Dan Hoffman, 2010
Canoeists make quick work of Lake Michigan
51-mile crossing was warm-up for attempt at record on Rhine
By Tom Held of the Journal Sentinel
The volunteer tenders at the Big Sable Lighthouse near Ludington, Mich., were understandably surprised to find two visitors “trembling with the shakes” on their doorstep the night of Oct. 4.
Few people arrive at the outpost shivering, or via canoe, from 51 miles away, in Two Rivers, Wis.
Mike Schnitzka and Dan Hoffmann presented themselves not just as unusual visitors, but record-setters.
Their crossing in 11 hours, 22 minutes is the unofficial standard for the fastest crossing of Lake Michigan via canoe. They easily beat the previous mark – roughly 24 hours – set by Milwaukee-area paddlers Doug Hissom and Ed Muzik in 1993.
Hissom and Muzik did it for fun. Schnitzka and Hoffmann did it for the record, and for training, in preparation for an attempt to conquer the Rhine.
Schnitzka, 47, failed in a previous record-setting attempt on the Rhine River in 2007, and is set to try again in April, with Hoffmann, 22, providing youthful strength and energy. Their goal is to cover the 720 miles in less than six days.
A high-pressure system that slid over the lake Oct. 4 provided the calm wind and water they needed for the long training venture. A previous attempt to paddle across Lake Michigan in August had to be scuttled when the waves began to wash over their 20-foot Wenonah Itasca.
“This time, again, it wasn’t flat, and the first three hours, we had pretty good winds out of the northwest, which put the waves behind us,” Schnitzka said Wednesday. “It was knocking our speed down. We wanted to maintain 5 mph, and we were down in the fours.
“After about three hours or four hours, there was no more wind and it was pancake flat.”
Like Hissom and Muzik, the record-setters found the isolation on the water unsettling. Even the support boat, idling ahead by several hundred yards, failed to provide a sense of place.
“You have no sense of movement, so to speak,” said Schnitzka, who lives in Nashotah. “There are no trees going by you, you’re not gaining on something.
“Our support boat was ahead of us, and we were paddling as hard as you can, and they’re not getting any closer.”
Even the lights from Ludington remained out of reach for a painfully long time near the end.
Cold was an even greater discomfort.
Paddling throughout the day, they were comfortable in light jerseys and temperatures in the 50s. When the sun sank, the temperature quickly dropped below 40.
“We had almost two hours to go, and we were just freezing,” said Hoffmann, of Manitowish Waters. “When we got to the lighthouse, they let us in and fed us warm sloppy Joes and hot coffee. When we got back to the boat, we put on every scrap of dry clothing we could, and we both passed out.”