Coast Guard Helicopter hoisting kayaker from Lake Superior along cliffs in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Coast Guard helicopter rescuing kayaker from the waters of Lake Superior along the Pictured Rocks NL cliffs. Kayaker survived thanks to his wetsuit and life jacket, and the fact that one of the other 2 swamped kayakers in the group was able to get a call out for help.


Kayaking in the Great Lakes can be a fantastic experience, but it can also be dangerous. Whether you're kayaking here at Pictured Rocks or anywhere, conditions can change rapidly. Remember, rescue is not guaranteed!

At Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, we respond to many rescues where kayakers were ill-equipped or ill-informed. Occasionally, kayakers will be properly prepared, and Lake Superior will still overwhelm them. We implore anyone interested in kayaking Lake Superior to seriously consider the risks, and to properly prepare before setting out. Even experienced kayakers have been overpowered by the lake.

Before you set out to kayak Lake Superior, ask yourself these questions. Do I know the marine forecast? Do I have a life jacket? Do I have a sea kayak? Did I tell others where I'm going? Can I save myself (and get back in my kayak from the water)? These are just a few things to consider before heading out.

Kayaker on Lake Superior along the Pictured Rocks cliffs.
Kayaker on Lake Superior along Pictured Rocks Cliffs.

NPS photo

Paddling at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
The park is renowned for its water resources, from Lake Superior, to inland streams, waterfalls and lakes. The inland lakes are the best places for paddling. Grand Sable Lake, Little Beaver Lake, and Beaver Lake are easily accessed by vehicle. If you don't mind carrying your canoe or kayak, Miners Lake, Chapel Lake, and Legion Lake are good options.

Before you get to the park, make sure you have the right equipment and the right skills:

  1. What kind of boat do you plan on using?
Sea Kayak, Recreational Kayak, Canoe

A sea kayak is a long, slim boat which you sit inside that is designed for coastal paddling. It is usually between 14 ft. 10 in to 18 feet long, and between 18 to 24 inches wide. The deck (top) covers the entire boat except for a small opening (cockpit) in which the person sits. The cockpit has a raised lip around it that allows for paddlers to utilize a spray skirt to help keep water out of the boat. Sea kayaks also have bulkheads to prevent water from flooding the entire boat. A sea kayak is the only type of kayak that should be used on Lake Superior.

A recreational or general purpose kayak is smaller than 14 1/2 feet long. A recreational kayak is for the casual paddler on placid rivers, ponds, or small lakes. It has a larger opening for the paddler to sit in. The larger opening can make it easier for water to enter the boat, making the boats prone to swamping. Their shorter size also makes them prone to being pushed around in the wind and waves. Recreational kayaks should not be used on large bodies of open water (Lake Superior) or used on windy days.

A canoe is an open boat that is wider than a kayak. Their height makes them hard to control in windy conditions on open water. Unless packed with flotation, they can also fill with water and more easily swamp. Canoes should not be used on Lake Superior!

If you are using a canoe or recreational kayak, you should only consider paddling on inland lakes or nearby rivers (such as the Au Train River west of the park).

2. Do you have the right safety equipment to go out paddling?

  • PFD (Personal Flotation Device) / Life Jacket
  • Wet Suit / Dry Suit (for paddling on Lake Superior and during cooler weather on other lakes)
  • Spray Skirt (for paddling on Lake Superior)
  • Paddle Float
  • Bilge Pump
  • Paddle Leash
  • Marine Radio
  • Whistle or Air Horn

PFDs are required for each person. They should be worn at all times and not stowed away. Life jackets work while on. It is very difficult to put on a life jacket once in the water. 75% of canoe/kayak fatalities were not wearing life jackets. Don't be a statistic!

A wet suit or dry suit is strongly recommended for anyone paddling on the cold waters of Lake Superior. Lake Superior never gets warm. The average summer surface temperature is 59 degrees F / 15 degrees C. Hypothermia can occur in as little as 10 minutes. Difficulty moving is one of the symptoms of hypothermia. Learn more at: www.coldwatersafety.org

A spray skirt is a waterproof barrier that helps keep waves, rain, and spray out of the boat and helps keep the paddler dryer, and therefore warmer. A spray skirt also helps prevent a boat from swamping (filling up with water). Water in a boat makes the boat unstable.

A paddle float is an important self-rescue tool. If a paddler capsizes (ends up out of the boat and in the water), they need to be able to get back in their vessel. The paddle float attaches to the kayak blade and helps create an outrigger to stabilize the boat to allow for re-entry.

A bilge pump is a device used to remove water from a boat. A small bucket can work too. Sponges are good for soaking up small amounts of water.

A paddle leash attaches from your paddle to your kayak. They help prevent you from losing your paddle and even your boat if you capsize.

A marine radio should be carried to help keep you informed about the weather. The weather can change quickly on Lake Superior, exposing you to high winds, rough seas, and fog. The cliffs along the Pictured Rocks shoreline do not offer any protected places to get away.

A sound producing device must be audible for one half mile for 4 to 6 seconds. This whistle or air horn should be attached to you. Storing it in a bag in your boat will mean that it is not available in emergencies, such as when you are in the water needing to signal for help, or a motorboat is coming at you in the fog or in high waves.

3. Can you save yourself?
Help is not a phone call away! You are on your own!

Cell phones may or may not work at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Even if you are able to get a 911 call out, help is still far away: at the least 30 minutes. 60 to 90 minutes or longer is more likely. If the weather is very rough, no one will be able to respond until the weather calms down.

You need to be able to perform a self-rescue. Read, research on-line, take lessons. And then practice, practice, practice!

Always wear your life jacket! Wear a wetsuit. Cold water kills!

Paddle with others. Make sure they know how to perform rescues too.

Leave a float plan with someone who cares about you. Don't forget to tell them when you get back so they don't start a search.

Kayak Safety (pdf)
Kayak rescue along Pictured Rocks cliffs
on the water weather buoy
weather buoy - transmits real time air and water temperature, wind speed and direction, wave height, and video

You have the right boat, right equipment, and the skills. Before you go, check the weather!

Check the marine weather forecast. If you're going out for the morning, pay attention to the afternoon forecast as well. Weather changes quickly and unexpectedly.

Location, location, location - just because it's calm in the bay, does not mean it is calm along the more distant shores. Listen to the weather forecast and pay attention to wind direction. Visit the weather buoy site to see real time data and video.

The Pictured Rocks extend for 15 miles and include sheer walls all the way to the water line. These exposed cliffs offer no way off the water if wind and waves increase.

Other things to keep in mind while paddling on Lake Superior:

Cold water kills!

Drowning is the #1 cause of death in national parks.

Be aware of boat tours that leave Munising on a regular basis during the summer months. They run fairly close to the shoreline with a turnaround point at Chapel Beach or Spray Falls. Give them plenty of room and allow for their wake.

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.
Sea Kayak and Recreational Kayak. The recreational kayak has the no slashed through it.
Take only sea kayaks out on Lake Superior. Use recreational kayaks and canoes on inland lakes and rivers.
For more information ...

Kayaking - site bulletin (pdf)
Kayaking Safety - site bulletin (includes float plan) - pdf

Your Safety

Leave No Trace

Great Lakes Weather Buoys
National Weather Service Forecast


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P.O. Box 40
Munising, MI 49862


(906) 387-3700
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