Big Lakes, Big Water, Big Wind, Big Waves

Article by John Pearson, Iowa DNR 

Photo by Pam Wolter 

Paddling on big lakes can be immensely rewarding for their access to beautiful, expansive landscapes and intimate viewing of new suites of wildlife, but it needs to be done with full respect for the power of wind and waves that are unique to big water.   Many paddlers first learn their boat-handling skills on rivers and creeks where currents, rapids, strainers, and sweepers are the main features and hazards with which to be reckoned.   With the glaring exception of paddling laboriously downstream against an upstream headwind, wind is not typically a big issue on rivers, tucked away as they often are in narrow, wind-buffered valley bottoms protected by tree-lined banks and bluffs.  Venturing out onto the open, exposed waters of big lakes, however, presents a new set of hazards with wind being chief among them.  River paddlers who wish to explore the beauty of big lakes need to be aware of the special challenges of wind and waves that are likely to be new to them.  Let’s explore how to do that!

Iowa’s big lakes include the flood-control reservoirs of Red Rock, Rathbun, Saylorville, and Coralville, the navigation pools of the Mississippi River, and large natural lakes such as Spirit Lake, West Okoboji Lake, Storm Lake, and Clear Lake in northern and northwest Iowa.  How big is big?  Lake Red Rock leads the list with 15,000 acres at normal pool, swelling to 70,000 acres during periods of high water; it is informally known as “Iowa’s inland sea” and can feature dangerously sea-like conditions of big waves and crashing surf.  Rathbun Lake is a close second with 11,000 acres at normal pool and 21,000 acres at flood pool.  More important than the mere acreage of a lake is its “fetch” – the distance that wind can travel unimpeded by topographic blockage or tall vegetation.  The longer the fetch, the greater its potential to generate big waves.  At flood pool, Lake Red Rock presents over 25 miles of open water to winds sweeping in from the northwest.  By the time waves reach the southeast end of the lake, they have been building in size and strength for many miles.  Even the “smallest” lakes listed above – Clear Lake (3600 acres) and Storm Lake (3400 acres) – are several miles in diameter and can build to sea-like conditions under strong winds.  I have personally witnessed waves several feet in height pushed across Lake Red Rock and smashing onto its rocky shoreline on windy days when even the most skilled, intrepid, and dare-devilish kayakers choose to watch the spectacle safely from shore!

Almost needless to say, beginning paddlers and paddlers experienced only on rivers and small, quiet lakes and ponds should not venture out into the dangerous conditions of big winds and big waves on big lakes.  I say “almost” needless because all too often paddlers newly venturing onto big lakes find themselves in conditions beyond their comfort level and boat-handling skills.  Sometimes this can be due to false confidence (“I can handle this”), but often it is the case that new paddlers set off in conditions that are initially benign but unexpectedly change into something more dangerous.  Here are ways to avoid that pitfall and to enjoy a safe and rewarding outing:

Use a boat designed for the conditions you will encounter – Different boats are designed for different uses.  While open canoes can safely traverse calm water, they can swamp in big waves; they should be used only in calm conditions near shore.  Although having a closed deck to shed overwashing waves, recreational kayaks (with unpartitioned hulls) can also completely fill with water upon capsizing; like canoes, they should be used only near shore where paddlers can easily swim to safety after capsizing.  Sea kayaks, partitioned with front and rear bulkheads, are the boats best suited for paddling on big lakes because their closed decks shed overwashing waves, remain afloat after capsizes, and can be rescued without going ashore.  Given that conditions may change during the course of a trip from calm to rough and that paddlers may wander from near shore to far from shore, sea kayaks are the most versatile vessel for paddling on big lakes.  However, sea kayaks can be expensive, so paddlers may opt to use more affordable recreational kayaks or canoes.… which is fine, just be sure to use them only for the calm, near-shore environment for which they were designed!

Know your comfort level with wind speed – Always check the weather report before a trip and pay particular attention to current and predicted wind speed and direction.  Weather reports on commercial radio and television do not consistently provide this level of detail, so be sure to consult a source that does, such as the National Weather Service (NWS) broadcast on a dedicated weather radio or viewed on a website with hourly predictions.  Critical thresholds for wind are:

·         0-5 MPH – Flat water easy for any skill level

·         5-10 MPH – Beginners feel uneasy with small waves

·         10-15 MPH – Waves begin to build, beginners experience difficulty with boat handling

·         15-20 MPH – Wind and waves are an issue even for experienced paddlers

·         >20 MPH – These are strong winds with big waves, only skilled paddlers should be out

Pay attention to whether winds are predicted to increase later in the day.  Just because conditions are calm when you launch in the morning will not guarantee that they will not be rough in the afternoon when you are returning.  If you are comfortable only in wind less than 10 MPH but the wind is predicted to rise above 15 MPH, be sure to return well before the increase sets in (which may arrive sooner than predicted)!

Be aware of wind direction – Launch ramps are often located in protected bays where the effect of wind and waves are not pronounced, but paddling out of the bay into the open lake can expose paddlers to winds of unexpected strength from an unexpected direction.  Again, listen to a detailed weather report and link that information to the layout of the shoreline you will be following.  At Lake Red Rock, paddlers often launch from the ramp just east of Hwy 14 on the south shore.  When the wind is from the southeast, paddling northeastward along the shoreline will be in calm water protected from the wind by a high upland… until you reach Elk Rock Point, where the shoreline veers to the southeast and you will be confronted with a headwind.  If you are simply following the shoreline without paying attention to its  change in direction, you may find yourself suddenly committed to much rougher water than you expected or can handle.  Always anticipate a change in conditions as you “round a corner” and reassess if you (and everyone in your party) are able and comfortable with continuing.

Another hazard related to wind direction is when waves are blown onto cliffs, resulting in rebounding waves interacting with incoming waves to create a highly turbulent zone known as clapotis… or less formally as “washing machine waves”.  Coming from two directions, waves in this zone are wild and chaotic with crests and troughs often doubled in height and depth.  Capsizing is a real hazard here, combined with the threat of being pummeled against rock cliffs!  Although ominous, clapotis is usually localized at the base of cliffs can be easily avoided by paddling a route around and away from the rough zone.

Become skilled for paddling in rough water – Despite good intentions to paddle only in benign weather, new paddlers may unexpectedly get caught in rough conditions.  Be prepared for that inevitability by learning a full complement of basic strokes, braces, and rescue techniques:

·         Forward strokes, reverse strokes, sweep strokes, pinweeds, draws, and rudders – these will help you maneuver your boat to avoid trouble spots and to paddle out of them if you get caught.

·         Low brace, high brace, and sculling for support can prevent you from capsizing if you lose your balance.

·         Scramble rescue, paddle float rescue, and partner rescues will enable you to recover from capsizing with or without assistance.

The best way to learn these skills is to take lessons from trained instructors.  Yes, there is a cost associated with training, both in time and dollars.  Your skill level and safety are worth it!

Use good judgment – Big lakes are more variable than the small lakes and rivers you have likely experienced, more exposed to wind and their accompanying waves.  Watch the weather and be prepared to alter your original plan in the face of changing conditions.  Know your strengths, weaknesses, and limitations and always stay within your skill level… while raising that level for future outings through training and practice.  Be smart, be safe, and enjoy the beauty and challenges of Iowa’s big lakes!