Is It Better To Kayak Or Canoe On Lake Superior?

No matter which you choose, you'll be paddling in paradise.

Prior to my paddling trip along the coast of Lake Superior I was asked several times why I would be travelling by canoe, the assumption being that sea kayaks are a more suitable craft for our route. Indeed, the experienced paddlers in our group have travelled to the Dog River many times, predominantly by sea kayak.

But as our group of six adults and two children shove off from the mouth of the Michipicoten River at Naturally Superior Adventures, all are genuinely excited about the prospect of travelling the northern shore of Lake Superior by canoe. Over the next five days I have plenty of time to contemplate the question of canoe versus kayak.

Woman paddling a red sea kayak in the fog.
Lake Superior is a well-established sea kayaking destination.

Kayaks Rule

Long before Europeans laid eyes upon the vastness of Lake Superior, Indigenous paddlers plied her waters in canoes constructed of birch bark, split spruce root and cedar. Much larger versions of the birch bark canoe were used by fur traders travelling Lake Superior from the 1600s to the mid-1800s. But modern recreational paddlers would come to favour the sea kayak for reasons that continue to hold water today.

First and foremost is speed: long and slender sea kayaks propelled by double bladed paddles will cover much greater distances per day than a typical canoe. They are also generally more seaworthy. The low centre of gravity provided by the low-slung seat of a kayak provides stability in rough weather and a sprayskirt stretched tautly around the cockpit allows waves to simply flow overtop.

They are also ingeniously designed with watertight compartments to stow all the gear we need for extended trips.

People looking at map in a fully loaded canoe.
We can bring plenty of gear when canoe tripping.

The Case for Canoes

Many of the advantages of the kayak can also be seen as liabilities. As we pack large watertight barrels and packs of all shapes and sizes into our canoes, it’s clear how much more we can bring and how much easier it is to pack than the intricate and calculated practice of fitting the required tripping gear into a sea kayak.

One of the most obvious advantages of a canoe is the accessible and usable amount of room in a large open boat. In addition to Alex and Justine in one canoe, Rupert and I are in a second, and a third canoe carries Jeff and Laura and their two children, Finn and Isla. This sort of family-friendly accommodation is simply not available in a sea kayak.

Two kids sitting in front of stern paddler in canoe.
The open-concept design has lots of room for packs and children.

Fulfilling my role as photographer is also easier in a canoe. While Rupert provides ample horsepower from the stern, I can open my camera pack on the bottom of the canoe for access to everything I need without the danger of items rolling off into the lake. Opening a camera pack, or any pack for that matter, on the rounded deck of a kayak is a much different story.

In a canoe we have more choices of paddling position than the single seated option of a sea kayak. The default is generally sitting on the canoe seat, but we can also paddle from a kneeling position for increased stability and we can even stand if we’re careful.

As I look over at youngsters Isla and Finn, we can also lie out on top of soft backpacks or curl up and take a nap in the bottom of the canoe. Even though we’re not travelling as fast as we would by sea kayak, our return trip route only covers about 45 kilometres and, spread over five days, is quite manageable.

Man loading barrels and packs into a yellow canoe.
Large watertight barrels and packs of all shapes and sizes fit in a canoe, making them much easier to pack than kayaks.

Although sea kayaks are much faster and more seaworthy, if Lake Superior decides to erupt into rough seas the only intelligent choice is to get off the lake, no matter what we are paddling. As it turns out, our paddle up the coast is accompanied by warm and sunny weather and unusually calm waters for the entire trip.

Lake Superior is an established sea kayaking destination, but she can also be incredibly kind to those who choose to enjoy the advantages of travelling by canoe.

About James Smedley

Professional photographer and writer James Smedley’s contributions—more than 400 pieces and close to 1,000 images—to U.S. and Canadian books, magazines, and newspapers have earned him over 40 national and international awards. In addition to teaching photography workshops, James is the travel editor at Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine. James has fly-fished for brook trout and arctic grayling in far northern rivers and continues to cast for trout, bass, and steelhead near his home in the northern Ontario town of Wawa where he lives with his wife Francine and daughters Islay and Lillian.


Visit James at

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