Kayaking is super fun, and places like the Pictured Rocks and the Sea Caves are super gorgeous. I totally get it. But after spending a summer up guiding on Superior I’ve got a few notes for you all, just to re-enforce the whole safety thing.
This summer I saw a whole lot of people out at the Mainland Sea Caves without spray skirts, or in inflatable boats, or worst case scenario, in sundolphins. (You want to know what I hate most in the world? It’s the sundolphin. That boat is tiny, and slow, and there’s no spray skirt or bulkheads. What are you gonna do when that thing capsizes? It’s gonna sink! Are you gonna swim the mile back to the beach in 57 degree water? You’re not wearing a wetsuit! You’re gonna get hypothermia.)
So you might be thinking, “but all the pictures I’ve seen of the Lake look beautiful and calm, and I’m a good paddler, I take my sundolphin out on Lake Minnesota-dota-tonka-bago all the time.” (I don’t know the lake names here. Everything in WI sounds funny.)
I’m here to remind you that the Great Lakes are a different ball game.
You are no longer dealing with lakes when you start paddling here. You are on an inland sea. Lake Superior’s largest recorded average wave height was 28.8 feet. These lakes can create their own weather. They have taken down real ships. Do you really feel safe in that 10 foot sundolphin?
The Great Lakes are seas. Bring a Sea Kayak.
A sea kayak is defined by a few things. First, sea kayaks are longer than 15 feet. Most are around that 16-18 foot range. Tandem sea kayaks should be pushing 18 feet. Anything shorter than this might not be sea worthy.
Second, sea kayaks have sealed bulkheads. That means there are pockets of air both in front of and behind the cockpit. If your boat capsizes, it will not sink, and you can get back into it.
Sea kayaks are the only type of manpowered boat that is smart to bring on a Great Lake. Don’t have a sea kayak? Consider a guided tour.
Know how to get back in your boat
In the event of a capsize, you want to be able to get back in your boat. Do you have a scramble rescue? Do you have a paddle float rescue? Do you know what those words mean?
If you’re paddling with other people, do you have a T-rescue? No? Consider hiring a guide or taking a safety course.
There is a set list of safety gear you should have before hitting the Great Lakes. Here is that list:
Spray Skirt– keeps water out of boat. Water out of boat= boat that floats= stable boat.
PFD- Aka life jacket. And actually wear it. It’s not a lot of good floating away from you.
Bilge Pump– pumps water out of boat. Water out of boat= boat that floats= stable boat.
Paddle Float– can use to create outrigger with paddle for self-rescue. Also makes a good back rest.
Spare Paddle– in case something bad happens to first paddle.
First Aid Kit– for band-aids.
Repair Kit– so you can duct tape that hole in your boat.
Whistle- carry three signaling devices. This is an easy one.
Mirror– effective way to get someone’s attention using sunlight.
Marine Radio- you might not have cell service. Now you can still call for help/ check the weather.
Wetsuit– What’s the water temperature? Is it below 70? Hypothermia might be a risk. Lake Superior has more hypothermia incidents than drownings. Food for thought.
Extra Layers– Weather changes quickly out there. Rain jacket never hurt anyone.
Sponge– clean boat = happy boat.
Map- know where you’re going.
Most importantly, have a plan. Maybe this seems silly and obvious, but know a little bit about the hazards in the area you plan on paddling. Know the marine forecast, and check the radar before you head out. Tell people where you are paddling, and when you expect to be back. Most of the gear above you won’t even use on a typical paddling trip. But it’s good to have a plan B, and C, and D and E. And if you don’t have all the backup plans, go with someone who does.
Just the other day when my group was heading in before a storm we saw a family of four setting up for a picnic near the cliff wall on sit-on-top kayaks. The weather had probably looked nice when they left, but weather changes. (We, of course, gave them a heads up.)
The day before that, a mother was the sole survivor of a tragedy in the Apostle Islands. This incident is my primary prompting for posting this. I post a lot of pictures of kayaking on Lake Superior, and I don’t want people to see these pictures and assume that means this Lake is always beautiful and safe and calm. I don’t have my camera out when it’s not. I’m not on the water, and if I am, I’m busy trying to get myself and others off of it. There is a safe way to kayak the Great Lakes. I would hate for people to see photos that I take as a message that this place is always a safe and fun vacation spot.
This isn’t meant to be irreverent, or to shame anyone, or to assign blame. Experience informs the choices we make, and we cannot fault people for experiences they haven’t had. I don’t think death or loosing your family is a fair price to pay for simply not knowing, but the Lake isn’t fair.
If you’re reading this, awesome. I’m not concerned about you. But make sure your friends, and neighbors all know that these lakes are not safe all the time. Friends don’t let friends paddle sundolphins.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is one of my favorite places on earth. It’s got clear blue water, rivers and forests, some of the best beaches in the world, and of course, the dunes themselves.
In the summer, the water is warm enough to swim and the beaches fill up. Fall sees the leaves change color, and by winter most tourists have filtered out, and the park becomes a snowshoe and cross country ski play ground.
Sunset from over Lake Michigan from Overlook 9 in July, looking like something out from Planet Earth.
The same overlook in the winter, with South Manitou Island obscured by snow and fog, small human for scale.
Overlook 9, basking in that post sunset purple glow.
Looking down into the water from the tops of the Empire Bluffs Trail in August, Lake Michigan looks practically tropical!
The Manitou Islands from Pyramid Point, a short mile hike up to a bluff over Lake Michigan.
Otter Creek flows into Esch Road beach on a still, cloudy day in October. In the summer, this beach is teeming with people, but as soon as September hits the crowds filter out.
The flowers in early June at the top of the Empire Bluffs Trail on a cloudy day.
The North Bar Lake Overlook in fall, winter, and summer– in the fall, spring, and summer you can take the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive out to this overlook, but in the winter you have to cross country ski or snowshoe.
At Point Betsie, the wind kicks up turquoise waves.
Colors change out over the D.H. Day Farm, looking out from the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.
Winter and windy vibes out over Lake Michigan.
Empire Bluffs looking bright and hot in late August.
2017 has been an eventful year for me. I had the opportunity to experience some really amazing things, from interning at the Kellogg Biological Station to playing around in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Glacier National Park. Social media tends to give the impression that all things—travel, our personal lives, camping—are always fun and easy, not ever super embarrassing.
I assure you this is false. For every awesome experience I had, a tent leaked, or I ended up leading a group friends down the wrong trail, or I made myself look like an idiot. (Okay, the last one happens more often than not.)
So, in order to fully appreciate 2017 in all her beauty and grace, I have complied a list of my most ridiculous, humiliating, and funny travel/outdoor stories and misadventures from 2017.
The time we ran for a flight
On the way back from a family trip to Whitefish, Montana, my dad, two younger sisters, younger brother and I all found ourselves running through the Salt Lake City airport to try and catch a flight back to Detroit.
Our previous flight out of Portland had been delayed, and we had about five minutes to make it across the airport once the plane landed to catch our next flight. We looked ridiculous (but like, relatable) running through the airport, and even more ridiculous when we ended up making the flight and all high fiving each other, but I don’t think I have ever been happier to be anywhere in my life than I was to be on that plane.
The time we could not find the trailhead, so we got lunch instead
In early January 2017, my sister Claire and I went out to go find and snowshoe the Brown Bridge Quiet Area near Traverse City, Michigan, but for the life of us we could not find the trailhead. Both Apple and Google maps sent us in the wrong direction, and I couldn’t figure it out from the map I had saved to my phone.
Eventually, we found a trailhead that we thought (incorrectly) was the trail we were looking for, and snowshoed there for about 20 minutes before deciding it was too cold and we were lost. We packed up, and rather than workout, we opted for sandwiches.
The time I forgot my stupid camera battery
I think I reached peak self-loathing when I screwed my camera into my tripod at Torch Lake for sunset, went to turn it on and nothing happened. Because I had forgot my camera battery. On the table. Three hours south. For better or worse, I went without a camera for the remainder of that trip.
I missed out on a lot of photos by not having my DSLR, tripod, and telephoto lens, but I did pick up quite a few things about how to get the most out of a phone camera, and I got to hike a lot lighter had way more room in my pack for extra food.
The time some fisherman thought I wouldn’t know the difference between a bass and bluegill
This one is my favorite.
I was out paddle boarding alone on a small lake near Bellaire, Michigan when I stopped to make small talk with some guys who were fishing. They were probably in their late 20s, and seemed nice enough.
I told them that if you go around the next bend, and then stick to the West side of the lake until it narrows, it’ll open up into a smaller cove that has lots of fish; not many people fish there, because it’s harder to find.
One of the men narrowed his eyes and looked at me. “Were the fish long and fat or short and small?”
I frowned for a second, not really sure what he was asking, until I realized he literally was asking if I knew that they weren’t fishing for bluegill. I tried not to laugh.
Unreal, I thought to myself.
“There are large and smallmouth bass, and there should be some trout too. The DNR stocks the lake.”
The time I ate a fistful of Lake Michigan pebbles
I knew this one was going to be embarrassing long before I got anywhere near the water. My friend Kasidy and I had decided to try out Lake Michigan surfing through Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak.
I took one look at the nine foot boards, the two-foot surf, and the line of rocks just beneath where the waves were breaking, and could see exactly where this was going. We had a great day— both of us ended up getting up for more than five seconds at a time, and I took some of the least graceful falls of my life.
The best part of this was when I was sitting out in the water, straddling the board, I turned into a small—and I do mean small—wave. The wave pushed the board up under me and smacked me clean in the nose, cutting me off mid-sentence. Real cute.
Doing that stupid Dune Climb again
There is no hike in the world I have as deep a resentment for as the Sleeping Bear’s Dune Climb. It’s only about four miles out to the Lake and back, and it’s a sort of inaugural, very “Michigan” hike, but four miles up and down over hot sand is kind of the worst.
This spring, early enough that we thought maybe it would still be cool out (wrong), my good friend/roommate Hannah and I went out to tackle the hike and “initiate” her to Michigan. Han is an Illinois native, but she’s spent the last four years living in the good old mitten state.
Nothing super eventful or particularly embarrassing happened, I just included this because I want you all to know how much I hate that hike.
The time we couldn’t find parking in Glacier
There’s a pretty clear lesson here, and it’s two-fold. The first part is that you’re better off visiting national parks in the off-season; the second is do your research. When visiting Glacier National Park, my family spent almost two hours aimlessly driving the crowded Going-to-the-sun Road after trailhead parking in the Avalanche Lake area was too full—we got up earlier then next day, getting into the park at 7am instead of 11am, and had no trouble at all and the park nearly to ourselves.
The times we didn’t see stars at dark sky park
This was a regularly occurrence for my friends and I in 2016 as well as 2017. There have been several occasions where we have trekked out to the Headlands International Dark Sky Park and had clouds and no sky at all.
Clearly, we haven’t really learned any lesson here, because we keep doing it, but we always have a good time up on the beach.
The time we almost literally died
(This is an overstatement.)
This August, when on an early hike through Glacier National Park, my father, sister and I spotted a grizzly across the Lake from us. There were a few other people at the lake, and the bear was probably a hundred yards away, which was really too close.
We booked it out of there pretty darn quick. The bear probably wasn’t interested in us, and bears don’t really seek out humans, but grizzlies are fast, huge, and not something to mess with.
The time I sunburned exactly one shoulder
I love kayaking, and being on the water period, and because of that I always end up staying out longer than I really planned to. On this particular occasion, my dad and I were out on Torch Lake one morning, and decided to paddle South to the mouth of the Torch River—about a 6 mile trip.
I realized about halfway back that not only did I forget sunscreen, but because we headed back around noon, the left side of my body had been facing the sun the entire trip. I’ll leave the burn lines to your imagination.
The time we got followed
This misadventure is less fun, but still important.
Last March, my friend and I were hiking at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, when some men, probably not much older than us, caught up to us at an overlook started whispering to each other and looking at us. We didn’t think much of it at first, and quickly moved onto the next overlook to give them some space, thinking that they were waiting for us to leave. Rather than stay at the overlook a normal amount of time, they immediately followed us, continuing to whisper and look our way.
Maybe they weren’t talking about us, and maybe they didn’t mean to follow us, but sometimes you just get a bad vibe, and better safe than sorry.
I pointed out their behavior to Estee and we turned and went back to the previous overlook. They followed again. At this point, we turned and walked quickly back to the car, the two men following us the entire way. The parking lot itself was crowded with other hikers and tourists, and they went to their own car. We hung out there for a while, waiting for them to drive off first.
There’s a lesson here, and it isn’t about us being paranoid, or about how women shouldn’t hike because it’s too dangerous. If you are a male, and you are interested in a female in any setting, be aware that while you may think behavior you exhibit is harmless, it can still seem threatening. This is not an attack. I’m telling you this because if you are actually interested in someone, you should respect them enough to not want them to feel threatened and behave accordingly.
As a general rule, talking to someone is 100% less threatening and creepy than following them.
The time I let the 15-year-old drive
On our way up to camp at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, my brother reminded me that I promised he could practice driving once we got off the highway. He had had his learner’s permit for a while, and was objectively already a pretty good driver.
I handed him the wheel, and started going through our trail plans for later in the day.
“Hey when do I turn?” Joe asked.
“Um, it should be a right at the next intersection.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, totally,” I lied.
So while I was deep in a trail guide, Joe made a right onto some small, flooded seasonal road. We hit a pothole and I looked up.
“Are you sure this is right?” he asked.
“Let me see the map.” It sure looked like this road got us where we wanted to go, and I was fairly confident my car could handle it.
We drove down the sketchy seasonal road for about five more minutes before it narrowed and I had Joe turn around and head back to the highway. After that, we abandoned iPhone directions and stuck to the Michigan road map.
The time I almost got frostbite
The original misadventure, and the first post I wrote, was probably the dumbest thing I did all year.
Rather than drive to the shoreline at the Headlands Dark Sky Park, Estee and I opted to walk a mile in. We had been out in the cold hiking all day, and weren’t too worried about the temperature. Nevertheless, we piled on a few blankets and extra layers.
Lake Michigan was frozen and beautiful, and the sunset was one of the best I’ve ever seen. My mistake was forgetting that once the sun goes down, the temperature drops quite a bit. That, and letting snow melt into my boots, soaking my socks. (I had a spare pair. Soaked those too.)
I didn’t realize I couldn’t feel my feet until I stood up and we started to pack up for the walk back. Then my feet started to burn—not just tingle, and not even feel cold. My feet felt burnt, like I had accidently stepped in the campfire. Burnt and bruised—It hurt to walk, and we had a good mile to walk back to the car.
Lucky for me and very lucky for my toes, we ran into a nice couple who offered to drive us back to my car. I was in pretty bad shape; Estee had taken both my bag and hers, and was helping me walk; we were happy for the ride.
In hindsight, it’s kind of a funny story, though at the time I was mostly just embarrassed that I hadn’t planned better.
Since then, I’ve been more careful about the cold, but even more so about the wet; it’s one thing to be cold, but being wet can lead to hypothermia and frostbite a whole lot faster.
Got any misadventures, or just adventures from this year? I’d love to hear them! Write in the comments below or shoot me a message. Wishing everyone a safe end to 2017, and a great start to 2018! May you avoid all frostbite.
The Sleeping Bear Dune National Lakeshore is arguably one of the most scenic locations in Michigan. It boasts beautiful blue green water, stunning overlooks, and beautiful beaches. The Dunes offer a lot to work with, but it can be hard to know where to start.
From Pyramid Point by Leelanau, south to Point Betsie by Frankfort, here are scenic locations in the Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Pyramid Point is located in the northern portion of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and is a quick walk from the parking lot out to the overlook. On a clear day, you can see both the North and South Manitou Islands from the bluff.
Glen Lake Overlook
One of the first stops on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, this overlook offers a view of Glen Lake in one direction, and the dunes themselves in the other direction. The last time I was there, I was able to see clouds weaving in and out of the hills and lake below me.
Overlook 9 is the most popular stop on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and with good reason. The overlook is perched high above Lake Michigan and offers views of both dunes, bluffs, and the Lake in every direction. This overlook is the perfect place to watch the sunset over Lake Michigan.
North Bar Lake Overlook
While Overlook 9 gets most of the attention, the North Bar Lake Overlook is my favorite. You can see both M22 below, North Bar Lake, and the Empire Bluffs in the distance all at what feels like a bird’s eye view.
Empire Bluffs Trail
By far my favorite hike in Michigan, the Empire Bluffs are also a good place to watch the sunset. It is a 1.5-mile roundtrip hike out to the bluffs, and the majority of the hike is wooded.
Point Betsie Lighthouse
South of Sleeping Bear, Point Betsie Lighthouse is a fun historic lighthouse to visit and another pretty place to watch the sunset, this time from the beach rather than an overlook.
Want more in Northern Michigan? Check out some of my other posts:
The Dune Climb is one of those hikes that everyone tells you is hard, and you believe them, but it still doesn’t stop you from going. The idea of climbing over the sand until you reach the water is too appealing to stop most people, especially since that first dune sticks out like a sore thumb when you’re cruising M22. And even if you’ve done the Dune Climb before, and actually know how long it is, odds are you’ll forget the next time you’re out there.
So what do you need to know before attempting of one of the more difficult hikes in Michigan?
Mileage: It’s 3.5-4 miles roundtrip, depending on which trail/ detours you take—but it’s over large dunes for the majority of the hike. The hike will usually take 2 to 4 hours, depending on skill level and time spent at Lake Michigan.
What you should know: While you might want to start the hike off barefoot, you will want to bring a pair of shoes or socks for the section of the hike that is closer to the lakeshore—here there can be sharp rocks and even broken glass.
You will not be able to see the lake immediately. Not after the first dune, or the second, or the third. When you do finally see the Lake, you are about halfway there.
If it is cool enough to have a comfortable climb out, it is probably too cold to swim in the lake. This is probably the biggest catch 22 of the hike—ideally, the hike would be cool and the lake would be hot, not the other way around. Unfortunately, the Dunes are about ten degrees hotter than the Lakeshore, so you could easily be hot hiking, but cold by the time you get to the water.
You will probably be sore the next day. Hiking up sand is a different type of work out than running or hiking.
What you should bring:
Water: this hike is hot, hard, and in the sun. I have done it without water before, but it was back when I was running cross country, and even then it was a mistake.
Shoes: you might want to take off your shoes at the first hill, but the second half of the hike is rockier, and sometimes even has broken glass.
Sunscreen: There is no tree cover in the Dunes—this entire hike is in the sun
National Parks Pass: To access the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, you will either need a National Parks Pass or a Sleeping Bear Dunes pass, both of which you can purchase at the entrance to the Dune Climb.
Is This Hike Worth It?
If your goal with this hike is to swim in Lake Michigan and experience some incredible views, this hike probably isn’t right for you. You can just as easily visit one of the many other trails or beaches in Sleeping Bear and get a much better result for less work.
However, if your goal is to get a good workout or check this one off your bucket list, I would absolutely recommend this hike!
We left Alden a little before noon on a relatively spontaneous drive north towards the Straits of Mackinaw early this April. Wilderness State Park sits on the tip of the mitten, and is one of the largest undeveloped tracts of land in the Lower Peninsula.
That is part of the draw for me—the undeveloped land. That, and there is very little online about the park, and miles of under-trafficked trails. I’ve got a thing for obscure places, and sights that haven’t graced my computer screen. There is no thrill in seeing a place in person that I have seen over and over on the internet. This isn’t to say that I don’t want to see those well-photographed places— but they don’t give me the rush that exploring does.
For me, this was the draw of Wilderness State Park. There is no iconic place to capture, no roaring waterfall or scenic overlook. There isn’t even an easily accessible lighthouse.
There’s only miles of untouched shoreline, and loop upon loop in the woods, and I wanted to know what that looked like.
We parked at the farthest west parking lot we could find and hiked along the beach from there. The Lake Michigan ice had begun to melt, and small icebergs floated in the clear water. The ice melt this year was much sooner than it had been in the past, and the look of the ice in the sandy waters came as odd to me.
It’s only just this year that I have made a trip out to the Lake in the winter, and the last I saw it, it was frozen enough that we couldn’t see the sand. The sun was out when we went, so the water was clear and inviting; an odd juxtaposition to the chunks of ice.
The coastline in Wilderness State Park reminds me of Maine, or Canada, or some other east coast beach. It’s easy to forget that the lake isn’t the ocean, with its tide pools and bug horizon line, and the outlines of pine trees.
We had walked for maybe a mile when I saw blue ice— blue ice is created high density and compression, and is usually found in glaciers, but sometimes on the Great Lakes. This particular patch of blue ice looked accessible, piled up on the shore past a small tidal stream. So naturally, I took off my hiking boots and socks and slung them over my shoulder while my friends watched somewhere between skeptically and judgmentally as waded barefoot across the rocky calf-deep melt water.
I should mention that this is normal for me. If ever there is clear, sandy water no matter the temperature I, or at least my feet, will be in it. About a month ago, I did it at Esch Road Beach. It was cold, but worth it.
I quickly jammed my feet back into my hiking boots on the other side of the stream, and hiked out to the blue ice.
Whether because of the harsh lighting, overhyped expectations, or just lack luster photography, my photos of the blue ice didn’t turn out how I had hoped. I had a good time getting out there, though, and it was pretty in person.
We hiked further west from there, eventually flopping down at a small bay and chatting. It was cold out, but mostly only when the sun went behind the clouds and the wind picked up. While we sat it was sunny and sandy.
After, we only walked a little farther along the beach from there before headed back to the parking lot and driving pack down Wilderness Park Drive. Before we left, we did a loop in the woods on Big Stone Trail out and around Goose Pond.
We walked for a good four hours and didn’t even touch a quarter of the trails and land available to explore in Wilderness State Park, but that’s sort of exciting. There’s more to explore, and I’m sure I’ll head back soon!