Great lakes kayak advice

-- Last Updated: Aug-21-12 10:57 AM EST --

I'm looking to purchase my first kayak. I recently rented a tandem sea kayak and kayaked around Grand Island and Pictured Rocks (Lake Superior). We actually camped on Grand Island. The experience was amazing and we want to purchase our own kayak.

We'd like to be able to kayak other great lakes and camp in "remote" locations. For example.... we'd like to kayak and camp around Drummond Island and les cheneaux islands.

It seems like we'd need a sea kayak but I'd like opinions on that. Obviously, sit on kayaks are much less expensive but I want to make the right choice.

I appreciate your help!

Great Lakes

– Last Updated: Aug-21-12 12:08 PM EST –

Sit-on tops have the advantage of easier self-rescue for a novice. The disadvantages are the difficulties of gear storage, and the fact that you are completely exposed to the elements. Proper clothing is essential. Most sit-on-tops are less efficient than typical sea kayaks unless you look at some of the fast tourer/stable surf ski models.

If you choose a conventional kayak, I'd absolutely go with a sea kayak.

The Great Lakes are not to be taken lightly. Cold water and rapidly-changing weather are ever-present hazards. In some areas, such as Pictured Rocks, there are miles of coast without a safe place to land in anything but flat conditions.

A few resources:

take class and get butt time
I am glad to see you are starting at the basics - what general type of kayak. Don’t rush into looking at any particular model any time soon.

My suggestion would be to take a day long kayak class. These are usually aimed at sea kayaking, but even if you end up with a SOT, the skills taught will be useful. They teach the basics of how to move a kayak efficiently and safely.

After that, get butt time in as many kayaks as you can. You may want to read the article in Issue 8 of California Kayaker called “getting Butt Time” on how to cost effectively get time in different kayaks. Can be read online for free at:

14 foot minumum
I go with a group on Lake Erie and they like to have everyone in at least a 14 foot kayak. It can get really wavy real quick. Like other have said lessons would be the best thing. Self rescue should be learned for sure.

first kayak
do you mean your first, individual kayak for you or your (plural) first tandem kayak? That would make a big difference in what is recommended.

Sit on tops are fine on the Big Lakes for balmy flatwater days and mild chop - see lots of them rented. A Great Lake like Superior often changes the weather menu fast. A properly outfitted seakayak w. commensurate skills is more versatile in more types of conditions than an SOT (I’m not talking about the very high end surfski-like SOTs sold in Australia and South Africa since the poster is very unlikely to come across one).

A SOT being much wider than a seakayak presents more surface to a wave, more likely to capsize in the kind of building freshwater waves w. short periods that the Great Lakes generate. Rarely are they like swells in the ocean. If capsized, it’s not as easy to re-mount if the person is lacking in upper body strength or has shorter arms. Make sure if you buy SOTs that you both can re-mount unassisted.

The Great Lakes get windy and cold suddenly. You can get good and wet from blown waves, rain, mist, etc. At 65 degrees and below it can be less than fun. As noted you are more exposed to the elements. A sit inside seakayak offers much more protection.

Seconding the suggestion to get w. a good outfitter, preferably one who also offers classes in strokes, boat control, rescues…a great way to test drive many boats. And if you are going on the Great Lakes, you need all of that, for starters.

16 foot minimum
is standard for outfitters guiding trips on Lake Superior (either rental or clients’ boats).

I mention this since the OP did some kayaking around Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and may want to do more.

This is not to say ppl are not taking much shorter boats (considerably under 14 ft) for shore skirting or in protected bay and small coves on any of the Great Lakes. Can be very fun. Works as long as it’s calm and the weather is settled and holding.

Then things change fast, as noted above, or a new route is chosen (to save time, ppl are tired, etc) that involves open water much farther from shore. That’s when things can get interesting if the weather kicks up. Someone is seakayak w. skills is much more likely to handle that.

Follow up…
I’m looking for a tandem because I plan to paddle with my partner.

So 14 or 16 foot minimum, that’s helpful. I think I’m still torn between sea or sit on top. Can someone tell me, for areas such as navigating the les cheneaux islands, going around Drummond Island and Potagannissing Bay, would a sit on top kayak be ok? I understand weather always plays a factor but in good weather conditions, would a sit on top kayak be sufficient for these areas?

I live in metro Detroit and if anyone has personal experience with outfitters/classes, I’d love those recommendations.

Thanks again for all the advice!!

And for your information…
“I live in metro Detroit and if anyone has personal experience with outfitters/classes, I’d love those recommendations.”

Riverside Kayak Connection.:slight_smile:

PS: I am not connected with RSK

other places for lessons

– Last Updated: Aug-22-12 12:23 PM EST –

not sure if they offer lessons w. a tandem sit inside kayak much less a sit on top tandem.Ask, just be prepared to bring your own boat or use two single kayaks of theirs.

It may be better learning-wise to use two single, sit inside kayaks (SINKS). You each will have a different style of learning and learning curve. If you are in the same boat it can get pretty frustrating in classes.


Black Parrot Paddling LLC
Expanding Horizons LLC

both of these are run by very experienced longtime coaches who carry high level certifications from the ACA and/or the BCU. They recruit the best certified coaches in the area to assist.

Having taken more than several classes in fresh water, and a number of pool classes, my take is that they offer some of the best seakayak instruction in the lower peninsula, along w:

Michael Gray of Uncommon Adventures in Beulah MI - on the west side of the state if you'd like to go to the beautiful Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. His classes are on the nearby inland lakes or Lake Michigan and with the water being so warm this year he may have classes going well into early October. He is another longtime highly certified ACA instructor.

Quiet World Sports in Jackson is a very good school for beginners to low intermediate. Their focus is on calm, flat water in small local lakes and rivers, not a bad place to start.

if you act quickly you may still be able to get in some on the water classes. Things start slowing down after mid Sept. That's also a great time to get a deal on a boat as outfitters and paddle shops begin to clearance fleet boats and floor models... again, it will be harder to find a tandem but not impossible.

Come early December there are pool sessions at various colleges and high schools where the space is limited but you can still learn some very useful skills. Get on the mailing lists for: EMU Paddlers (at Eastern Michigan University), Expanding Horizons, and RKC to get notices of when and where. For some of these session you can rent boats, or bring your own.

some advice
Unless you’re limiting your activity to summer I’d really recommend sea kayak(s). Spring or fall can bring cold temps and wind that may make SOT paddling uncomfortable.

Get yourselves some cold-weather gear or limit your season and range to accommodate what protection you have.

Consider demo days, many vendors offer these and if we know where you are we can make recommendations.

Consider testing a single sea kayak, something with more maneuverability. The opportunities to explore coastline are endless and a kayak that is easy to maneuver in rough water makes the task easier.

Consider a guided trip or a symposium on the great lakes.

^ what he said
northern paddlers who want to do more than summer paddling have many more options w. a SINK. Skill building is also easier in a single SINK.

the symposium suggestion is also good. Unfortunately all 5 Michigan symposia (there are four others in the upper and lower peninsulas) plus the one in Wisconsin, plus a couple in Ontario are done for the year. (There’s one left, Ontario Training Camp in September, but that is for Greenland specialists)

surprised no one has said it yet, but a tandem kayak isn’t nicknamed “divorce boat” for a reason. Look up that term in the archives.