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New weather forecasts coming for outer Apostle Islands

Popular with anglers, sailors and kayakers, the area was too far out for a "near shore'' forecast but not as far as "open waters'' of Lake Superior.

Sailboats lie anchored at sunset on an August evening just off the shore of Stockton Island in Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The area aorund Stocktoin Island and other outer Apostle Islands is included in a new forecast area created by the National Weather Service in Duluth aimed at improving forecasts for small boats that frequent the area. ( News Tribune / Sam Cook / 2016)

The tragic deaths of a father and three of his children when their kayak capsized in cold-water waves in the Apostle Islands in September 2018 may have helped spur one good thing: A new weather forecast specific to the waters of Lake Superior surrounding the islands.

The National Weather Service in Duluth is starting a new marine forecast zone March 30 that covers all of the islands that are five miles and farther out from the mainland.

The new forecast should be a hit with anglers, sailors, kayakers and others who venture to the scenic islands out from shore in the Apostle Island National Lakeshore. The new forecast will help provide a more accurate picture of the expected weather in the in-between area that’s not truly “near shore” but also not fully in the “open waters” of the big lake.

An autopsy found the father and children died of hypothermia after trying to swim to the nearest island. His wife, who stayed with the swamped open-top kayak, was the only survivor.

It’s not known if the family had accessed a weather forecast for the area at the time of the tragic incident. But if they had they would have received the forecast for the open waters of Lake Superior — generally the middle of the lake where the big freighters go. That’s because many of the Apostle Islands are farther out than the Weather Service’s “near shore’’ forecast that stops at five nautical miles from the mainland.


Changing conditions with increasing wind and waves were in the forecast for the Michigan Island area at the time the fatal kayak incident took place, but no advisory or warning was issued because the area was part of the “open waters” zone where it would take gale-force winds to trigger a warning.

“The most important change this lets us make is being able to issue a Small Craft Advisory for those outer islands,’’ said Joe Moore, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Duluth. “That’s when you have waves getting up into the three-to-five-foot category when most people in kayaks or small boats are thinking they aren’t going to go out.”

A small craft advisory wouldn’t have been possible for that area before.

Some quarter-million people annually, in all types of watercraft from kayaks to tour boats, visit the area where the new forecast will cover.

The Apostle Islands have seen eight fatalities due to weather and water issues over the past 13 years — in most instances people ending up in the water and then dying from drowning or hypothermia. The waters of Lake Superior, even in summer and even on warm days, can be bone-chilling cold.

Moore said the islands may appear easy to travel between but that they are deceptively far apart for small craft and that the weather during a crossing can change rapidly, leaving newbies to the Apostles off-guard and unprepared.

“Those small craft advisories are going to be there now on weather apps and forecasts online and on the marine radio. So, if people do check, it’s going to be specific to those islands,’’ Moore said. “We’re hoping that might just save some lives down the line somewhere.”

The new forecast zone received letters of support from the National Park Service, U.S. Coast Guard and Ashland County authorities.


Apostle Island forecast zone.jpg

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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