WASHBURN—Mary McGrath fully appreciates how far people are willing to travel for paddleboarding opportunities on Lake Superior.
“We have people come from Florida, Pennsylvania, Kansas and a whole group of people who come from Chicago to paddleboard here,” she said. “It’s this fascinating community of paddlers who love to come together here for the race and just to be in the same place for a few days.”
McGrath is the program director for the Washburn Chamber of Commerce in Washburn, Wisc. The race she mentions is the annual Board Across the Bay event held each year in the communities of Washburn and Ashland. This year’s event takes place July 27-28 and it typically draws about 60 to 65 competitive racers to compete in distances of three, seven and 14 miles across a beautiful location on Lake Superior. The idea behind the race is for paddleboard enthusiasts, or those just discovering the activity, to participate in an event that takes place on Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay.
“Chequamegon Bay is a safe, beautiful place to paddleboard,” McGrath said. “It’s a haven for paddleboarding.”
So what is paddleboarding?
The easiest way to think of it is kayaking where the paddler stands up or kneels on a flat board instead of being situated in a seat. It’s a trend in the world of recreational water sports, highlighted by events such as the Board Across the Bay. However, the trend is not unique to just the southern reaches of Lake Superior.
Beth Poliquin is the general manager for Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply in Grand Marais. The Grand Marais-based business hosts the North Shore Water Festival each summer (July 20-22) where paddleboards continue to play a key role in the event.
“Paddleboarding is great for anyone, as long as you have the right board,” Poliquin said. “Right now I’m teaching classes at the YMCA in Grand Marais and my students range from nine years old to 60 years old. The goals might be different, but I love making it accessible to everyone.”
Up the Gunflint Trail and other areas near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness many resort owners have a long history in the business of renting canoes and fishing boats. However, in recent years, requests for reservations have expanded far beyond the traditional means of moving across inland lakes.
“People like paddleboarding for exercise and because it’s something different,” said Carl Madsen, a co-owner of Rockwood Lodge and Canoe Outfitters on Poplar Lake up the Gunflint Trail. “It’s new and relatively easy once you get started.”
And the trend doesn’t end with humans, at least not on Poplar Lake.
“I’ve seen paddleboard dogs as well!” Madsen said with a laugh.
John Fredrickson is a co-owner of Gunflint Lodge. He agreed that paddleboards are becoming fairly common throughout the Northern Wilds.
“I think paddleboards are fun for different people for different reasons,” Fredrickson said. “For the kids that are here they’re a great platform for play on the lake. For adults, it’s a different way to explore the lake along the shoreline. You get a different perspective than when you’re sitting in a kayak or canoe.”
Both Rockwood and Gunflint Lodge rent paddleboards or allow their cabin guests to use them at no extra charge. There are many outdoor shops and lodges that rent or sell paddleboards as well, ranging from Thunder Bay to Duluth.
Poliquin said the Lake Superior region is a natural magnet for a variety of water sports, including paddleboarding. And while speed isn’t always the name of the game when it comes to paddleboards, safety should be a top priority to enjoy the activity.
“One special consideration up here for us is the water temperature,” she said. “When I’m on the big lake, I wear neoprene, and one should always, always, always wear a personal flotation device (PFD).”
In addition to being a sound safety suggestion to wear a PFD while paddleboarding on Lake Superior, it’s a U.S. Coast Guard regulation.
Meanwhile, McGrath said events like Board Across the Bay will continue to make paddleboarding a trend that is not about to fade anytime soon.
“When you have weekends like this where people get together to share their common interest, it really highlights how popular something is becoming,” she said. “That’s what the race is all about.”
To learn more about Board Across the Bay, visit: boardacrossthebay.com.
By Joe Friedrichs