An Unforgettable Paddling Experience at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Earlier this year, we shared Courtney Kotewa’s spectacular photo of a kayaking tour at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Her prize-winning photo will be featured on the 2015 National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass! Today, Courtney shares the unforgettable experience at Pictured Rocks that inspired her creative capture. 

Photo by Courtney Kotewa

Photo by Courtney Kotewa

Last year, my mom Beth came across a deal for a kayaking trip at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with Uncle Ducky Outdoors in Munising, MI. Though she has been a lifelong resident of Michigan, she’d never made it up to the spectacular shoreline. She couldn’t pass it up, and she made plans to bring my younger brother Matt and me along, too. We’d never been to that part of the state either, and were excited for the getaway. We had no way of knowing what a fateful trip it would turn out to be!

The kayaking tour itself was everything we hoped it would be. It was a six-hour guided paddle starting at Miner’s Beach. We set out in tandem sea kayaks, up close and personal with the multi-colored sandstone cliffs that make the area so special. Along the way, the guides informed us about the area’s geology and history, telling us some fun facts about Lake Superior and pointing out a shipwreck. We stopped for the lunch we’d packed on a beach partway through the trip. We continued on to the turn-around point – Lover’s Leap. I had been taking pictures along the way whenever I managed to get my phone out of my life jacket. Seeing Lover’s Leap, I grabbed my phone again and took one shot before we paddled through and started the journey back.

Photo by Courtney Kotewa

Photo by Courtney Kotewa

I contemplated not bringing my phone along, because I knew there was the possibility of some big waves along the way. On the return trip we encountered those waves! The guides called it a “wind event” and it made for a fun and challenging paddle back. I was thankful for my kayak skirt! My upper half got pretty soaked but my phone, luckily, remained safely tucked away. Later, when I went to look through the photos I took, I remember being pleasantly surprised with how they came out. But mostly, I was just happy to have had such a great day with my family in what has to be one of the most beautiful parts of the country.

A few months later, I got an e-mail about a photo contest called Share the Experience, put on by the US Department of the Interior. To make a long story short, the contest was open to any amateur photographer who had taken a recent picture on federal land. My thoughts immediately went to my photos from our vacation, and I entered the shot of Lover’s Leap on a whim. A few months later I would learn, to my disbelief, that I was the grand prize winner. I was absolutely shocked, not only because over 16,000 people had entered the contest, but also because my picture was taken quite casually on my cell phone.

Photo by Courtney Kotewa

Photo by Courtney Kotewa

I was, of course, ecstatic to win the cash prize, but what struck me more was how happy I felt to have the winning photo come from Michigan. Working as a travel nurse, my patients often ask about where I’m from and usually know little about Michigan outside from what they hear on the news. I always tell them about what a beautiful and diverse state Michigan is, and now they can see for themselves.

I loved growing up in Michigan. I grew up enjoying summers at Higgins Lake, boating with my family in Holland, running on cross country courses with my best friends, camping, skiing, kayaking, paddle boarding. I could go on and on. Our state provides an enormous variety of ways to get out and appreciate your surroundings. And while I’m currently exploring other parts of the country, I’ve found my appreciation for the mitten state growing when I’m away. When I return, I’m always more aware of how nice people here really are, how the slightly slower pace allows people to relax and enjoy themselves. How much space there is for everyone to roam around in. How easy it is to find a nice place to watch the sunset. How many different parts of the state are truly worth some exploration. I love coming back to Pure Michigan because it’s home.

IMG_1278Courtney Kotewa is a travel nurse from Essexville, Michigan. Travel assignments have taken her all over California and to New York City, but she happily returns home to Michigan often. Courtney loves any opportunity to explore a new place, and likes to stay active in the great outdoors whenever possible.

See Why Traverse City is an Unforgettable Open Water Kayaking Destination

In Traverse City, summer is when the ski racks come off the cars and the kayak racks go on. Some paddlers prefer the area’s many rivers and streams and others love its quiet forest lakes, but guest blogger Mike Norton enjoys heading out onto the open water. It may sound a little scary, but he insists that anyone can do it.

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 11.33.13 AM

Photo courtesy of Traverse City Tourism

Traverse City is an outdoorsy place. So when warm weather arrives here, anyone who isn’t already out hiking or cycling, boating or scooting across the water on stand-up paddleboards, is likely to be in a kayak, heading down one of our rivers or gliding across one of our lakes. Me, I like to be out on the open waters of Lake Michigan.

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. They also include uninhabited islands, picturesque fishing villages, innumerable coves and bays to explore – and water so clear that there are times when paddlers can feel as though they’re suspended in mid-air.

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 our 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.

One of the region’s greatest assets as a sea kayak destination is its abundance of sheltered waterways; the glaciers that scoured this place out thousands of years ago left us with dozens of long, narrow inlets and lakes where paddlers can enjoy the feel of open water while remaining largely protected from strong winds, waves and currents.

Grand Traverse Bay - Photo courtesy of Traverse City Tourism

Grand Traverse Bay – Photo courtesy of Traverse City Tourism

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.

Photo courtesy of Traverse City Tourism

Photo courtesy of Traverse City Tourism

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. Several outfitters, for instance, feature food and wine trips that take paddlers to some of the region’s best-known waterfront restaurants and wineries.

The region’s 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.

Sleeping Bear Dunes - Photo courtesy of Traverse City Tourism

Sleeping Bear Dunes – Photo courtesy of Traverse City Tourism

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 this isn’t a trip for first-time paddlers, even with an escort — the waters that separate the islands from the mainland are among the most unpredictable and potentially dangerous in the Great Lakes

If the water and weather are stable, the crossing is a simple two-hour paddle, but in that time things can get rough quick if you’re not paying attention. If you’re not a really skilled paddler, the wiser choice might be to cross over on the Manitou Island Transit ferry and use one of the islands as a base for shorter, safer trips.

Where do you like to kayak in Michigan?

Mike MugshotMike Norton spent 25 years as a newspaper writer and columnist before starting a second career as media relations manager at Traverse City Tourism. He lives in the village of Old Mission, his favorite base for many kayak journeys on East Grand Traverse Bay.

 

Michigan’s Seven Best Paddling Trips

Guest blogger Jennifer Hamilton of the Awesome Mitten shares seven of the best destinations for paddling in Michigan. Read from her below and find more places to visit on michigan.org.

Summer may be rapidly coming to a close, but there is still plenty of time for a kayak trip in one of Michigan’s famous bodies of water. Whether you are seeking lakes or rivers, I have had the pleasure of polling fellow Awesome Mitten writers and compiling a list of Michigan’s favorite waterways.

1) Onekama to Arcadia via Lake Michigan – This is probably one of the most peaceful waterway treks in our Great Lakes State. Travelers have the opportunity to view Arcadia Bluffs from the water as they paddle by and scope out potential golfing opportunities. Since this area is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, there are great dune adventures to have at almost every point along the way if you want to stop and picnic.

2) The Backwaters at Tippy Dam – The Backwaters at Tippy Dam are for the adventurous hoping to catch a glimpse of wildlife. Great fishing is available here if you are seeking walleye or small-mouthed bass. Experienced fishermen say that the panfish are abundant as well. Due to the wooded surroundings, there is a good chance that visitors will spot at least one eagle during their adventure. The peacefulness of these Backwaters is great for an escape from civilization and to truly get a Northern Michigan experience.

3) Canals of Detroit – While Detroit may not be the first place you think of to enjoy a water-filled experience; one particular Awesome Mitten-er offers a unique perspective on its waterways. Ms. Joanna Dueweke swears by touring Detroit’s canals via kayak or stand-up paddleboard. It’s a great way to enjoy the historical buildings and homes from a completely different point of view than the general public. Some of the best and most convenient places to launch are at Alter Road, St. Jean, or Belle Isle.

Turnip Rock, photographed by Lars Jensen

4) Turnip Rock Port Austin – If you have not had the pleasure of experiencing Turnip Rock via Lake Huron, I insist that you head there immediately. This enormous rock received its turnip connotation from thousands of years of erosion from storm waves. Now, it is an island with a few trees and little other vegetation. The land nearby is all privately owned, so the only way to view it is by waterway or trekking across a frozen Lake Huron in the winter. It is quite the comedic, awe-inspiring landmark, located at the tip of Michigan’s thumb.

5) The Platte River – The Platte River is a personal favorite and though it may not be a secret, it is worth a mention to remind you to traverse its calm, strangely warm waters. The Platte is a great place to take families as it is easy to navigate and always warm enough to tube if kayaks are not readily available. As part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, it is no surprise that the Platte River is absolutely stunning. Its ending pours out into Lake Michigan with a mini peninsula jutting out between the two, dividing the playful river and the wild waves.

6) Huron River near Ann Arbor – This is the only state-designated Country Scenic Natural River in Southeast Michigan. It is a huge river that covers five counties, with each portion being strikingly worthwhile. During various portions of the river, floaters can expect to come across an abundance of dams; there are 96 total, to be exact. Many of these dams were built for mill or hydroelectric power, making them fairly large. Due to the size of these dams, many new lakes have formed along the Huron River, making for exciting sites to see almost every portion of the way.

7) Two Hearted River, Eastern Upper Peninsula – Any river that has a beer named after it clearly needs to be traversed. It is a fairly short river that empties into Lake Superior, and it does a great job of capturing the Upper Peninsula’s natural beauty. At the mouth of the river, travelers can see a Michigan Historic Marker; formally known as the Two-Hearted Life Saving Station, which then became part of the United States Coast Guard in 1915. The Two-Hearted River is exceptionally famous for a great place to leisurely fish, probably while enjoying a nice Two-Hearted Ale from Bell’s Brewery.

Jennifer Hamilton is a feature writer for The Awesome Mitten. Jennifer lives in Traverse City where she works for Addiction Treatment Services and is earning her Master of Social Work and Master of Arts in Alcohol and Drug Addiction.

Do you have a favorite Michigan paddling trip that’s not on the list? Share with us below!