be prevalent on the islands from June to September. Wearing long pants and long sleeved shirts will provide some protection from mosquitos, biting flies, and ticks. Insect repellents are helpful. The ticks that transmit Lyme Disease and Ehrlichiosis are found in the park. If you notice a rash, flu-like symptoms, or pain in the joints following a tick bite, call your physician.

Last updated: August 4, 2020

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

415 Washington Avenue
Bayfield, WI 54814

Phone:

(715) 779-3397

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