Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The great sailboat migration

After yet another unseasonably cold and rainy weekend, many boaters called it quits. Yesterday, sailboats and tour boats streamed into the Calumet River en route to their dry docks.
We figured we'd follow them.
If you ever want to feel really small, try paddling in the Calumet River. Nearly everything there is on an enormous scale: piles of coke, stacks of aluminum ingots, mountains of salt, mammoth ocean-going ships, towering cranes, groaning bridges...it's almost overwhelming.

A tractor atop a mountain of salt.

Our VHF radios enabled us to listen in on the conversations between captains and bridge tenders. We watched as the railroad bridge near the Skyway lifted up to let some boats go by, then lowered to allow an Amtrak train to cross. We paddled next to tug boats and ore boats and enormous ocean-going ships.

Alec provides a sense of scale. This ship was headed to Duluth and then to Spain.

Some of the photos we took look like images from faraway lands. If you didn't know better, you might think this was an apartment complex somewhere in the former Soviet Union with snow-covered mountains in the bacgkground:

Stacks of aluminum ingots with a pile of salt in the background.

 There's something timeless about the Calumet River. If industry had emerged on Earth before nature, this would be a primordial land.

A relic of the days when giant machines roamed the Earth.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Calibrating our inner anemometers

When we were newer paddlers, our estimates of wave height and wind speed were quite unreliable. We simply didn't have enough experience to provide a frame of reference.
These days, we get a kick out of seeing how our estimates compare with hard data. Yesterday, we paddled out from the Wilson "launch ramps" (now the Mondog doggie beach) to the Montrose crib against quartering winds. Then we paddled directly into those winds back to Fullerton Avenue. We estimated that the winds were about 22 knots gusting to something like 28.
Sure enough, when we checked the data from the Harrison crib, the wind speeds at around 12:30 were 11.7 meters/second (23 knots) gusting to 13.9 meters/second (27 knots).
Because the wind was off-shore, the water was flat near the beaches. Three miles out, the waves were perhaps 2 to 3 feet.
Best of all, the sky was blue for one of the first times all month.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Adjusting to colder water and weather

Lake Michigan's surface water near Chicago dropped about 10 degrees over the past week. This morning's 19-knot winds beckoned, but the water temperatures whispered, "Bring your neoprene caps and poagies."
We suppose some people don't hear things like that.
After weeks of warm water, we were somewhat sad to find the lake back in the mid-50s. But hey, this is Chicago. And besides, our west coast friends consider temperatures like these normal.
We surfed and played a bit, then tried to convince one of the denizens of the doggie beach that we weren't deep sea aliens come to steal his tennis balls.
It's important, we figure, to get out on the water as the temperatures drop to soften the shock of winter's arrival. Poagies and all.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A wind that commands respect

"Let's paddle!" Alec is ready to go.

Yesterday, we planned to paddle the Calumet channel with legendary local paddler Erik Sprenne. The "legendary" part of his name comes from his 25-plus years as a whitewater instructor and river access advocate for the Chicago Whitewater Association. (Never mind that he lives in Indiana.)
We've long wanted to check out the Calumet, and we figured Erik was just the guy to show us the way. At the last minute, relative newcomer Aaron Litchfield joined us, too
Friday arrived with 25-plus-knot winds out of the north, steady rain and 5- to 7-foot waves. We met at Rainbow Beach on Chicago's South Side, still intending to paddle down to the channel. We assessed the waves from the beach, where they didn't look too intimidating, and launched into the surf and the wind.
The unrelenting waves and wind made progress difficult and communication nearly impossible, so we fought our way through the breaking waves and tucked in behind the water filtration plant breakwall to assess our options. This was no day for inland paddling, we decided. This was a day to be out on the lake.

Sharon paddling out. 

We decided to head out to the water intake crib--a crossing that would take less than 45 minutes on a calm day. The rain pelted our faces and the wind howled in our ears. The waves were steep and came in quick succession. 

Erik enjoying the bumpy ride (above) and Aaron at ease in rough seas (below).

It was a slog, but a fun challenge. As we paddled out, I (Sharon) thought about Paul Redzimski and Mike Agostinelli's ill-fated Lake Michigan crossing in 2006. They found themselves in conditions a little bit gnarlier than these when they were just three miles from their destination on this side of the lake and had to be rescued--but they had to deal with those conditions in the dark, with colder water, after 47 miles of paddling, and with one boat taking on water. And it occurred to me: That was exactly three years ago.

The rain pelted our faces as we padded into the wind.

After 90 minutes, we still hadn't reached the crib. The rain hadn't stopped. The wind was intensifying. The waves were building. But perhaps most importantly, we were getting hungry. That might have been more of an excuse than a reason, but we decided to begin the return trip.

 Up and over. When you see photos like these, don't forget that somebody had to stop paddling to take them. Thanks, Alec.

We flew back to the beach, dragged the boats onto the shore and hid behind the beach house to eat some lunch. We looked over to see that the water flowing down toa ledge from a puddle in the parking lot was being propelled back up by the wind. When we lifted our boats onto our racks, they nearly blew back down. This was a wind that commanded respect.

Aaron, Alec and Erik enjoying a well-earned lunch.

We decided to let the wind do its thing in peace. As we drove away, we appreciated the simple things in life: the heating in the car, the tea in our thermoses, and the luxury of being able to go out on an otherwise miserable day and have a great time on the water.

From Erik's GPS. We traveled only 6.15 miles in 2.5 hours
(Note that the water intake crib is missing from Google Earth.)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Catching the surf after the storm

The two days after the storm passed offered nice waves.  The winds veered north and blew pretty steadily overnight, creating nice 4- to 6-foot waves. We enjoyed some good surfing at the beach and rough water paddling where the waves reflected off the end of the pier.
Our friend Keith Wikle has an excellent explanation of when to catch post-storm waves on the Michigan side of the Lake Michigan and why. Check out his post, "How to predict good surfing weather on the Great Lakes," here.