What a Great Place for Open-water Kayaking!

Passing Leffingwell Point on East Grand Traverse Bay
Passing Leffingwell Point on East Grand Traverse Bay

By MIKE NORTON

What a wonderful spring weekend! For the first time this year, Karen and I got the kayaks out of the boathouse and carried them down to Old Mission Harbor for an hour of paddling on East Grand Traverse Bay. It was a little breezy — but after a long winter on shore it felt great to be out on the open water again.

Of all the ways to enjoy the “big water” around Traverse City, kayaking is my hands-down favorite. And lots of other people seem to feel the same way; once the ice is off the water, it seems like every third car you see around TC has a ‘yak or two strapped to the roof.

The attractions are subtle, to be sure. The kayaking waters of Grand Traverse Bay and the nearby Manitou Passage don’t feature craggy peaks, glaciers, sea caves or whale-watching opportunities. Instead, they’re bordered by 400-foot dunes of golden sand and gentle wooded hills, where neatly-manicured orchards and vineyards bask in the summer sun. But they also include uninhabited islands, picturesque fishing villages, innumerable coves and bays to explore – and water so clear that there are times when you can feel as though you’re suspended in mid-air.

Of course, canoe paddlers have long known about the hundreds of lakes, streams and rivers that flow into Grand Traverse Bay and its adjacent waters, but over the past decade the area has also become one of the nation’s premiere open water kayaking destinations. Today almost every coastal community in the Traverse City area has at least one kayak rental outlet, and the area is home to several full-service outfitters who offer instruction and guiding services to open water paddlers.

In Sleeping Bear Bay, back from South Manitou Island
In Sleeping Bear Bay, back from South Manitou Island

Our most dramatic coastal kayaking is along the Lake Michigan shoreline at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Here, towering dunes of tawny sand rise hundreds of feet from the water’s edge, and there are miles of secluded beaches that are perfect for a sunbathing break.

Experienced kayakers are particularly drawn to the rugged Manitou Islands eight miles offshore, whose attractions include isolated coves, lighthouses, giant trees and a shipwrecked freighter. But first-time paddlers are not encouraged to make the trip, even with an escort; the waters that separate the islands from the mainland are among the most unpredictable in the Great Lakes

“If the water and weather is stable, the crossing is a simple two-hour paddle, but in that time things can get rough quick if you’re not paying attention,” said veteran kayaker Randy Elder of Pittsburgh. (He recommends that novice paddlers cross on the island ferry and use the Manitous as a base for shorter, less perilous trips.

Fortunately, most of Traverse City’s paddling options are substantially less intimidating. One of our greatest assets as a sea kayak destination is an abundance of sheltered waterways; our glacier-scoured terrain includes dozens of long, narrow inlets and lakes where paddlers can enjoy the feel of open water but remain largely protected from strong winds, waves and currents.

The twin arms of Grand Traverse Bay, for example, are over 20 miles in length but rarely more than four or five miles wide, providing dozens of different routes for coastal kayakers. Starting in Traverse City, a novice kayaker could travel up the east shore of the Leelanau Peninsula, along the western coast of the mainland to the village of Elk Rapids, or around the narrow vineyard-spangled Old Mission Peninsula, which lies between them.

The bay even has its own uninhabited 200-acre island: heavily-wooded Power Island on the west shore of Old Mission. Once the property of auto pioneer Henry Ford, today it’s a county park complete with a campground, hiking trails, swimming beaches and a picnic area. It’s an easy 15-mile paddle along the coast from Traverse City – or an even easier three-mile trip from the boat launch at nearby Bowers Harbor.

The narrow fiord-like shape of Grand Traverse Bay is mirrored in a number of nearby lakes that also make excellent destinations for kayakers. In the center of the Leelanau Peninsula, for example is Lake Leelanau, 22 miles long and rarely more than a mile wide, nestled between steep and spectacular hills. And just to the east of Traverse City is the fabled Chain of Lakes, a series of 14 connected lakes and rivers that wind for over 50 miles through the rolling farmlands of Antrim County. They include several large lakes that are major paddling destinations in their own right, especially lovely Torch Lake, which is 18 miles long.

And since these sheltered waterways have been vacation destinations since the 19th century, it’s relatively easy for kayakers to create paddling itineraries that reflect their own tastes and aptitudes — whether that means ending the day at a backcountry campground, an elegant beach resort or a cozy small-town bed & breakfast. Or, like me, you could just haul your boat up on the beach, pull out a nice bottle of Old Mission Peninsula pinot noir, and watch the sun go down.

Yeah, it was a great weekend. The first of many….

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About mikelovestc

These days, I’m the media relations guy for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau, but before that I spent 25 years as a reporter and columnist at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a job that frequently took me out into the most remote backroads, forests, beaches and islands of the beautiful Grand Traverse Region. My strategy was pretty simple — just drive, paddle, ski or walk until you’re certain you’re lost, and then find somebody to talk to. It was a great job! I never intended to live in Traverse City. I grew up in Grand Rapids, spent four years in the Coast Guard in places like Miami Beach, Monterey and San Francisco, and when I finally graduated from college I took a summer job at the Miami Herald. To my surprise, I discovered I didn’t like the tropics nearly as much as I thought I would — and when the Record-Eagle offered me a job I took it, figuring I’d put in a year or two and head off to someplace like Seattle or Portland. What I discovered very quickly is that this place gets to you in a variety of unexpected ways. The beaches here are as lovely as anyplace else I’ve ever been, the weather is mild all year round — warm enough for swimming in September and cold enough for skiing in December — and just about the time you’re getting tired of one season you get another one every bit as pleasant. The people are laid-back and friendly, the music and arts scene is awesome, and the place still hasn’t gotten so sophisticated that a guy like me feels out of place.
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