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North Shore tour offers kayakers a glimpse of Split Rock shoreline

Jake Boyce gathers up Mike and Katelynn Buchanan over a spot near a tall cliff on Wednesday, July 19, 2017, so they can get a look at the remains of the shipwreck Madeira, a schooner-barge that sank near the shore just north of Split Rock Lighthouse in 1905. Bob King / Forum News Service

Mike Buchanan had spent 22 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, including a stint at the Coast Guard's Duluth station in the 1990s. But he was about to experience Lake Superior in a new way — from a kayak.

Buchanan, of North Vernon, Ind., and his 15-year-old daughter, Katelynn, had signed up for a kayak tour with Day Tripper of Duluth, an adventure tour company. On Wednesday, guide and co-owner Jake Boyce of Duluth was readying the Buchanans' kayaks on the pebble beach in a quiet bay at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park.

The Buchanans had thought a little kayaking might be fun during their weeklong Duluth visit — they each had a bit of experience at it — and they had Googled up Day Tripper's services.

Kayaking is the most popular activity among the 5-year-old company's offerings, Boyce said. And the four-hour Split Rock tour is a destination often chosen — not just by customers.

"For all of our guides, this is their favorite tour," said Boyce, 31.

The day was warm and sunny, with just a hint of haze. The wind, always a significant factor on the big lake, was negligible. The Buchanans each paddled their own kayak, provided by Day Tripper, and Boyce paddled alongside in his. All of them wore wetsuits, a concession to water temperatures more suited to lake trout than humans.

The paddlers moved at a relaxed pace up the shore, rounding a point to take in the full spectacle of the 54-foot-high lighthouse perched atop its 130-foot cliff. If you wanted to get a true perspective of your relative significance in the universe, sitting on the water in a kayak at the foot of that cliff would be a good place to begin.

As they paddled along, Boyce offered up a few facts about Lake Superior in the form of a quiz. How far is it from Duluth to Sault Ste. Marie? How deep is the lake? How many gallons of water does it hold? The Buchanans were game, offering up their best guesses.

Tiny humans up near the lighthouse gazed down on the kayakers. Boyce led the Buchanans on up the shore until they were peering down through the green shallows at the 1905 wreck of the Madeira, offering a sobering testament to the power of the lake.

On the way south again, Boyce led his little parade through intricate nooks and passages where immense rocks had cleaved away from the shoreline bluffs eons ago. At another secluded cove near the Split Rock campground, the three paddlers ate their lunches — provided by Day Tripper — atop a lump of anorthosite looking down on a quiet cove. Boyce showed Katelynn how to identify — and devour — wild strawberries.

After lunch, they looked for agates. Over the entire four hours, the Buchanans paddled about five miles, Boyce estimated.

"It was awesome," Mike Buchanan would say later. "We'll do it again — just the scenery and tranquility of it. And it's a memory-maker for my daughter." Once back on terra firma, Katelynn offered up her 15-year-old assessment of the outing.

"Pretty cool," she said. "An adventure. It was almost magical."