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'Failure wasn't an option' for solo kayak trip across Lake Superior

Aug 01, 2017 08:14AM ● Published by Editor

By Malachi Barrett mbarret1@mlive.com.  Updated on August 1, 2017 at 7:34 AM Posted on August 1, 2017 at 7:31 AM

NORTHERN MICHIGAN, MI -- Relying on a compass and his faith, Mike Stout never doubted either as he kayaked alone across Lake Superior.

The 56-year-old Grand Rapids native set his sights on the solo excursion after completing a grueling trip across Lake Michigan last summer. His 72.5-mile trek spanned 27 hours across three days and two nights, struggling against waves, wind, hypothermia and exhaustion on the largest Great Lake.

Do not attempt this without proper training and equipment.

Lake Superior is considered the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area and is the world's third-largest freshwater lake by volume. Stout traveled east from Grand Portage Minn. near the Canadian Border to Royale National Park, ending at the Keweenaw Peninsula near Houghton on July 20.

Much like his trip across Lake Michigan in 2016, Stout found himself cautiously optimistic before setting out. 

On Lake Michigan, Stout had found himself out of food, hours behind schedule and on the brink of exhaustion. Having paddled 1,238 miles since last season, this time he was stronger and better prepared.

Still, Lake Superior is far more cold and unpredictable than its sister to the south. 

"Let me put it this way: I don't think anyone was in support of my going across Lake Superior," Stout said. "I got an overwhelming push back."

Though he now lives in Prior Lake, Minn., Stout grew up in Grand Rapids with a deep respect for the beautiful power of the Great Lakes. 

"I wasn't going to do it blindly; I was really strategic in my approach," Stout said. "I knew if I trained, conditioned properly and avoided injury, the distance wasn't going to be the problem. It was a matter of having the right weather conditions."

With the fortune of favorable weather forecasts, Stout was confident in his ability to handle whatever nature could throw at him. Tuesday, July 18, he gave a gift of sage and tobacco to Mother Earth, kissed his girlfriend and set off to kayak across Lake Superior.

Sun, mild wind and small waves

The first 22.5-mile leg of the journey was relatively calm and scenic. Paddling along the Pigeon River to Isle Royale, Stout was met with calm conditions.

Research done before the trip indicated the strongest winds were more likely to occur in the area between Isle Royale and the mainland. Instead, Stout was able to marvel at tall cliffs and islands hearing nothing other than his paddle dipping into the fresh water.

Stout arrived at his first stopping point around 11 p.m. and camped for the night in Grace Harbor. 

The next morning Stout felt particularly optimistic, encouraged by the previous night's paddle and warmer weather. Thoughts of a record pace even crossed his mind as he left hours earlier than expected.

It didn't go as planned.

Twenty hours to shore

Stout departed at 10:30 a.m. July 19 to complete a second 47.5-mile leg of the trip. Because of the warm weather, he placed a waterproof backpack containing extra sets of gloves, wool hats, a weatherproof shell and insulted jacket into the rear hull of his kayak. 

It wasn't long before Stout realized things wouldn't be as easy as the previous day.

"When I left the harbor, things immediately changed," he said.

The lake's current pushed against his kayak. Using a marine radio, he heard of a storm making its way through Minnesota to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Later, he learned the storm caused a record 97 boats to drop out of the Chicago Yacht Club to Mackinac Race earlier that weekend. 

Some boats were damaged by the wind gusts. One capsized and needed a U.S. Coast Guard rescue. On another boat, a crew member fell overboard and remained in Lake Michigan for an hour until he could be rescued.

All four crew aboard are said to be OK.

Back on Lake Superior, winds picked up; the sky turned gray; waves began churning and the temperature dropped. Stout worried the lake changed its mind about whether he was a welcomed guest.

Powerful currents pushed his kayak north. Stout compared it the subtle force of the lake as a slow-moving freight train -- you might not notice it from far away, but there's not stopping it once it's on you.

"My mindset was on survival rather than just really enjoying it," Stout said. "Every two hours (Lake Superior) threw me another challenge."

Two Duluth, Minn. meteorologists later explained that the current is estimated to be three to four times stronger than the lake's winds. About 14 hours behind Stout, a thunderstorm was bringing two-foot waves that would throw him into a large open area of Lake Superior.

After fighting the current for several hours, Stout felt like he must be at least halfway. His GPS showed he was only a quarter of the way along.

It was disappointing.

The mind can be as dangerous as nature, Stout said. 

"When doubt creeps in your mind it expends energy and focus," Stout said. "You're much more vulnerable to risk and failure."

Gray skies prevented Stout from enjoying a beautiful sunset on the lake. Soon everything is black, though eventually clouds parted to reveal the sprawling cosmos above him.

Stout paddled on. Though it was calm for a time, two-foot tall waves battered his boat through the night.

While his warm gear is only a foot behind him the back hull compartment, they're impossible to reach. To avoid my getting any colder, Stout picked up the pace, stretching out his body and shouting loudly into the darkness while sprinting.

"I have a deep faith but I keep it to myself," he said. "I began shouting out praise and thanking God for just having the opportunity to do this."

'Failure wasn't an option'

Hours later, but still before sunrise, the horizon began to take the shape of what must be his destination. Though Stout was tired, he was in much better shape than he was a year ago.

"Never did I doubt my ability to finish the race," Stout said. "Obviously failure was not an option, to say the least. But, I was confident. If I hadn't paddled Lake Michigan, I think it would have been a whole different experience and maybe even tragic."

Still, the lake wasn't making things easy for him. As the sun rose, growing winds created more white capped waves than ever before.

Stout said it felt like white water rafting. His strokes plunged into each wave; a mistake could sent him spilling into the bone chilling water.

"It took me an hour to go one mile, it was that difficult," Stout said.

By 6:30 a.m., the winds subsided and Stout was able to slightly relax as he made a final push to shore. In the last hour, he waved a beleaguered greeting to passing charter boats headed to their favorite fishing holes.

After 21 hours of constant paddling, Stout sprinted to the end.

He crashed on pebble-sized round stones that made up the beachfront, not worrying about damaging his kayak anymore, and embraced his girlfriend.

Safety precautions

Stout made it safely, but he doesn't recommend others taking the same risks.

At the very least, people should let a loved one know when they will leave and plan to return, wear a life jacket, carry a cell phone or marine radio and have some kind of signaling device like a personal locator beacon.

Multiple people were aware of the details of Stout's trip, including a friend who was tracking his progress. Stout said he couldn't have been successful without the support of his friends and family.

Though not to be used as a crutch, Stout said he also felt comfortable knowing that the U.S. Coast Guard could be called on in a dire situation.

"I have tremendous admiration, respect and confidence in the Coast Guard," Stout said. "I think that's why I took on the challenge crossing Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. In the event of an emergency I can't imagine having a finer organization behind you."

Above all else, Stout maintained his respect for the Great Lakes. 

"This trip was daring; it was dangerous; it was risky," he said. "I had the sense that even though Lake Superior was pushing me all along, she wasn't pushing me beyond my capabilities. It was an odd relationship."

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