Guiding Kayakers from the Tropics to Lake Superior’s North Shore
Beth Poliquin has guided kayakers in the tropics of Hawaii, and now lives and works along the rugged north shore of Lake Superior. The differences she cites may surprise you…
Beth is the General Manager of Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply in Grand Marais, Minnesota. She’s become very familiar with paddling both kayaks and stand-up paddle boards on Lake Superior, as she does it both for fun and for her job.
Beth and her family came to northern Minnesota from Hawaii, where she had also guided kayaking. We discussed with her the differences she’s found between these big water paddling destinations:
Tell us about your background and how you got into paddle sports.
BETH: I’ve always loved being on the water, especially the ocean, as a young kid living in Virginia Beach. I started paddling while at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. I got credit for classes in Canoe Camping and Whitewater Kayaking, which was pretty great.
Virginia has some great rivers, so kayaking is what I preferred. There's so much power in moving water, whether the ocean or rivers, that I find exhilarating.
It was a no-brainer when I moved to Hawaii to spend as much time as I could kayaking. It was a great way for me to get to know the islands, and I could play around and test my limits with a surface temperature of 80 degrees.
Now that I'm on the North Shore of Lake Superior, I find that I'm more cautious. Professionally, I'm not out when conditions are challenging.
I'm thankful to have had training opportunities with the American Canoe Association so I can continue to learn and grow as a paddler. I'm currently an ACA Level 2 Kayak Instructor, but close to being Level 3 Instructor Certified.
What did you like best about guiding kayakers in the seas around Hawaii?
BETH: That’s tough to say—because I loved everything! The warmth, the colors, the sea turtles…even the sharks!
But I think my favorite thing about it was getting to share the unique Hawaiian marine ecosystem with others. Because of its isolation, there are plants and animals in Hawaii that you won't find elsewhere and I loved getting to share that.
Being on the water is more than enjoyment for me. There's a sense of peace and freedom and awe in addition to the excitement. It's a lot of fun to get to share that with people.
What are the main differences in guiding kayakers on Lake Superior?
BETH: The biggest difference is the amount of necessary equipment. The ocean absolutely has its dangers (waves and reefs), but cold water can kill all too easily.
I wear my wet suit all summer and have a dry suit for when the air isn't warm. We put our guests in wet suites.
In warmer water, sit-on-top kayaks are common and great for beginners. Up here we use sea kayaks with cockpits. It’s a very different paddling experience sitting in a boat rather than on top of one.
As much as I miss warm water, I prefer sea kayaks because they perform better—almost as an extension of your body. They may be a little more intimidating, but we use boats that are quite stable and take beginners out all the time.
My kids haven't been out with me on Lake Superior because I don't think they’re old enough. Physiologically, their bodies aren't that good at regulating temperature yet. Cold water is even more dangerous for young kids. Fortunately, there are a lot of other inland lakes around so we still get them out on the water.
Stand-up paddle boarding: what are differences between these two destinations?
BETH: I didn't stand-up paddle in Hawaii, we surfed! I lived on the windward side of our island, where the trade winds regularly blow 10-15 mph. Stand-up paddling isn't nearly as much fun in the wind.
It sounds like the movies, but it's true that just about everyone in Hawaii surfs. Typical Hawaiian surf boards are almost stand-up boards because of their size. What’s considered a "long board" in California would be rather sporty in the islands, generally speaking.
I know SUP has its roots in Waikiki, but I really didn't see much of it when I was there. That could be different a dozen years later, though.
Where is your personal favorite place to paddle and why?
BETH: I told a paddling buddy I wasn't sure how to answer this question, but he said he could answer it for me and he was right: My favorite place to paddle is somewhere new.
When I visit a lake for the first time, my first thought is: “I can't wait to paddle here!” I get teased because there's a decent list of places I've declared "my new favorite place to paddle.”
This explains why guiding tours is a good fit for me. There's so much out there to explore and I'm so thankful to have a job that lets me help other people do that.
I'm especially honored to work with people who are nervous or unsure and help them feel comfortable. It's good for all of us to get outside our comfort zones so we can learn and grow.
Maybe as I'm getting older (and wiser?) I fear stagnation and long for adventure. Paddling helps me do that.
(All photos courtesy of Beth Poliquin and Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply)
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