Friday, March 29, 2013

Season opener: Paddling Lake Michigan again

Still wintry, but calm and ice-free. Time to paddle!
With the ice mostly melted and the air and water temperatures in the mid to upper 30s, we decided to go on the first relatively long paddle of the season. After months of confinement in swimming pools, it was exhilarating to be out on open water yesterday.

On the Chicago River, water taxis were practicing man-overboard drills. A few hearty tourists took part in architectural boat tours.

A man-overboard drill on the Chicago River.
It took several minutes to gain the attention of the lock tender at the Chicago Harbor Lock.

"Kayakers to Chicago Locktender. Request passage from the river to the lake."
Everywhere we looked, we saw evidence of how low Lake Michigan's water level has become. The river banks are higher than they were. Previous water levels are evident on the sides of the locks, far above where the water currently laps the walls. The difference in height between the lake and the river is no more than an inch or two. Out on the lake, wooden pilings that date from the shoreline construction of the early 1900s were exposed to the air.

Paddling past the Chicago skyline.
Great Lakes freighters motored in the mid-lake shipping channel; helicopters occasionally whirred overhead. But the lake was otherwise quiet--just us, the birds, and one fishing vessel out catching perch.

In a few months, we'll be cautious about collisions with inebriated recreational boaters; now we realized there's nobody here to harm us--or help us. It was one of those low-risk, high consequences situations: the chances we'd capsize or otherwise need assistance were remote, but if anything bad were to happen, we'd be on our own in a dangerously cold environment.

Alone on the lake, and not too far from shore.
That had been part of our risk assessment before we got on the water. It affected our choice of route (near shore, 18 miles, with plenty of places to stop if necessary), timing (late morning to late afternoon, with plenty of daylight hours to spare), clothing and equipment. Light winds and a stable high pressure system added to our positive assessment. We brought a four-star kit and were prepared if the journey took longer than we had planned, and could help each other or summon help. As usual, we had also filed a float plan with trusted friends.

But all went well. Though our hands and feet were cold at times, the pleasure of being out on the lake again overwhelmed any discomfort and made us especially appreciate the miracle of hot water on demand when we got home afterward.

Loading up afterward, looking forward to getting warm again.


Lenore said...

Thanks for including the steps in your risk assessment and your preparation.

Alli said...

I know exactly what you mean by inebriated boaters. One of the things I like best about kayaking the lake closest to me at this time of year is the peacefulness of it... no motor boats to have to worry about or listen to. Cheers.