Adventure Guide: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and the Munising Area

So you want to take a trip to ‘dah UP eh? If you’re looking for beautiful colored sandstone cliffs, clear water, and waterfalls you’ve come to the right place!

I’ve broken up this guide by length of stay as well as included an “adventure rating” so that you can accurately gauge what kind of adventure you are signing up for. The key for the “adventure rating” is at the bottom of this post.

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Munising Falls in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Weekend at the Cliffs

A weekend at the Pictured Rocks is an awesome way to get a feel for the region.

Adventure:

  • Hike to Spray Falls: IntermediateDepending on the route you take, the hike from the Little Beaver Creek trailhead to Spray Falls is between four and six miles round trip. There are plenty of swimming holes along the way if you’re willing to brave Lake Superior’s cold!
  • Take a Ferry Tour: Beginner. Taking a ferry tour lets you get up close and personal with much of the cliff line. If you’re torn between the tour of the traditional Pictured Rocks Cliffs and the Grand Island Cliffs, I have been told by locals that the Grand Island cliffs are much bigger and more dramatic. Since the cliffs face the west, picking an afternoon or evening tour will show the cliffs light up by that late day sun.
  • Hike to Miner’s Falls: Beginner. A one mile well maintained trail will take you out to Miner’s Falls, where you can appreciate a lovely waterfall from a nice viewing platform.

Eat:

  • Visit Pictured Rocks Pizza in Munising for a fun lake front snack
  • Head over to East Channel Brewing to sample the local beer
  • Stop by the Bear Trap Restaurant for that Northwoods diner feel

Stay:

  • Camp: A lot of the National Parks campsites will fill quickly and be crowded, so look instead at the State Forest Campgrounds in the area. My favorite is the North Gemini Lake campground. I’ve camped there multiple times and it’s always been clean and never crowded, with some of the most stunning stars I have seen.
  • Hotel: Munising’s Holiday Inn Express has the best view you’ll find in the area and excellent ratings.
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Pictured Rocks Cliffs from a sea kayak

Three to Four Days on the Lake

The perfect amount of time to really get into some adventuring and see the most of the area!

Adventure:

  • Hike the Chapel Basin Loop: Intermediate/ Advanced. Between 10 and 13 miles round trip, the Chapel Basin Loop is sometimes treated as a beginner’s backpacking loop. But it can also be done as a day trip. Pack up a lunch and head out to see three waterfalls and hike along the cliffs!
  • Visit Munising Falls: Beginner. Near the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Visitor’s center and the town of Munising, this quick hike will take you to some beautiful falls.
  • Explore Grand Marias and the Grand Sable Dunes: Beginner. Cruise east toward the sleepy town of Grand Marias and check out sand dunes that tower hundreds of feet above Lake Superior.
  • Day Paddle the Pictured Rocks Cliffs: Intermediate. Paddling the Pictured Rocks cliffs gets you up close and personal with some of the most impressive features in the National Lakeshore. This is the guiding company I would recommend. NOTE: the ONLY kayaks safe on Lake Superior are sea kayaks. If you are not an experienced sea kayaker, you may want to hire a guide or go through a guiding company to ensure your safety. Lake Superior has been known to create 30 foot waves and is a hot bed for hypothermia. For more information, click here.
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View from the tops of the Cliffs into Superior

Week in Munising

A great amount of time to experience everything the region has to offer!

Adventure:

  • Backpack the North Country Trail: Intermediate/Advanced. The North Country National Scenic Trail winds from New York all the way out to the Dakotas, and an impressive section follows the Pictured Rocks Cliffs—shuttle out to one end and backpack along the cliff line towards Munising in a bucket list worthy trip.
  • Circumnavigate Grand Island: Circumnavigation of Grand Island is a bucket list item for any paddler, with beautiful sandstone cliffs that rival the Pictured Rocks themselves. At 26-28 mile trip, for the most advanced paddlers with the right conditions it can be done as a day trip. If you’re looking for the backcountry paddling experience, take 2-3 days to circumnavigate the island. Click here for guided trip information, or here for trip details.
  • Day Trip to Paradise: Paradise, Michigan is home to the Tahquamenon Falls, Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, and Whitefish Point. This region of Superior is known for its record setting waves, and is near the infamous wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
  • Swim at Miner’s Beach: Brave the Lake Superior cold on a white sand beach. Hike less than a mile down the beach to see the small falls and the beginning of the cliff line.

Notes:

*None of these are affiliate links; all are honest opinions formed after visiting the area multiple times, personal experience with guiding companies and guides, and research via TripAdvisor and Facebook Reviews.

**I CANNOT recommend taking out personal kayaks or kayaking without a guide. If you are not an experienced sea kayaker, then you need a guide. Experienced kayaker and sea kayaker are not the same thing. If you do not have a sea kayak, you should not be on Superior. People die every year doing this. I don’t want that to be you. More questions? Click here.

***There are a few ethical concerns/complications regarding certain outfitters in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore area. I will not call out outfitters by name, but the outfitters linked here seem to be the ones that follow the best safety practices and do not choose profit over environmental impact or safety of participants. I have worked as a kayak guide, and have only recommended companies that are up to industry standard on safety practices, as reflected in their reviews, gear used, and policies.

ADVENTURE RATINGS KEY:

Beginner: Perfect for families with younger children, or people looking for a nice starting point before launching into more physically exerting adventures. This rating still assumes a baseline level of physical fitness such as the ability to walk at least three miles, but otherwise assumes beginner level of outdoor experience.

Intermediate: Perfect for people who like spending time outside, and are excited about the idea of immersing selves in nature. Assumes some experience hiking, paddling, camping, or a flexible and positive attitude. Assumes no shoulder injuries and ability to lift at least 50 pounds.

Advanced: Perfect for people who have experience with outdoor recreation, and are prepared to tackle more strenuous hikes and adventures.

Where to next?

Trail Guide: 7 Adventures in Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula

After living in Bayfield, Wisconsin for almost a full month, I completely see why the small Lake Superior town is a major tourist attraction. Between guiding kayak trips and exploring the area for myself by foot, I’ve come up with a fairly solid list of highlights of the Bayfield Peninsula.

Houghton Falls Nature Preserve

With sandstone cliffs, views of Lake Superior, and seasonal waterfalls, this 1.5-mile trail is an easy hike and a must visit. Be aware that in many areas going off trail is trespassing on private property, and the Bayfield Regional Conservancy asks hikers not to wander into the streamed, as it contributes to erosion.

Catch a Little Sand Bay Sunset

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Sunset behind Sand Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

One of the best spots to watch the sun set over Lake Superior might be Little Sand Bay. Here you can watch the sun sink behind Sand Island, and stroll down the pier, and out to a small river/estuary.

Corny Beach

Looking for a place to swim and get some of the best smoked fish around? Look no further than the small town of Cornucopia, right on Lake Superior. If you’re looking to add some mileage to your beach day check out nearby Lost Creek Falls for a little over a 2 mile hike. 

Kayaking the Sea Caves in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

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“The Crack”, Mainland Sea Caves, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

The Mainland Sea Caves are often what brings people out to Bayfield, and fairly so. Objectively glamorous, the sea caves are an incredible experience, and kayaking is probably the best way to really experience these caves.

That being said, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first thing to remember is that Lake Superior isn’t really a lake; it is a freshwater sea. Just last fall, a 28.8 foot wave was recorded near Marquette, Michigan, and the weather at the Sea Caves can change very quickly, from glass to dangerous in under an hour. Kayakers should use ONLY sea kayaks, and have spray skirts, wetsuits, PFDs (which you should actually wear!!!), a bilge pump, a paddle float, first aid kit, and extra water, and all of this at the very least.

If you are going to paddle the sea caves and you have access to all of this equipment, great! Make sure you can either self-rescue or you are with someone who can T-rescue—preferably both. I would also recommend checking the marine forecast, and understanding what that forecast means. At the Mainland Caves, strong wind from the Northeast generates pretty large waves that can rebound off the cliff walls.

All this to say, if you don’t have sea kayaking experience and access to equipment, going with an outfitter is an excellent and much safer way to experience the sea caves! Check out Living Adventure and their various tour options here!

Kayaking the Islands

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Looking East from the Oak Island Dock after sunset

While the Mainland Sea Caves are awesome, the whole of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore features more, less accessed sea caves. By touring the islands on a multi-day sea kayaking trip, you can experience more remote caves and garner some more experience sea kayaking. Check out Living Adventure’s different multi-day trips!

(For staff training this year we did a three day overnight that looked something like Beaches, Waves and Caves, but with a lot more capsizing and rescue practice! The sea caves on Sand Island are incredible, (even when you’re upside down in a kayak and freezing in them) and having lunch on the Raspberry Island Sandspit might be one of my favorite experiences to date, sunburn included. The photo above was taken from the Oak Island dock during an overnight trip. If you’re at all up for some island camping and interested in paddling, this is really the sort of experience you want to have in this lakeshore.)

Hike Meyers Beach Sea Caves

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“The Crack” from the hiking trail above rather than from the water

If you don’t get out in a kayak to the Sea Caves don’t stress too much—you can experience the caves from above the cliff line at the Meyers Beach. This trail is usually considered to be moderate, and is as long as you make it. Keep your eyes peeled for black bear, which are known to frequent the area.

Apostle Islands Grand Tour

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Devil’s Island Sea Caves 

Hop on one of the cruises starting in Bayfield to get a three hour tour of the Apostle Islands from a ferry! Try for the top deck of the boat for the best view, but be sure to dress warm—the air up there is cold and it only gets colder the farther out you go!

Questions, comments, concerns? Feel free to leave me a message below!

 

 

 

Welcome to Wisconsin

There are 21 islands that make up the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in the far North of Wisconsin, full of sandstone cliffs, sea caves and shipwrecks, and clear, frigid water, all off of the Bayfield Peninsula. I am living here for the summer to become a better sea kayaker and guide.

Most of what I knew of Wisconsin was cheese and farms, most of what I knew of Lake Superior was that the Lake is big and cold. I’ve been here a week now, and here’s what I didn’t know:

The Bayfield Peninsula is speckled with waterfalls:

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A few days ago, I paddled under a waterfall. The next day we climbed behind Lost Creek Falls, and there are still more falls to explore in the area.

Lake Superior is cold:

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So maybe I knew the lake was cold. I didn’t know that the lake could have such an influence on the weather here. As a peninsula, Bayfield is surrounded on all sides by the lake, and the weather changes quickly. One night, it was 70 degrees Fahrenheit, sunny and beautiful. The next day it was in the low 40’s and pouring. It’s June, and this place is cold.

People think Wisconsin looks like a mitten:

As someone from the Mitten State I find this ridiculous. What kind of deformed mitten looks like Wisconsin?

Lake Superior is powerful:

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This lake, through freezing and thawing, has carved out caves in sandstone. The Lake has wrecked ship after ship, and just this past year, taken out the dock shown above. Lake Superior is beautiful, but you have to be aware that this Lake isn’t just a Lake. It is an inland sea, capable of some real damage.

Northern Wisconsin is stunning:

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I honestly love the 40 degree drizzle and the late night storms, and the icy clear water. This place has rich moss and wild flowers, waterfalls, beaches and islands.

Questions about the Northern Midwest or Apostles area or starting sea kayaking? Leave me a message! 

How to Catch a Great Michigan Sunset

One of the questions I get asked the most—next to “what is it you do exactly?”—is “how do I get a good sunset picture?” Luckily, I have a few tips for catching a good sunset, and most of them are pretty easy! Here are a few things to keep in mind:

The Sun Sets in the West

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Okay, so this one seems obvious, but there have been times when I have completely envisioned watching the sunset over a lake only to realize the lake/beach in question does not at all face west. Moreover, the sun sets more to the North or more to the South depending on the time of year, so be sure to keep in mind exactly where the sun is setting.

Sun Set Time

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Sunset time is usually available online, but keep in mind that the 30 minutes before and 30 minutes after can also have some pretty dramatic clouds.

Watch the Weather

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Speaking of clouds, partly cloudy days tend to yield the coolest sunsets—storms can also lead to a pretty dramatic show, but can be a little more unpredictable. In general, clear cloudless days won’t lead to a crazy sky, and on completely cloudy days you might not catch the sunset at all.

Clearings and Elevation

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If you can get up high or somewhere clear, you get less of the sky blocked by trees and more foreground. This is good especially for photography, because a strong foreground makes an image a lot more interesting.

Find Water

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Reflections of sunsets are often almost as good as the sunsets themselves, and lakes, rivers and ponds are the ideal spots for this. Different water holds light differently, so there is something new to appreciate every time.

 

So where do I like to catch a sunset from?

Overlook No. 9

In the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore’s Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, Overlook No. 9 puts you 450 feet above Lake Michigan looking out to the West. 

Alden, Michigan

Torch Lake’s waters range from glassy Caribbean blue to stormy, but either way the small town of Alden is a beautiful place to take a dip and watch the sunset from the marina.

From a Kayak

There’s nothing like a sunset from the water, particularly when there’s no one but otter and eagles for miles around. This sunset picture was taken at the Big Island Lakes Wilderness Area in the Upper Peninsula, but watching the sunset from a boat anywhere can be phenomenal.

The Coves

Hidden in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, this area off the North Country Trail has some of the best swimming in Michigan as well as the best sunsets if you are willing to brave the Lake Superior cold.

The Side of the Road Somewhere

The best sunsets I have ever seen I’ve caught pulled over on the side of the road or driving somewhere—like this sunset off the side of a road near Grayling, MI.

What great sunset spots did I miss? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know or reach out to me through Instagram!

 

Sleeping Bear Moods: A Photo Essay

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.

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Sunset from over Lake Michigan from Overlook 9 in July, looking like something out from Planet Earth.

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The same overlook in the winter, with South Manitou Island obscured by snow and fog, small human for scale.

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Overlook 9, basking in that post sunset purple glow.

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Looking down into the water from the tops of the Empire Bluffs Trail in August, Lake Michigan looks practically tropical!

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The Manitou Islands from Pyramid Point, a short mile hike up to a bluff over Lake Michigan.

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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.

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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.

 

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At Point Betsie, the wind kicks up turquoise waves.

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Colors change out over the D.H. Day Farm, looking out from the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

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Winter and windy vibes out over Lake Michigan.

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Empire Bluffs looking bright and hot in late August.

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Up close and personal with fall leaves.

Trail Guide: 5 Adventures in Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is known for its waterfalls, clear water, and of course, it’s cliffs. There are many different ways to experience the rocks, ranging from boat tours to backcountry hiking.

Last week, my brother and I spent a few days kayaking, hiking, and adventuring in the area. Here’s what we did, and what we would recommend!

Kayak Lake Superior:

Kayaking Lake Superior and the Pictured Rocks has always been a bucket-lister for me, and I am glad to have had the chance to check it off. Lake Superior can be unpredictable and choppy—record wave height on Lake Superior was 51 feet recorded in Whitefish Bay.

That being said, only sea kayaks should be taken out on the Lake—not canoes or recreational kayaks. Before you kayak on Lake Superior, check out the information available on the NPS site.

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Pictured Rocks sea caves from the water

Rather than rent a kayak, we opted for a morning tour with Paddling Michigan. The waves were an average 3 feet when we went. We had a blast, paddling to Miner’s Castle from Miner’s Beach, then past that along the cliffs a ways further. Through Paddling Michigan, you can take a smaller, “soft” adventure tour—this is what I did with my younger brother, and it was plenty—or you can take longer, full trips or even overnight trips down the Lakeshore.

***EDIT: After a summer working as a kayak guide in a different region of Lake Superior I WOULD NOT recommend this company. The guide ratio was near 1 guide to 12 people which is UNSAFE in this region, especially with a 3 foot average wave height. You sit approximately three feet out of the water in a kayak. With a three foot wave average you may not be able to see the paddlers next to you. IN ADDITION we were FAR too close to the cliff line and hung out in a rebound zone for at least 30 minutes, where 3 foot waves rebound to 6. In fact, unless you have full safety equipment, can self-rescue, and are familiar with the weather and wave patterns in the region, I would recommend you just not paddle the Pictured Rocks at all. To my current knowledge, there is no outfitter there that I would recommend that follows appropriate safety practices.

(Further evidence: I asked my guide at the time what happens if someone flips in those conditions, and he replied “I have a T-rescue.” We were all in tandem kayaks, and it should be noted that you literally cannot T-rescue a tandem. T-rescues are used for single kayaks. There is a completely different rescue for a tandem kayak. So this dude had no idea what he was talking about.)

So instead of risking hypothermia and Coast Guard rescue, just hike the rocks instead, or maybe consider hiring a private guide. Either way, do your research.

Kayaking offers a different perspective on the rocks, and the chance to see sea caves and waterfalls. You can get a similar experience from a boat tour, but a kayak gets you closer to the rocks and gives you the sense that you explored the rocks, rather than took a tour.

Visit Waterfalls/ Overlooks:

A good place to start water-falling is Miner’s Castle road. Here, you can stop at Miner’s Falls, a one and a quarter mile round trip hike from the parking lot. From here, driving farther down Miner’s Castle road, you can visit the Miner’s Castle overlook. If it is a hot enough day, Miner’s Beach is just off the same road too, and is a good place to picnic and swim.

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Munising Falls in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Just outside of Munising is Munising Falls, a short hike with two different viewing platforms.

Chapel and Mosquito Falls can both be reached from the Chapel-Mosquito area trailhead, with a three mile round trip hike to Chapel Falls, and two miles round trip to Mosquito Falls. The two can be hit together in the Chapel Basin Loop hike, detailed below.

Hike the Chapel Basin Loop:

We took an afternoon to do this hike, but could have easily taken longer with all of the great places to take in the view or stop and swim! The loop is 10 miles roundtrip if you want to hit Chapel Falls, Chapel Beach, Mosquito Falls, and Mosquito Beach (NPS map linked here).

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View on the Chapel Basin Loop, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Chapel Falls is a cool stop, with an opportunity to get up close to the falls before they plunge of a rock shelf into Chapel Lake. The trail continues along to Chapel Rock and Chapel Beach. This is sometimes treated as an out and back to the Beach, where you can swim both in Lake Superior and Chapel Creek. Chapel Creek meets Lake Superior in a small waterfall that you can slide down and play in.

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Natural waterslide at Chapel Beach

From here, you continue down the beach along the North Country Trail toward Mosquito Beach. This portion of the hike is along the cliffs, and one of the coolest stretches of trail I have ever hiked. There are countless scenic overlooks, and almost all of the 4.5 miles are along the cliffs.

When you reach Mosquito Beach, the trail becomes a little more difficult to follow due to poor signage and about 800 side trails leading to the beach and to the backcountry campsites. You are going to want to cross the Mosquito River, then follow the sign posts to Mosquito Falls rather than continue hiking on the North Country Trail.

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Sea caves and Lover’s Leap Arch along the Chapel Basin Loop

Rather than hike the full loop like we did, I would recommend cutting Mosquito Beach and Falls, and hiking out to Grand Portal Point from Chapel Beach, and then returning via the Chapel Lake spur from Chapel Beach. The majority of the impressive cliffs were all before Grand Portal Point, and all worth seeing twice. After this point, the cliffs are less impressive, and the trail is muddier and less maintained. Hiking from Chapel Falls to Chapel Beach, then on to Grand Portal Point and then backtracking until the Chapel Lake Spur makes for a 9.5 miles roundtrip hike.

Hike to Spray Falls:

We hit this hike around 5 pm made it back to the car around 9, and the lighting was beautiful. Even in August, the trail was empty, and the Coves, a worth stop along the way to Spray Falls, offer some of the best swimming in Lake Superior.

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Spray Falls as viewed from the North Country Trail

Spray Falls plunge 70 feet from the cliffs into Lake Superior, and can be viewed from two different overlooks as well as from behind.

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A beach at The Coves, as viewed from the North Country Trail

We started at the trailhead at the Little Beaver Creek Campground. From here it is a 1.5 mile hike out to Lake Superior, and then 2.5 miles out to Spray Falls, making for an 8 mile out and back. Check out the NPS maps here (scroll down; it’s the second map).

Swim in Lake Superior:

Lake Superior is cold even in the summer, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t swimmable! The water feels great after a long hike.

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The south end of Chapel Beach, viewed from the North Country Trail

One popular location is Chapel Beach—a 3-mile hike in on the Chapel Basin Loop (above) offers a sandy beach, waterfall to play in, and backcountry camping sites nearby. Accessed from the same trailhead, Mosquito Beach is a rocky rather than sandy beach and can be slippery.

Miner’s Beach off Miner’s Castle Road is a popular kayak launch point as it is sheltered by cliffs, and an easily accessed swimming spot. From here, you can hike east to Miner’s Beach Falls (or Elliot’s Falls), a small waterfall on the Beach.

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Swimming in the crystal clear water of The Coves

My favorite swimming spot we visited was The Coves, along the North Country Trail on the Spray Falls out and back. The water was clear and calm, and there were even good spots to jump off rocks into the water.

 

We didn’t get a chance to backpack, do a boat tour, or surf, but all of those are other adventures to have in the Pictured Rocks area. Check out the National Parks Service’s more comprehensive list of activities here.

Like the Pictured Rocks? Interested in a similar experience? Check out the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore!

For an updated Pictured Rocks Guide click HERE!

The Time I Forgot My Camera Battery

I was sitting on a spit in Torch Lake, screwing an ND filter on to my camera and setting up a tripod when I went to go switch my camera on.

I had driven three hours that day, and stopped up in Antrim to pick up my younger brother for a few days of hiking and kayaking in the UP, and packed in a bit of a hurry earlier that morning. Three days ago, I had moved out of the house I was living in for the summer, and most of my stuff was still in boxes, ready to be moved again in three weeks.

So I wasn’t necessarily surprised when I opened up my camera to find it missing a battery. Annoyed, yes. Disappointed, for sure. But packing was a mess earlier that morning. I was bound to forget something.

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Spray Falls Overlook, ~ 3 miles into the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

I hadn’t gotten a real chance to play with my camera in at least a good month, so I was bummed for that reason too. I seriously considered driving the three hours back to get it, or getting up early and driving into Traverse City to buy a new battery, but ended up deciding against both. Driving into Traverse would put us four hours behind schedule, and driving home overnight would just suck. Why did I need my camera so bad anyway?

I love taking pictures, I really do. I love playing with the settings on my camera, and taking long exposures, and I don’t even mind hauling a tripod and a backpack full of lens out four or five miles.

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One of the best swimming spots I have ever come across on a hike– also one of the coldest

But the reason I like taking pictures is less about the image itself, and more about the story. I like being able to take an image, and use that image as a hook. Here is a mountain top, or a cliff, or a lake. Let me tell you what I did there, and why going out and appreciating nature is so important. Isn’t all this worth protecting?

That’s why I like photography. Not necessarily for the art of it, though I enjoy that too. Photography and stories can connect people to nature, and help inspire them to action.

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The view into Lake Superior from the top of a cliff

So without use of a camera where did this leave me?

I still kayaked and hiked a total of 30 miles, got sunburnt, saw 5 waterfalls, and swam in Lake Superior. I still have photos, decent usable photos taken on my iPhone 5, pictured above. And I had a great time!

Not having a working DSLR didn’t ruin my trip at all– it just took away the pressure to take photos, and left room for a little more adventuring.