Manitou Island Expedition – Day 1

June 3, 2012

Surprisingly, I have not gone on a sea kayaking expedition since the summer of 2007, when I spent a month in the Tongass Wilderness of Southeast Alaska, and spent a week paddling the Massasauga Provincial Park in Onterio.  Five years!  Where has the time gone, and what have I been doing (oh, yeah… medical school, and residency).

But it was time to change that poor track record, and so I have decided to dedicate more time to sea kayaking this year.  I have made several short excursions around the area, including visiting my friends from Riverside Kayak Connection for their Wednesday Night Kayak events,  and had paddled out to Kelly’s Island in Lake Erie, but I’ve been wanting to get back into multi day Kayak camping expeditions.

One of the paddling trips that I kept seeing while researching sea kayaking in the Great Lakes was the paddle to South Manitou Island in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.  The trip starts with an exposed 8 mile crossing in the middle of Lake Michigan, with cold water, unpredictable conditions and freighter traffic through the shipping lanes.

Click here to see a map of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

As it turned out, I was already planning to attend the Great Lakes Regional Wilderness Medicine Conference in Gaylord, MI, and then had a week of vacation following, so I was already in the neighborhood for a great expedition.

As all accounts will tell you, if you are planning on Kayaking over to South Manitou, it is best to put out from the Glen Haven Canning Co. in Glen Haven, an open-air museum village run by the Park Service.

Thousands of similar pictures exist, but you can trust that I actually TOOK this one, because my trusted Volvo is parked in the “No Parking” area nearby.

After the long, rainy weekend, made worse by the fact that I was the only one at the conference with the bright idea to actually “Commune with the Wilderness” by camping in my tiny REI quarter dome tent next to huge campers at the truly lovely-when-not-rained-out Otsego Lake State Park, the sun was out, the sky was warm and I was ready to dip my P&H Capella into it’s 3rd Great Lake.

It was approximately 5pm by the time that I started, not the safest hour to start a major crossing, but the sun was high, and NOAA had assured me good crossing conditions.  The water started as a vibrant Aqua blue with bottom features easily visible below.  As the water got deeper, the color changed to a most magnificent deep blue, but never quite to black.

Navigationally, it was a very easy paddle, just point to the South Manitou lighthouse, and make corrections as needed.  There was a 5-10 mph northwesterly wind that started kicking up some whitecaps in mid-crossing, and as my arms started to get cold, I reflected on the foolishness of crossing this water without a dry-suit on.  But after 2 hours of paddling, I made it to South Manitou Island.

The end of the crossing: looking at the lighthouse on South Manitou Island, Lake Michigan.

A note of history about South Manitou Island: as the only natural harbor on the east side of Lake Michigan, South Manitou Island was a natural place for cargo and steamer ships to “wait out the storms”.

Obviously not a picture taken by me, but this is an old photo of the US Life Saving Station Crew.

A US Life Saving Station (which actually preceded the creation of the US Coast Guard) was located at the harbor to help stranded vessels.

“The Crib” located off the shoals of North Manitou Island could be seen and heard in the distance throughout the trip.

A lighthouse was built on the island, and a “shoal light” was built off the coast of North Manitou to facilitate shipping through the Manitou Passage.  The Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1958 due to “obsolescence”, and therefore could not help guide the Liberian freighter, the Francisco Morazan, which wrecked off of South Manitou in November of 1960 (Seriously, as the saying goes, “It’s always the Liberians!”).

I landed at the rescue station, and ended up finding Sean, the Park Service Ranger, who I found out was a Federal Agent, professional bad-ass, and regularly carried a firearm during his on-duty hours.  Luckily by 7pm he was off-duty and his fire arm was safely tucked out of view.  He told me he was glad I had gotten across safely, because apparently less than 50% of people who attempt the crossing actually make it, and they end up calling the Coast Guard (that option sounded expensive).  I asked him where the best spot to camp was, and he recommended that site #23 at the Bay Campground.  “Its larger and more secluded.  Out there by the old cemetery.  The only other people at Bay Campground are at site #6, so they shouldn’t bother you at all.”  Great: all the makings of a classic B-rate horror movie.

Location for tent placement. Note the trail leads directly down to the beach.

True to his word, site #23 was a pleasant location right off the beach with trees perfect for setting up my Henessey hammock and a feeling of camping right on the beach.

In what would become a theme for the trip, it was well after 9pm by the time I had unpacked, set up camp and was ready to sit down to dinner, Mexican Chicken and Rice provided by Mountain House.

Stay tuned for our next adventure, and Andrew and the P&H paddle to North Manitou Island.


4 Responses to “Manitou Island Expedition – Day 1”

  1. Matt said

    Sounds like a great trip Andy! I think we are all happy you made it across and I am very happy that the Continental Drifter is back! I often check out the blog (and of the Downhill Cowboy) to see if it has been updated since Ride for World Health, but no updates until now. Looking forward to the next post!

  2. Gary Nyberg said

    Great story and adventure, Andy! Can’t wait for the next postings and the “Demonic Rabbits”!!! Dad

  3. Mary Nyberg said

    Hi Andy,
    Sounds like the making of a thriller movie to me. Did you encounter any “Devil Bunnies/”. Reading about your first day leaves me waiting for day 2. Sounds exciting.

  4. David Bayly said


    Commenting late here…

    Your picture of the cannery-cum-museum is one I’ve taken a hundred times. My brother-in-law’s house is about a quarter mile up the road to Glen Arbor.

    But we’ve never been out to Manitoulin. Thanks for the pictures. You make me want to go.

    Hope you’re enjoying Jackson.


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