One Tough Grandpa
Mostly unplugged and totally solo, Tom Renkes tackled a 1,000-mile Lake Superior kayak adventure.
By Ross Boissoneau | March 21, 2020
Tom Renkes likes a challenge. He also likes to mark milestones in his life. So like any other 60-year-old grandfather, he decided to kayak partway around Lake Superior by himself.
That may sound a bit out there, but Renkes was prepared. After all, he had a GPS, a smartphone, a tablet, a chronograph watch — actually, no; he had his trusty kayak, a flip phone, and a water filter. And not much else.
“It was an unwired journey,” said Renkes. “I wanted to live within my environment, be one with the universe and its rhythms.”
The Petoskey resident is a veteran adventurer. He’s hiked, kayaked, and otherwise enjoyed the great outdoors at many spots around the country. Before moving north, Renkes ran a healthcare consulting business out of Ann Arbor. His wife, Christine, is CEO of North Country Community Mental Health, and obviously, understanding.
Renkes said this trip was partly a celebration of his retirement but also an acknowledgment that he’d managed to outlive his forebears. “My dad lived to 63, but he had a lung out in his 40s and a heart attack at 58. The four generations before me didn’t make it [that far].”
MAN ON A MISSION
So off he went in the summer of 2018. Though he was off the grid, he wasn’t unprepared. Besides his trusty 17-foot Old Town Herron kayak and a long paddle (he’s 6-feet-5-inches tall), he had that Pur water filter, whose reliability he’d already vetted in some really gunky Alaskan and Isle Royale bog water. He packed light but smart: a minimal amount of clothes (including a 30-year-old Woolrich hiking wool sweater that been part of every backcountry adventure he’s had) tucked into six new sea bags that kept everything dry in the bulkheads. He kept a compact Fuji camera in a plastic bag in his pocket, used his debit card, and for emergencies had his credit card, insurance card, and Health Savings card.
In addition, he had a VHF radio for weather reports and, in case he had to contact the Coast Guard, a NOAA beacon. Just in case, before shoving off, he’d met with his attorney to draw up his will and power of attorney.
Renkes started in northern Minnesota, which turned out to be the most dangerous part of the trip. “That’s where I learned to be rigorously mindful,” he said. With nothing but cliffs on the shoreward side, he became familiar with what is called “Maytag waters,” where the waves meet the shore and rebound, creating choppy back-and-forth surf similar to what you’d find in a washing machine. “In Maytag water, you have to think of every paddle stroke.”
But at least the weather cooperated, right? After all, he was kayaking Superior in July and August. “There was fog, it was rainy, sunny — everything but snow,” he said with a laugh. “In Minnesota, the most horrific storms blew over me. The water was in the 30s and hundreds of feet deep right off the cliff face.”
FROM SPIN CYCLE TO SHORELESS SEA
That was just the beginning. When he got to Wisconsin, he found the high waters and storms had decimated the shores. “All the beaches in Wisconsin were gone. There was red clay-like lava, floating trees and tree trunks — the beaches had been devastated.”
When you’re looking for a place to go ashore for the night, not having beaches makes finding a safe place to land, to sleep, to simply stop paddling a challenge.
It was more than that when he got to Cornucopia Harbor in Wisconsin. “That’s when I thought I was going to die. The water got so bad. There was no place to land.” He was forced to continue to paddle for another seven miles to Bark Bay. “I found the boat launch. I was shaking, sobbing, and called my wife in tears,” he said.
Other (mis)adventures included Saxon Harbor, which was closed due to a tornado, where at 9pm, he wound his way through dredges, broken timbers, rocks and, finally, a Coast Guard barrier to go ashore. And the storms. Many, many storms. Renkes said he was often soaked through but had to continue paddling for hours to find someplace to land.
When he did, more often than not he found people ready to go out of their way to help him, whether it was providing a place to stay for the night, or a trip to whatever town was nearby for supplies. Sometimes both.
“At Saxon Harbor there was one business open,” said Renkes. Fortunately it was a restaurant, and even more fortunately, the owner didn’t charge him for the meal. At Greunke's First Street Inn & Dining in Bayfield, Wisconsin, the owner fed him and put him up for the night. Renkes said numerous times proprietors invited to stay wherever he was — a campground, motel, whatever — as long as he wanted or needed to.
Renkes said a typical day would find him rising with the first sign of the sun, paddling for a while, and then finding a quiet spot for breakfast. Throughout the rest of the day he would paddle, stop for nourishment, refill his water, and check out the surroundings. He’d continually keep his eye on the weather so he’d know how much further to go before calling it a day. Once ashore, he'd set camp, make dinner, and explore his surroundings before a campfire and bed.
GIFTS OF SOLITUDE & SILENCE
He said the wildlife he encountered was amazing. “There were animals all around me. I’d never before seen otters on Lake Superior. In Minnesota, there were two families of peregrine falcons, and one dive-bombed me. There were a lot of Discovery Channel moments,” he said.
All told, he traversed some 1,000 miles, from Grand Marais, Minnesota, to Grand Marais, Michigan. He weathered the storms, exhaustion, dangerous waters and the challenges of being alone on the surface of the world’s largest freshwater lake. Was it all worth it?
Yes, Renkes answered emphatically. “I’m in the best space of my life,” he said.