Sea Kayaking Lake Superior’s Seiche

By Mary Fairchild

ApostlesTowing my daughter in after our first paddle on the lake.  She got sea sick in the 2-3′ following seas as we returned.

Have you ever paddled in Lake Superior and wondered why you would need your rudder or skeg since there was no wind or tide? I wondered that for several years until this past September when I was paddling with my daughter and her husband and we sought to find out why the weather forecast was so wrong.

My daughter and I arrived in Bayfield late on a Wednesday just in time to catch a ferry over to Madeline Island for a sunset dinner. The weather was to be continually clearing and we couldn’t wait to put our sea kayaks in the following day. Since we arrived late we decided to stay at Greunkes First Street Inn rather than find a campsite in the dark. We had their homemade pie before settling in. 

At the crack of dawn, which was 7am, we walked next door and had coffee at the Big Water Coffee Roasters as we waited for the town to wake up and open its doors. It was still a little brisk outside but soon the sun was expected to come out and brighten things up. I needed to get a few things for my daughter’s kayak so we stopped in Boreal Shores and admired their great selection of clothing and gear. I wanted my daughter to have her own compass because we hoped to paddle from the sea caves over to Eagle Island and I knew that fog can easily arrive out of nowhere and I wanted her to have her bearings.

ApostlesChelsea at Maggie’s Restaurant in her Maggie’s T.

After Boreal Shores, we found a fun little thrift store and spent quite a bit of time there. Chelsea found a cute t-shirt there from Maggies Restaurant which we planned to dine at later. I also like the pottery store just outside of town that has a lot of garden decorations so we stopped there before finding our campsite.
We hoped to see some of the shipwrecks so we found a perfect campsite at Legendary Waters that had its own little shallow nook for the kayaks. There are two shipwrecks near this location. We had a short walk down our private drive that meandered down to our rustic camp.  After pitching the tents and unloading all of our gear we started preparing to put in.  


The average annual water temperature of lake Superior is 45 degrees which has the ability to moderate the climate making the winters warmer and the summers cooler. Between late spring and late fall the shore can be shrouded in fog even when the sun is shining inland. Duluth has an average of 52 days of heavy fog each year as the moisture in the warm air condenses as it flows over the cold lake.


In Lake Superior, small seiches occur almost continuously going largely unnoticed, but the biggest seiches can snap mooring lines and crash ships in harbors. In 1995, lake water went out and came back within fifteen to twenty minutes changing the water level about three feet at Ashland, Wisconsin, Marquette and Point Iroquois, Michigan, and Rossport, Ontario. During a seiche, a lot of water is moving in a relatively short period of time—like a tide, you can be left high and dry or inundated with water as wind and air pressure changes can cause the entire surface of the lake to rhythmically rock back and forth. 


For the most part, the prevailing winds blowing across Lake Superior come from the Northwest and sometimes from the East. These winds and passing weather fronts push the water in Lake Superior to the far shores setting-up conditions for seiche activity once the wind dies down. “Free standing-wave oscillations” are due to the pendulum-like movements within seiches. Seiches are sometimes called “sloshes” on the Great Lakes and they are almost always present on Lake Superior. Lake Superior’s seiches have a period of 7.9 hours. The movement stirs both nutrients and pollutants into the water column. The seiche actually reverses the flow of some rivers—the St. Louis River can flow upstream for 11 miles when a seiche floods the harbor.

ApostlesWe decided to collect driftwood rather than attempt finding Eagle Island in the fog.  When we drove into to town the sun was out as we dined at Maggies.

The Apostle Islands proved my progression as an experienced sea kayaker like no other place I have paddled. Everyone has their unique goals and desires when it comes to paddling. It had been 9 years since my first sea kayak tour on Lake Superior to see the sea caves. Since then I had returned to do the “outer loop expedition,” an “all-islands expedition” twice, and a trip around Oak Island with Nigel Dennis. For the most part, I always returned in September because it is the ideal time to kayak when the summer crowds and bugs are gone.  If you time it right, some years you may even see the spectacular fall colors as well.

References/Related Posts

  1. Minnesota Sea Grant, “Lake Superior’s Natural Processes”,
  2. Ben Korgen, “Bonanza for Lake Superior: Seiches Do More Than Move Water,” February 2000.
  3. Kayaking the Apostle Islands: Kennedys, Native Americans, Religion, and Myth
  4. Sea Kayaking and Whitewater: Roughing it with Scott Berry and Nigel Dennis (Wolf River; Apostle Islands)
  5. Adaptive Paddling:  Drawing a Line in the Sand (Apostle Islands; Big Bay, MI)
  6. International Sea Kayak Guide Snubs Registered Maine Guides: American Canoe Association’s Cover-up
  7. Baja Winter Kayak Expedition:  Wind, Waves, and Lipstick (El Norte rescue)
  8. Chicago River Kayaking:  Don’t Get Caught Up Creek Without a Paddle (Safety issues on Chicago River)
  9.  Jekyll and Cumberland Island: Surf Workshop With Geneva Kayak (Federal Reserve; Shell Midden)
  10.  Tybee Island Sea Kayak Surfing (Georgia)
  11. Paddle/Hike/Play


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