For those of us who kayak on Lake Superior- weather takes on a new meaning. If somebody asks what the weather is going to be like most of us will start rhyming off that the winds are coming from the southeast at 15 knots and diminishing to 10 overnight. Wave height is under one metre. Sometimes we get a confused look and then the question “well is it going to be sunny?” The thing you have to understand about big water like Lake Superior is that sometimes it’s the cloudy, drizzly days that make for good paddling because there might not be any associated strong winds. Conversely a nice sunny day during a high pressure system might be accompanied by 15, 20 or 25 knot winds. This will probably not make for a fun day’s paddle. A small craft advisory is issued when winds are greater than 20kts.
Generally speaking, winds that come from the north and northeast do not develop big waves on our end of the lake (we are located in the northeast corner). Of course, as you get further south the waves are going to have a chance to develop into something much larger. Our best big waves come from the west-southwest because that is the direction with the biggest fetch.
Fetch is the distance the wind has been blowing over water from the same direction (unobstructed). On Lake Superior, and this is true for the other Great Lakes, waves are primarily wind-driven, with swell being much less significant than on the open ocean.
So how can you determine what your paddling conditions are going to be before you head out? Well if you are prudent you would check the marine forecast first. You can do that a few different ways. The first is if you have a VHF or weather radio you can check the forecast from Environment Canada (typically channel WX9 but it may vary with your location). It is handy to know that the forecast is updated three times a day at 3:00am, 10:30am and 6:00pm. You can also access this forecast at the Environment Canada website.
Another source is the NOAA’s National Weather Service. They have a really good map of Lake Superior weather. It is an American service but it is still quite accurate for our side of the lake. You can see the wave height, wind speed, direction and gusts, weather and temperature for the entire lake and the interactive map allows you to see what the forecast is for up to 5 days in advance.
After you have checked in with the weather forecast, remember to keep the local conditions in mind. Wind and waves may vary considerably due to shoreline effect. Check in with the locals. They probably know the local conditions fairly well. We are fortunate to have our paddling centre located right on Lake Superior’s shore. Our guides experience what this lake has to offer every single day even if they are not out paddling on it. I think it gives us an advantage as a company- after all, we are your Lake Superior experts.
More information can be found in Wind, Weather and Waves; A guide to marine weather in the Great Lakes region. Produced by Environment Canada.