Hiawatha Water Trail
Pictured Rocks Kayak Trip
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.
from the Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
His friend Henry Schoolcraft spent a great deal of time surveying the U.P. and documented his observations in field notes. Longfellow wrote Hiawatha after reading those notes. We can’t even imagine what he might have written if he saw the same glorious sights that Bill McCormick, Barb Decker, Mark Pobocik and I saw during our recent kayak trip along the Hiawatha Water Trail. We were at a loss and were simply stunned by the beauty of the area. I’ll try to capture some of our trip in words but it’s more the Netflix version rather than the IMAX version, for sure. Words fall short.
Bill and I picked up our permits at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore headquarters in Munising and met Mark for the car shuttle back to our starting point in Grand Marais. Barb was already there at Woodland Park getting us a campsite and looking for the easiest launch point to begin our trip. If you’ve never been to the beach or harbor in Grand Marais, you should see it. Clean sand beaches as far as the eye can see. I guess at one time there may have been a “grand marais” or big marsh here, but beaches rule now.
We enjoyed our final civilized meal before the trip at the Sportsman’s Bar and headed to the beach to watch the sun go down. There is not a whole lot else to do in this quaint village but, judging by the many fellow sunset watchers, it’s a popular pastime nonetheless. NOAA weather warned of a strong line of thunderstorms expected to move through overnight. We battened down the hatches and hoped that the strong winds wouldn’t linger into next day when we were to begin paddling.
Around midnight we heard a distant rumbling, and for a little over an hour the skies lit up over Lake Superior as the wind and rains drove through the campground. By morning, the storm had played out and we were left with a light drizzle and a low haze. The winds had diminished considerably and we set off on the first leg of the trip, along eight miles of magnificent Grand Sable Dunes. The park service says; At five square miles, the Grand Sable Dunes are perched atop the 300-foot high Grand Sable Banks. Since being left by enormous glaciers, the Grand Sable Dunes dwarf comprehension. They are indeed impressive, with sandy striations broken up by remnants of birch forest. We have other dunes in the state, but none quite like these. The thing that we liked best about the dunes was that they shielded us from the 25 mile an hour south wind. We stopped at the Au Sable Light Station for a break before bearing southwest along the shoreline that was gradually changing from sand dune to sand beach. The beach stretched to the horizon and is aptly named Twelve Mile Beach. Since the H58 access road was closed due to reconstruction, we saw few people enjoying the beach and no other kayakers.
There are a few kayak accessible campsites available along the shoreline that are shared with backpackers. The one that we chose to stay at was called Seven Mile campground. Reservations are always required at least two weeks in advance for any camping and the officials we spoke with made it clear that they frowned on arriving a day early or staying a day later—even if paddling conditions were bad. This is a situation that needs to be addressed with the Park Service. A few options for paddlers are needed as our movement along the Lake Superior shoreline is almost totally weather dependent. With our permit in hand we landed along the beautiful beach, set up camp, and enjoyed a refreshing (cold) swim.
Our second day on the water would prove to be the scenic highlight among four days of exceptional views. Winds were threatened again, but we awoke to calm seas and sunshine. Our plan was to round Grand Portal Point, one of the few exceptions to an otherwise linear coastline. Grand Portal features numerous caves and arches which we were able to explore and marvel at. The cliffs along here are a sheer 200’ drop into the lake. The seepage from the minerals buried in the rocks along with the millennia has created a palette of colors impossible to describe. On a windy day, a kayaker could never approach the cliffs because of the enormous rebounding waves, but on this day, we were rewarded with low undulating waves that resulted in the caves making deep, soothing water sounds, again, impossible to describe.
The day’s miles also gave us an opportunity to paddle under Spray Falls. This remote waterfall is best viewed from the water although it may be seen from along the North Country Trail. Spray Falls plunges about 70 feet over the Pictured Rocks cliffs directly into Lake Superior. The 1856 shipwreck "Superior" lies at the base of the falls in 20 feet of water. We had a campsite reserved at the Mosquito River Campground which was only two miles past Grand Portal. We met quite a few people here as it is right along the North Country Hiking Trail and many folks hike the 1.5 miles in from a parking lot to enjoy the sunsets and to see the waterfalls along the route. We met Ranger Sue here. She was packing heat, a Taser, a bulletproof vest, and Mace. And we don’t think she was worried about bears. Needless to say, even Bill was polite. We were informed that we had too many tents on our site and that we needed to take our clothesline down. Something about a “no undies” zone. To be fair, she checked everyone in the campground and encouraged us to obey the posted rules and to “please come back”.
On our third day, we only had eleven miles to paddle. But we didn’t want to leave, everything was so beautiful. A short distance from Miner’s Beach we saw the wonderful Bridalveil Falls. Bridalveil Falls are only viewable by water. Lucky us. This is a seasonal waterfall that slows to a trickle in the summer and fall. Because of recent rains, we saw the falls in all its glory. Bridalveil Falls is often featured on postcards and publications about Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
I’d been haranguing the group the whole trip about stopping in Munising for pasties. Once we rounded Miner’s Castle, we could see Munising in the distance and we made it to Muldoon’s Pasty Shop right before the noon kayaker pasty rush. We each enjoyed at least one of the Cornish delicacies (Muldoon’s is the #1 pasty shop in the U.P., according to the National Pasty Pie Association). To prolong our Pictured Rocks experience, we headed over to Grand Island for one more night in the area. Along the way we paddled over the shipwreck Bermuda in Murray Bay. A merchant schooner of 394 tons, she was launched at Oswego, NY, in 1860, and sunk with no loss of life in October of 1870. Although this wreck lies in only 30 feet of water, it is protected from ice and wave damage. The result is an intact 145 foot schooner sitting upright and waiting for kayakers.
The day had warmed up into the 80’s and we were each turning brown after four days of sun. The water in the shallow bays surrounding Grand Island was 10 degrees warmer than the open lake and we could lie in the water and enjoy it rather than becoming hypothermic. It seemed that we were the only overnight visitors to the island and, as the families of boaters left, the evening quieted down as we enjoyed our only campfire of the trip.
We awoke to perfectly flat water the next morning and paddled the remaining three miles to the mainland. While Hiawatha, the Indian, was only a fiction in Longfellow’s mind; Hiawatha, The Water Trail, is very real and it’s waiting for us to return to.
If you go: