It is a warm sunny Saturday afternoon in Jacksonport, Wisconsin on the Door County peninsula. Seven of us are about to embark on a Lake Michigan paddle. Five are experienced paddlers, Tom, Bev, Bert, Diane and I. Two, though, Jim and Mary, are neophytes. They have had their boats only a few days. This is their first paddle.
We stand on the beach and survey the expanse of Lake Michigan before us. I cannot help but think that although the waves are not large, it is the habit of Lake Michigan winds to pick up in the afternoon. We may find this adventure to be a bit more interesting than it would appear as we launch. Tom, our fearless leader, is confident that there will be no problem. We set out. My wife, Rosalie, is our driver and will pick us up about ten miles to the South.
Initially, as we paddle along the shore, the waves approach us from the port forward quarter. They are gentle. The encounter is just plain fun. The group stays close. Jim and Mary are delighted with how well they are doing on their first adventure.
About an hour into the paddle the shoreline slips away to starboard .We have to adjust our course to keep from heading out into the lake. The winds begin to increase. The waves, larger now, are approaching from the port beam. It becomes a bit more difficult to brace against them. We begin to separate a bit. Still, there is no serious problem. A little less chatter as we all become more concentrated on the task at hand.
Approaching Cave Point Park the shoreline slides more quickly away to starboard. Increasing winds and waves are now on our port quarters. We find ourselves surfing down the faces of waves up to three feet high. The waves are now breaking. It makes the task of staying upright a significant challenge. We are all very quiet as we focus on our boats and the waves.
I am leading at this point. I am totally concentrated on maintaining my balance. There is a shout behind me, "Tom is over!" Mary is nearest to me and she is frightened. I move to her side and provide reassurance that the others are with Tom and will take care of him. I guide her into the beach. Because it is in the lee of Cave Point it is quite calm.
With Mary safe on the beach I turn around and head back to the rescue. Mary contacts Park staff and asks them to call the Coast Guard. Bert and Tom have managed to get Jim's boat righted but the seas are too high to allow him to reenter. The waters of Lake Michigan are cold but not yet dangerously so. We are all trying to stay upright ourselves while we discuss how to deal with Jim and his boat. A tow is attempted but f ails. Finally we decide that we have no choice but to allow the wind and waves to carry Jim and his boat on to the rocky shore. We stay with him. On the shore groups of park visitors are gathering to watch the drama.
Meanwhile Rosalie, our driver, has decided to check on our progress by stopping at the Park before heading south to the take-out. She asks the guard at the Park entrance if she may drive to the beach to check on the progress of a group of paddlers. The guard informs her that the Park is, at that time, negotiating with the Coast Guard for the rescue of a group of kayakers. Needless to say, she is concerned. She heads for the beach. Just as I am helping Mary out of her boat and am wondering how in the world we will ever be able to contact Rosalie to let her know where we are, she appears.
Finally, wet and tired but exhilarated with the adventure we have just had, we pack up and head for home. We reflect on the fact that just a few weeks before our adventure two other kayakers were lost and drowned in these same waters. As so often happen, we, like others, have overestimated our own capabilities and underestimated the dangers that Lake Michigan can hold for very small boats and inexperienced paddlers.