A Beginner’s Guide to Kayaking in Michigan

Kayaking is one of the most popular water sports and Michigan has some of the best paddling opportunities in the country. Paddlers can enjoy quiet inland lakes and rivers as well as Michigan's water trails and more than 3,200 miles of freshwater coastline. Read on to learn more about kayaking and suggestions on great paddling trips in the Great Lakes State from an avid Michigan kayaker.

A kayaker paddling under a rock arch on Lake Superior
Kayaking at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore | Photo Courtesy of Instagram Fan bosexposures

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My love affair with kayaking began when I learned about kayak touring – multi-day paddling trips carrying camping gear in the kayak. I was an experienced hiker and backpacker, and the idea that I could use a kayak to explore rivers was entrancing.

My first kayak touring experience was a three-day paddle on the James River in Virginia. The slow, lazy river was just right for a beginner, and I delighted in pulling my kayak ashore each night and falling asleep to the sounds of the river. Since then, I’ve explored sea kayaking on beautiful Lake Superior, gnarly whitewater kayaking, and more challenging wilderness paddling trips on the Au Sable River.

Are you a beginner at kayaking in Michigan? Here’s some information and advice.

Most Kayaking Falls into Three Broad Categories

Recreational kayaking is done on lakes and slow-moving flat rivers. This is the type of kayaking best suited for beginners, so that they can focus on learning proper paddling techniques without worrying too much about fast moving water and waves. Photographers and fishermen often prefer the stability and size of recreational boats. Suitable for sit-on-top, tandem and inflatable kayaks.

Sea kayaking, sometimes called kayak touring, is done on open bodies of water like lakes, bays, and oceans. Suitable for tandem, inflatable and sea touring kayaks.

Whitewater kayaking is possibly the most extreme form of adventure paddling and involves paddling in river rapids classified as class two and above. Whitewater kayaks are short and maneuverable, and always have spray skirts to keep water out and paddlers in! Suitable for whitewater kayaks and playboats.

Tips For Your First Pure Michigan Paddling Adventure

1. Take a basic paddling class

A kayaking class will teach you the basics of entering, exiting, paddling and other important techniques. You'll have the opportunity to learn under the guidance of an expert and be able to ask questions. Many outdoors clubs in Michigan sponsor pool days and outings to teach basic paddling techniques and give beginners a safe place to practice. Outfitters in your area can also help you learn about paddling clubs, nearby rivers and streams and local hazards. Classes and clubs are also a great way to meet new paddling buddies.

2. Learn how to enter and exit a kayak safely

It's important to learn how to enter and exit a kayak without overturning the vessel. When entering a kayak, keep your weight centered and low and enter in calm, shallow water so that you can do so in a controlled manner.

Exiting a kayak safely is probably the most important skill to learn. If your kayak requires a spray skirt, practice wet exits in case of a capsize. Master exiting an open kayak in shallow water without flooding the boat. Then practice entries and exits in deep water so that you learn how your kayak behaves when you're not in it.

3. Learn and practice basic paddling techniques

Basic paddling is all about becoming comfortable in a boat and learning how to move it efficiently in the water. Learn to relax while paddling and use your legs and core more than your arms when you paddle. Try to paddle your boat forward in a straight line using basic forward and sweep strokes. Then master the back or reverse paddle as an emergency stop, holding your paddle lightly and reversing your boat in a straight line.

4. Learn about local hazards and carry safety equipment

Each region and waterway is home to its own hazards. Talk to local paddlers or read forums to learn about how to spot and avoid water hazards like sweepers (trees/debris pushing out of the water), strainers (hard-to-see underwater trees) and other obstacles.

The Michigan DNR reports that more than 70% of boating fatalities are caused by drowning. Always paddle with a life jacket and file a float plan with a friend or family member, letting them know the “who, what, where and when” of your trip. Paddle with more experienced kayakers and learn the basics of water rescue so that you can help someone else in an emergency.

5. Learn which kayak is right for you

Don't rush out to buy a kayak at the beginning. Spend some time in rented or borrowed kayaks while learning and practicing basic techniques. Once you've gotten some experience, you can decide which kind of kayak suits your style. Whatever choice you make, fit and comfort are supremely important.

Beginner-Friendly Michigan Kayaking Day Trips

South Branch of Au SableRoscommon

This is easy paddling in a fishing and birding paradise near Roscommon. It takes about three hours of paddling from Chase Bridge to Smith Bridge takeout.

Pictured Rocks National LakeshoreMunising

Spectacular paddling along steep sandstone cliffs and clear waters in the world's largest freshwater lake. Paddle the same waters that drew voyageurs, fur trappers and early explorers of the Upper Peninsula. Put in/take out at the Munising Falls Visitor Center.

Two-Hearted RiverUpper Peninsula

The river made famous in Ernest Hemingway's Nick Adams short stories is a world-class Trout fishing destination and the only Michigan stream to be a designated wilderness river. It is navigable from the High Bridge on County Road 407 near Mason Tract to the river's mouth.

You can find even more paddling adventures along Michigan's Water Trails. Once you’re confident with kayaking and ready to explore more waterways, check out this list of Michigan’s best paddling trips!

About the Author: Daniela Baker is a social media advocate at CreditDonkey.  When she's not busy kayaking and exploring the outdoors, she shares her insights on travel rewards credit cards on her blog.