For most of my life, I have spent some portion of lazy summer days gazing out on Lake Superior. As a child, it was usually somewhere between Porcupine Mountains State Park and Copper Harbor. As an adult, we vacationed in and around Grand Marais for years. Even after long hauls in the motorhome to Alaska, Wyoming or Montana, we’d always stop near our favorite harbor on the return. And for many of those years, I trailered our boat to explore miles of shoreline or kayaked expansive sections. No matter the time on the greatest of lakes, it was never enough.
Last year, I wanted to celebrate life as I turned 60 years old, a feat four previous generations in my father’s family had a difficult time accomplishing. I needed one more journey to solidify a life I had turned around from a suicidal depression almost 10 years before. A cake and a martini wouldn’t cut it. I had to be alone with my soul, my persona. I had to prove I was healthy enough to paddle for two months around the American shoreline of Lake Superior.
At my bedside is a copy of “Walden Pond” and in the reading room of our home, a copy of Robert Service’s “The Spell of the Yukon.” Scattered are texts from John Muir, Ernest Hemingway and Anthony Bourdain. I’ve emulated these characters my entire life. I wanted a final version of my own character, now. Lake Superior would provide the plasma.
My wife and children discussed the idea extensively and the normal cautions were announced. Knowing of the previous adventures I’d had around North America, the family understood I was in perfect physical, spiritual and emotional condition to attempt my dream. I, however, still made sure our attorney had my will. The journey would be amazing, but this was Lake Superior, and I was going alone.
Beginning on Minnesota’s North Shore at its own Grand Marais harbor, I set out for a 25-mile first day in water that not even pleasure boats attempted. I slugged my way through swells, wind-driven whitecaps that tested my limits and abilities. During those first two weeks, the storms that ravaged Wisconsin and the Keweenaw Peninsula took a direct path over me.
But I persevered through raging storms and calm waters, eating my oatmeal, granola, peanut butter, chicken, chili, tuna, ramens and bags of M&M’s. I provisioned at various ports, sometimes walking miles with a small backpack I carried for just that reason. I met people who assisted with directions, conversation and who simply wanted to be nice. Loons, otters, eagles and peregrine falcons were among nature’s welcoming crowd.
In terms of safety gear, I took no electronics besides my VHF radio, a rescue beacon and an old flip phone I could only use in emergencies, the last item at the direction of wife and daughter. This was to be old school. No smartphone to order ahead or browse local areas for necessities. I wanted to be mindful and in the moment. This was a rite of passage, not a slice of notoriety I wished to YouTube as I progressed.
In Wisconsin, I discovered tumbling forests and molten red clay storm remnants, leaving sliver-sized beaches while trees floated in the red clay-colored water. The most dangerous of days had me coursing toward Cornucopia, as I entered the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, and it was here I found myself on my hands and knees kissing the dirt onshore and sobbing as I used the phone to call my wife and tell her I loved her.
Saxon Harbor, Wisconsin, once a popular gateway to the Flambeau Trail used by voyageurs for trade, had been destroyed by a tornado two years prior. It was nothing but mud and construction equipment. Up from there and past the Montreal River, I entered Michigan and thought all would be easier.
But Michigan’s far western shore had been hit by the worst of the storms. Where beaches were once yards wide, they were now missing due to erosion; E. coli warnings were heeded from locals all the way to Copper Harbor. Walking around McLain State Park and Houghton and Hancock, I found sunken roads, closed alleys, byways and buildings no longer on foundations.
Lake Superior’s gorgeous waters finally calmed around the Keweenaw Peninsula, Point Abbaye, the Huron Mountains into Big Bay. But toward Munising, rough conditions returned. Finally rounding Grand Sable Lighthouse in 4-foot swells and finding safety at the dunes, I headed to Grand Marais, Michigan, and plodded through 13 squalls in 8 miles.
It sounds horrid, I know, but it was one of the greatest spiritual experiences of my life. I paddled only 50 feet out from a sandy shoreline, whitecaps constant but moderate, and the feeling of the rain, mist, fog then the sunshine, a cycle that repeated over and over, was exhilarating. This was the apex of the enlightenment I had sought and obtained from cavorting with loons, sea otters, peregrine falcons, eagles, bears and the elements while surviving on instinct and a collective community of Samaritans awaiting me at every port and every shore.
Grand Marais stood calm. On the shore of the inner harbor, my wife and family were waiting with a banner. I found myself a better human and, most importantly, alive and ready to get on with my life.
Tom Renkes lives with his wife in Petoskey where he enjoys writing, painting, traveling, his grandchildren and caring for their 140-year-old home.