Sea Smoke: Winter in the air, and on the lake

One morning, usually in December, the lake wakes with Winter on its breath: sea smoke. Officially, the explanation is “surface fog resulting from masses of frigidly cold air directly over warm bodies of water.” The sunrise temperature in the Apostle Islands today was a chilly and still 0 degrees. As cold as that air temperature is, the thick body of Lake Superior cools more slowly than the air, greedily holding on to the slow summer heat. Lake temperature today was 43 degrees F. And the lake wrapped the islands in ribbons of sea smoke.

Whatever the official definition of “sea smoke” is, it does not explain its effect on the human soul. All morning today, people on their way to work, park rangers on their patrol, fishermen readying the boats, people in Bayfield on their way to get coffee, all pull their faces out of the cocoon of their winter coats and raise their eyes along the lakeshore. They stand there, head back, mouth open, watching the lake, breathing. 

Sea Smoke Pier

All of us boaters and swimmers and paddlers know the statistics of Lake Superior — 349 miles long, 159 miles wide, largest lake in the world by surface area. But all the numbers, all the things we think we know, drift away like fog on a morning like this.

This is the lake …. breathing, speaking in tongues, saying over and over again its silent word for “power” and “power” and “power.”

Lake Superior is a force. And on days like this, it is best to simply stop and look in wonder.

Sea Smoke


Jeff Rennicke is Executive Director of the Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. He is also an educator, outdoor adventure travel writer and photographer.

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