McQuade Harbor Paddle By Eric Chandler I love maps. You can look at them and imagine what the unexplored places look like. I’m always hoping I’ll find a “Here There Be Dragons” or “Terra Incognita” remark. No such luck. Every place has been discovered. I can at least fantasize over places I haven’t seen yet. There are still plenty of those. I looked at a map of the McQuade Small Craft Harbor. This facility between Duluth and Knife River provides a safe place for small boats to hide from Lake Superior’s wrath. There are several boat ramps and long stone breakwaters that were completed in 2008. The map of the harbor had two words: kayak ramp. Amazing power in those two words. What’s a kayak ramp? How’s that different from a boat ramp? I ran by on my long marathon training runs and looked down from Hwy. 61, curious. There were cement bollards blocking the far western ramp so that only a person carrying a kayak could bring their craft down to the water. “I’ve got a kayak,” I thought. But I’ll admit it: I’m a novice paddler, and I’m scared of Lake Superior. Its big, cold, and has giant waves that swallow Walter Mitty-types like me. My 20-year-old kayak does fine on the flat water of inland lakes. But I wanted to venture out onto the big lake for the first time. I formed a plan to launch from that kayak ramp and paddle to Kitchi Gammi Park (aka Brighton Beach) near Duluth. I waited for the perfect night. I wanted it to be dead calm and as hot as it gets. The day arrived, and my family helped me load the kayak on the truck. We said our goodbyes at the kayak ramp. The cement pillars had been removed so that other small boats could use the far west ramp. I procrastinated so long in taking this trip that it wasn’t even a kayak ramp anymore. Just a “ramp” now, I guess. I pushed off and vowed to see them again at Brighton Beach in about an hour. Five miles of adventure, alone and afraid. I hoped I wouldn’t end up like Shackleton. I emerged from the breakwaters and was immediately struck by the vastness of the glassy blue. Shortly after beginning my
The intrepid Eric Chandler starts his paddle at McQuade Small Craft Harbor. | SHELLEY CHANDLER paddle toward town, I saw an object out away from shore. A mermaid? Nope, a data buoy. I should paddle out to that, I thought. I started to, but I chickened out. I needed to be near shore. Like a kid who’s learning to walk needs to hold on to the couch with one hand. I saw a loon. And another kayaker going the opposite direction. It was neat to hear the traffic along the shore road from out on the water. I’ve been down old Hwy. 61 lots of times on foot and in a car. Just 100 yards
away out on Lake Superior, it’s a whole different experience. All of the cliffs and palisades of rock that are hidden from the road are facing you in the water. As the sun slowly set, the alpenglow rose to the east. I hugged the shadows of the cliffs. The most amazing thing was the water clarity. I’m used to the tannin-stained water of the interior lakes. It was eerie to glide along 20 feet above the underwater boulders and ledges. They slid past underneath me like ghosts. I felt like a low-flying plane.
An hour later, I paddled into sight of the rocky shore at my destination. There were my wife, two kids and my trusty pooch. The Brighton Beach Rescue Squad. They saved me from the shining Big-Sea-Water. I paid them back by taking them to the Portland Malt Shoppe. The ice cream gave me the courage to think about another voyage onto Lake Superior. A trip near shore would be good. Do you have any maps for me?
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Northern Wilds July 2014