Out On the Water in Traverse City

Maybe it was his landlubberly upbringing, but it took writer Mike Norton quite a while to stop thinking of the water as “forbidden territory” and start thinking of it as a big blue playground. Now, after 35 years as a resident of Traverse City, he loves to get out on Grand Traverse Bay in almost any way he can.

I first came to Traverse City to be near the water. That’s not surprising, I guess; so do thousands of other people.

Water, after all, is what defines this place. It’s the beautiful backdrop for our family photos, the sparkling blue boundary to our beaches, the ever-changing spectacle that mesmerizes us at sunrise and sunset and all the hours in between.

Pretty? Of course it is. But beauty is really only half the story — because I’ve learned that once you venture out on its shimmering surface, the water becomes more than part of the scenery. It becomes a highway to adventure.

With more than 150 inland lakes and hundreds of miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, Traverse City has always attracted active vacationers who enjoy interacting with water – whether that means sailing, boating, kayaking, fishing, or high-speed sports from waterskiing to kiteboarding. The reason?  Grand Traverse Bay, a two-pronged “freshwater fjord” that’s sheltered on three sides from the wind and waves that can make the open waters of Lake Michigan too intimidating for many novices.

Kayaking Lake Michigan near the Sleeping Bear Dunes

Probably the quickest way to get out on the water is in a canoe or kayak. Long a favorite canoe destination, the area has become hugely popular with kayakers in recent years. Today almost every coastal community in the Traverse City area has at least one canoe/kayak rental outlet, and there are several full-service outfitters who offer instruction and guiding services. (And take it from me, it doesn’t take long to learn!)

I love paddling effortlessly down a tree-shaded river without a care in the world, or heading out along the beach in a sturdy kayak. Most of our rivers are tame enough for novice paddlers, with just enough current to keep things interesting, and today’s kayaks are made for people of every age and aptitude. Just pack some sunscreen and a shore lunch — and don’t forget your camera!

Jet-skiing on Grand Traverse Bay

For those who are looking for something a bit different, stand-up paddleboarding is one of the recent crazes on our lakes and harbors. Instead of sitting on a board, you stand up – getting great views of your surroundings, including the watery depths beneath your feet! SUP’ing is great fun, wonderful exercise, and easy to learn, and there are plenty of places to rent a board if you don’t already own one.

As long as we’re on the subject of boards, Traverse City has long been a major destination for kiteboarding, where you harness the wind to pull you across the water on a small surfboard. This takes some instruction– which can fortunately be acquired in a few hours – but using a special kite and a control harness, you can really move, skimming across the lake and launching 30-foot jumps over the waves!

There are easier ways to speed across the water of course. Jet skis and other personal watercraft can be rented at several location around Traverse City – and although they’re faster than ever, they’re a far cry from the noisy, smelly, uncomfortable machines of the past. Today’s personal watercraft are actually more like small speedboats, a useful way to get from one place to another. (And yes, to have a lot of fun buzzing up and down the shore.)

Sailboats on Grand Traverse Bay

Of course, the proliferation of all these boards and machines doesn’t mean there aren’t still lots of regular boats on the water in Traverse City. Flocks of sailboats are always winging up and down the Bay in breezy weather, and there are plenty of powerboats, too – usually towing water-skiers or heading out to do a little fishing. If fishing is your private passion, this is the perfect place – whether it’s battling a high-powered salmon from the deck of a charter boat or outwitting the wily walleye and smallmouth bass of our inland lakes.

And for those who prefer their excitement a little more organized, how about a sunset cruise in a 19th-century “tall ship” or an exhilarating ride over the waves aboard a giant catamaran?

Undoubtedly, the most easily recognized vessel in the Traverse City fleet is the Tall Ship Manitou, a 114-foot, 62-passenger schooner that offers three two-hour cruises across the bay each day of the week, as well as a number of specialty cruises (a Microbrew & Pizza Cruise, a Wine Tasting Cruise, musical cruises and “ice cream sails”). And now the Manitou has a little brother, the cutter Scout, that’s available for small-group cruises of up to six people.

An even livelier sailing experience can be had aboard the Nauti-Cat, a 47-foot catamaran based near the mouth of the Boardman River. Measuring 29 feet from side to side, it offers up to four cruises per day during the summer months, often cruising as fast as 14 knots on a breezy day.

Can you tell how eager I am to get back out on the water?

Mike Norton, a native of Grand Rapids, spent 25 years as newspaper writer and columnist before starting a second career as media relations director at the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau. An avid kayaker and an enthusiastic (if somewhat clumsy) small-boat sailor, he lives in the village of Old Mission.

Pure Michigan Paddlesports

Though our Pure Michigan summer is coming to a close, there is still time to enjoy the great outdoors on one of Michigan’s many lakes or rivers.  Whether it be solo, or with friends or family, take an end of the summer kayaking or canoeing trip to enjoy the beauty of Pure Michigan.  With over 250 locations to choose from, paddlesport locations can be found throughout the upper and lower peninsulas.

Below are just a few suggestions on where to start. Pick a location and paddle your way to Pure Michigan! For a more complete list of Michigan locations to kayak or canoe, visit michigan.org.    

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula off of Lake Superior.  Whether you Kayak or canoe on the lakeshore or on one of Pictured Lake’s many inland lakes or streams, a variety of sceneries can be viewed.  Multicolored sandstone cliffs, waterfalls, sand dunes and forests make up Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, providing an unforgettable view while partaking in a paddlesport of choice.

Onaway State Park

Located on Black Lake, Onaway State Park features a variety of rugged and picturesque landscapes.  Sand cobblestone beaches and large, unique rock out-croppings in addition to a diverse variety of trees and wildlife provide paddlesporters a diverse view from the water.  Located ten miles east of the park is Ocqueoc Falls, which is the largest waterfall in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. A variety of rivers and lakes are also located nearby.

Bangor/South Haven Heritage Water Trail  

This water trail connecting Bangor and South Haven encompasses 21 miles of river to kayak or canoe in.  The water trail, which is made up of the Black River, has multiple access points. Whether you are a beginner paddler or experienced paddler, the Bangor/South Haven Heritage Water trail has stretches that can be enjoyed by skill level.

Seven Lakes State Park

This state park contains about 230 acres of water with several miles of shoreline.  The results of a dam, the state park which once contained seven small lakes is now made up of one large lake, providing canoers and kayakers plenty of open water to paddle in.  Seven Lakes State Park offers its visitors a diverse assortment of topography and ecosystems.

Great Lakes Eco-Adventure Center

Located in the town of Indian River, Great Lakes Eco-Adventure Center is an epicenter of Northern Michigan outdoor activity. This homebase of Indian River is situated on the famous Inland Waterway, which includes a 38 mile chain of rivers and lakes cutting across Northern Lower Michigan from Petoskey to Lake Huron. Perfect for kayaking, this location offers kayak rentals as well as guided tours. The center also provides skills classes, if looking for improving your kayaking abilities. 

Did you go on a canoeing or kayaking trip in Michigan this summer? Where did you go?