Lake Michigan Islands

Lake Michigan Islands
With a combined age of over 250 years, none of the four of us fits the mold of the adrenaline pumped thrill-seeking kayaker who is featured in the stories found in Sea Kayaker magazine. We’re long past the age where we need to go cascading over waterfalls or paddling around Iceland. But still we feel the need for a challenge that includes the possibility of failure. Princess Cruises aren’t our cup of tea. Our challenge was to paddle from Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore to Mackinaw City via the beautiful islands of northern Lake Michigan.

Our gang of four was made up of Tom O’Connor from Ann Arbor, Bill McCormick from South Haven, Charlie Robertson who hails from Middleville, and me from beautiful Beulah.
The Manitou Islands are visited often. And Beaver Island has regular ferry service and 551 year round residents. But most of the other islands along our route are seldom visited. Those islands are either too remote or don’t have a lot of scenic draw to get more people to visit them. We hoped to see all of them along our journey.

We had more than a little trepidation prior to departing. Some of the crossings were long; one of them was more than twice what any of us had ever done before. Long crossings can be dangerous because of the length of time we would be exposed to the possibility of strong winds and big waves. The huge fetch is another factor that allows waves to build up a lot of strength before they get to us. Help is a long way away and, as good as our U.S. Coast Guard is, if things went bad, we could be in the water a long time. We prepared for the trip by putting in hours of practice time and took shakedown trips on the Great Lakes. Our equipment included VHF radios for everyone in order to communicate with sailors and boaters, along with a SPOT satellite tracker to call for help and keep loved ones apprised of our progress. We also filed a float plan, and carried flares and other signaling devices. But technology can only take a paddler so far. We also worked on our rescues and paddling skills so that a rescue would not be needed.
Sleeping Bear Point sits below the shoulder of the Sleeping Bear Dunes. It is a windswept piece of land jutting into the Manitou Passage with views west toward Wisconsin, north towards Cathead Point, and south towards Pt. Betsie. Schooners piled high with lumber, potatoes, fruit, and other goods as well as steamships made their way past this point southbound for Chicago or northbound with passengers and finished goods.

The Manitou Passage represented for seamen an opportunity to save time and replenish supplies, but it also had a darker side in which numerous schooners and steamers were caught in storms and fog and were run aground or sunk.

The tremendous traffic through the Passage required a life-saving service to aid ships and their crews. In 1901, Congress appropriated the money to build a Life-Saving Station at Sleeping Bear Point. By 1931, moving sand dunes and shoreline erosion forced the station to move to its current location near Glen Haven.

Today, the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station is owned and operated by Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The buildings have been restored to their pre-1931 appearance and are open to visitors
We began our adventure with an eight mile crossing to South Manitou Island. We launched into water that was calm in the lee of the tall dunes, but as soon as we cleared Sleeping Bear Point, we encountered a southwest quartering wind and 2 foot waves. Just as it has guided mariners for a century, the bright white hundred-foot tall lighthouse on the island served to guide us. Two and a half hours later we stopped for a snack and to talk with hikers and campers waiting for their ferry to Leland. It was four more miles over to North Manitou, the larger of the two islands in the park. It was hard paddling round Dimmick’s Point because of the wind and the fact that the shoal stretches for hundreds of yards into the lake. Finally we made it around and could see the boat dock and village four miles to the north. When we arrived, not much was happening there and no ranger was in evidence, so we left our camping fee and float plan stuffed in the door jamb. One thing these two islands feature is an abundance of poison ivy. A person can’t go far from the water before encountering it, but park service rules require campers to be a minimum of 300 feet from shore. Sure enough, the next day I had the dreaded red, itchy patches on my legs. Apparently the park service doesn’t feel that the slogan “Take poison ivy, leave only footprints” is as catchy as the rash is.
The eighteen mile crossing to South Fox Island had been weighing heavily on our minds ever since the trip was suggested. Though the dunes on the island are nearly three hundred feet high, they are barely visible from North Manitou. Our NOAA weather radios informed us that we’d have some wind late in the day, and no bigger than 2-3 foot waves. I had my doubts, but Tom said “let’s do it”, so we shoved off. The mileage slowly clicked off on our GPS’s as we kept an eye on each other and held a steady 4 MPH paddling speed. Off to our right, the Leelanau Peninsula slowly shrank away. Too our left, we could only imagine Wisconsin. Patience and planning are keys in making long water crossings. The wind and waves weren’t terribly challenging, and we had to tell ourselves to relax and enjoy the trip. We celebrated the halfway mark with a snack and plenty of hydration. That brings up the problem with being “overhydrated”. Those of us who had to go enroute rafted up and relieved ourselves. Being all guys (old guys), we had our pee bottles available and took care of business while rocking and rolling in the waves. Once again underway, South Fox slowly got bigger and we were excited to see the old lighthouse guarding the southeastern shore.
South Fox Island, probably one of the prettiest islands of the Great Lakes, lies about 16 nautical miles north-northwest of Lighthouse Point in Leelanau County, Michigan, making it the most isolated island in Lake Michigan. The State of Michigan owns one third of the island, which includes the lighthouse complex under the jurisdiction of the Department of Natural Resources.
The island is crescent shaped and has 11 1/2 miles of shoreline and is nearly unspoiled wilderness. There is some evidence that French explorers visited North and South Fox Islands in the early 1600s. South Fox has no natural harbor. A lighthouse was erected in 1867 on the southern tip of the island. It was abandoned and left to decay in 1959.
Developer David V. Johnson has a large residence and many guest homes on the island’s north side. Mr. Johnson owns 2,204 acres of the island’s 3,400 acres. In 2001, he built a paved runway that can handle jets. At one point he proposed swapping North Fox Island, which he also owned, with the state, for the third of South Fox that he did not own, but he settled in 2003 for a consolidation deal which traded 218 acres of state owned land on the southern part of South Fox for 219 acres on the north and central parts of the same island.
South Fox Island boasts some of the most spectacular freshwater maritime scenery in the world, including towering dunes, virgin cedars, and untouched beaches
We explored the lighthouse compound, the Native American graveyard and the boathouse which was being restored. After what now seemed to be a short crossing of 4.5 miles, we arrived at North Fox Island. The island is desolate and now, thanks to Mr. Johnson who paid to remove tons of junk from the island, a beautiful place. He has since deeded the island to the State of Michigan, so that we all may enjoy this unique place.
The water offered a relaxing swim and we encountered little of the smelly algae and zebra mussels that covered the beaches on the Manitou’s.
With our longest crossing behind us, we got bolder and the eleven mile crossing to Beaver Island (largest in Lake Michigan) seemed less daunting than it might have a week earlier. The wind didn’t give us much of a break though, and once we cleared the lee of the island we were faced with a west wind of 20 MPH and waves that built to five feet (although in my memory, they were ten feet). We headed for what looked like an uninhabited beach on Beaver for a late lunch and much-needed rest before rounding the southeast side of the island. Our lunch came to an abrupt end when we heard the rumbling of thunder in the distance. Our plan was to have an “easy” day today and travel eight more miles to camp at the township campground. A very nice campground, it features the cushy amenities of a creaky hand pump, picnic tables and clean outhouses.

The next morning, we paddled north to the Village of St. James. Most of the island’s 551 year round residents live near the village that features a very nice grocery, a bar, motels and a coffee shop, Dalwhinnie’s, that has wonderful brewed coffee and sweet rolls as big as your head. We landed our kayaks right across the street from the coffee shop and didn’t feel guilty at all enjoying not one but two of the wonderful rolls. Once out of St. James Harbor, we bypassed Garden Island and headed to Hog Island five miles to the east. Hog has many shallow bays around its’ perimeter but we wanted to be on the east side of the island so that we could see what the wind was doing to the water that we planned on traversing the next day.
The forecast didn’t look good and was, in fact, accurate this time. We listened as the marine weather prediction deteriorated from a small craft warning to a gale warning. The island is relatively flat with only one contour line showing on our maps so we couldn’t get much of a feel for where our next destination of Waugoshance Island was. Charlie is a GPS expert so he set about determining the desired bearing in both magnetic and true North and educated us about declination and all things navigation.
Although we could see the Mackinac Bridge Towers on the horizon, for three days we couldn’t get there from Hog Island. So we contended ourselves with exploring, napping, reading, cooking, calling home and chasing off the ants and spiders that were everywhere. Our schedule allowed eight days for the trip knowing that we’d probably be wind bound at least one day. It turned out that even after three wind days we needed another day or two that we didn’t have, so on our last day we fought a stiff headwind and choppy seas back to St. James Harbor to purchase ferry tickets aboard the Emerald Isle over to the mainland. Our ferry trip to Charlevoix saw waves breaking over the bow of the 130 foot long ship which confirmed our wise decision to call it a trip and go home.
Thanks to all of our wives who held veto power over the adventure and special thanks to Cathy who literally held the (van) key to getting us on and off the water.
Submitted by George Granlund

New to Kayaking?

Don't know how to get started? Which boat to buy? How to learn without embarrassment? What if it tips over? Do I have to roll the kayak?

We were all beginners once and we'd be happy to help you with the basics. Before you even buy a boat, why not stop in at our monthly meeting (see the Paddlers Calendar) for some friendly advice from experienced paddlers. Whether you're interested in calm afternoons on one of Michigan's beautiful lakes and rivers or two weeks in the wilderness, we can help - we've been there.

To ask any questions or to contact the group for any reason, please send an e-mail to