Paddling the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Water Trail

Lakeshore. The word is right there in the park name, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Yet, still today, 45 years after Congress authorized the park in 1970, there is no trail that allows hikers to trace the 35-mile-long mainland portion of that lakeshore; no string of conveniently spaced campsites that paddlers could also use when edging that remarkable piece of America’s great inland coast.

The absence of such an obvious thing—a shoreline hiking and water trail for a national lakeshore—is not because people haven’t thought of it. The park’s conceivers dreamt of such a trail way back in the late 1950s when Sleeping Bear was just a lovely notion, according to a 2014 report by University of Michigan grad students who studied the trail concept. Over the decades, rangers kept the idea alive in work meetings and conversations with colleagues. In 2000, rangers Tom Van Zoeren and Jim Dal Sasso even began mapping a possible route and named it The Bay to Bay Trail (for connecting Platte Bay to Good Harbor Bay).

Full disclosure, I’m a fan of this idea, of a lakeshore trail that would trace the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore coast, and I was excited to see the trail project moving forward last summer when the park held a public forum to discuss it. But of course there are still meetings to be held, studies to be done, input to be received before a trail could become a reality.

But also, of course, there is no need to wait to paddle what might someday be a water trail, because the shore is there and ready for a boat. And there are already a few campsites near the shore. I connected with avid paddler and Lake Ann–based photographer Erik Olsen and asked him if he’d be willing to paddle the coast. We’d travel as if the water trail already existed, show people what the experience could be like. He said yes. He said he’d bring friends.

On Friday evening, June 5, we meet where Platte River flows into Lake Michigan. Erik has invited people from his kayak posse: Aaron McMaster, Josh “JR” Ritthaler, and Ansel Wooters. Aaron tells me later that he and Erik and friends spend maybe 50 nights a year “out,” as in sleeping outdoors on excursions of one sort or another, yet none of the men has ever through-paddled the Sleeping Bear shore.

At the height of summer, the Platte River mouth area teems with tourists, and barbecue smoke scents the air, but on this chill and cloudy June evening the place is vacant other than a man sitting in a minivan who is inspecting the township parking lot.

Erik’s paddler friends pull the kayaks from their car-tops and set the bright boats—red, yellow, lime green—on the asphalt. They shove dry bags of gear into their cargo holds. They pull on dry suits. They zip into their life vests. Erik checks his two-way radios, connects one to his shoulder, gives the other to JR. Such preparations are reminders that the Great Lakes are to be taken seriously. Here, halfway to the North Pole from the equator, the water temps in early June are in the high 30s to low 40s. If a person were to capsize when wearing just, say, a T-shirt and shorts, even a very fit person could feel hands losing dexterity within five to 10 minutes, and feel hypothermia setting in in about a half hour.

About the time we carry the boats to the river edge, the cloudbank that has cast a gray pall over the scene clears, pushed away by a northwest wind: blue sky above. Our night’s destination is White Pine Campground, about three miles northeast along the Platte Bay shore. White Pine is the perfect—and only—existing example of the campsites that park planners envision for the water trail. It is a six-site backcountry camp—no roads go there—and is a few minutes walk from the shore.

We leave the protection of Platte River and head into Platte Bay, aiming not quite crosswise to the northwest wind and riding waves that roll two to four feet. The paddling is not hairy, but it demands attention, as occasionally a wave washes over the bow and around my waist. I’m kept warm and dry with my borrowed dry suit and the spray skirt that keeps water out of the cockpit. I’m reminded of the remarkable resilience and performance of this primitive craft called the kayak—a design believed to go back at least 4,000 years.

I’m also reminded that this kind of paddling requires a bit of knowhow, as I watch JR seek the extra challenge of paddling directly through the surf crashing near shore, and I watch Ansel push on ahead in the four-foot swells. The evening trip is exhilarating and beautiful in the lingering twilight just 16 days from solstice. As golden hour arrives, the beaches and trees glow in an orangey aura. The water takes on a deep blue reflection of the darkening sky.

We beach the boats and within minutes Erik has a campfire going near the shore. He rigs sticks to hold the fat cheddar-jalapeño bratwurst, housemade at Bunting’s Market in Cedar. About the time the cheese and grease are bubbling out the bratwurst skins, the last light is also leaking from the sky. Erik tastes a bratwurst. He looks at me. “Dude, you are taking care of us.” We eat with the sound of the surf nearby, the wind calming with the night. I need no more proof that the water trail deserves to exist.

We pull the boats farther up on shore and haul gear to the camp. A couple guys hang hammocks. A couple guys put up tents. I unroll a tarp and sleep under the stars.

Come morning, everybody knows we have a long paddle day ahead—15 miles to D.H. Day Campground—so there is steady pace and purpose to breaking camp. We haul our stuff back to the boats and heat water for coffee and oatmeal. There is much to admire about the beauty of this spot: the arc of Platte Bay, the white pines towering at the edge of forest and dune. One thing I especially enjoy is a vast expanse of dune grass running far to the south and the north. The grass blades shimmer in the morning light and breeze.

Good for us, the wind has shifted and is now coming from the southeast, creating a calm area—called a wind shadow—near shore. Not long after we are on the water, a bald eagle flies low nearby. I’m not particularly superstitious, but I’ll take a good omen when presented so blatantly. We paddle north, staying in that protected calm below the bluffs that now rise along the shore. The farther north we go, the higher the bluffs reach, and by the time we float at the base of Empire Bluff, the dune towers 40 stories above us. Meanwhile, we paddle in water so calm it’s as if we are on a small inland lake, and the water is transparent, allowing us to easily see boulders and logs on the bottom. We paddle easy. We chat. Sometimes we gather up, just rest on the calm H2O and talk.

I’m much enjoying the easy paddle through the wind shadow, but I can’t help but recall something an experienced kayak guide once told me when I asked him about the most dangerous kayak situation he knew of. He said conditions like this, because inexperienced paddlers head out in the calm water of a wind shadow, are lulled into overconfidence, and head blithely offshore. At some point they leave the protection of the wind shadow and suddenly, in a blink, they are in big waves. It can be tricky to turn around, and once they do, they are fighting a headwind trying to get back to shore. I look to the west horizon and see the waves rising a half-mile or so out there. I contemplate what it would mean for rangers to have a trail that encourages people—some experienced, many perhaps not—to get out here in kayaks.

We pass below the big platform overlook on Pierce Stocking Drive. People are looking down at us, pointing. We are looking up at them. Other people, who look comically little against the giant dune, are climbing their way up the 400-foot-high face. We paddle on. Soon we spot the remnants of a shipwreck, washed up where the Dune Climb trail reaches the shore. Then another shipwreck remnant not much farther north. Aaron and JR hop out to take a closer look. The Manitou Passage—roughly speaking, the lane between the Manitou Islands and the mainland—offers shelter to ships, but often did not offer enough shelter; so many ships sank here over the years that today the passage is a shipwreck preserve.

Not quite to Sleeping Bear Point we beach for lunch. By now the wind has shifted to the north and we know that once we round the point we will be completely exposed, and our calm water paddle will be over. We savor the rest. I watch a herring gull pluck a small fish from the lake, and in a moment, another herring gull swoops in to try to steal it. The sky radiates blue, and the water goes Caribbean aqua near shore, cobalt a few hundred yards out. The great sand wall of the dune is our backdrop. Here, there are no trees and only sparse grass. A bit farther north, even the grasses will be gone, and only sand will remain. This is the kind of up-close experience, the first-hand knowledge of the transitioning shore, I hope the water trail will make easier to access one day. The 15 miles from White Pine to D.H. Day is a long haul, especially in a wind. An additional couple of campsites in that stretch would offer welcome respite.

We’re back in the boats and soon round Sleeping Bear Point. As we suspected, our calm water is behind us. We are in two- to four-foot waves, choppier and breaking more than the previous evening’s rollers. The campground is about three miles ahead. I admit it, I’m tired. My shoulders are a bit sore. I’m ready to be out of the kayak. We approach shore with a following sea, so we want to kind of launch our boats onto the sand. I watch the other paddlers—more experienced than me—to get clues. I line up my boat perpendicular to the shore and paddle hard. It works; a breaking wave propels me onto the beach. One of the guys grabs the strap at the nose of the kayak and hauls me up a bit more. I rest.

D.H. Day is a traditional campground—drive in, set up a tent. But planners say some sites could be added in ways that would keep a more backcountry feel. We set up camp and decide to walk into Glen Arbor and have a burger and beer at Art’s. Not part of a typical backcountry kayak experience, but as we proved, can be part of the water trail if one wants it.

The next day’s weather breaks against us, with thick gray clouds, and the forecast predicting lightning, heavy rain and winds. We assess, figure that half the mission is to shoot beautiful photos, which won’t happen today, and decide we will finish up the final leg to Good Harbor Bay at County Road 651 another day. Everybody goes home. That’s part of the paddling experience too: sometimes you are just pinned down on shore.

A week or so later I ask Deputy Superintendent Tom Ulrich to meet me in the park at some place that could potentially be part of a lakeshore/water trail. He wants to be clear that the trail is not a done deal. There has to be public comment, environmental assessments, even an evaluation of doing nothing. The plug could be pulled at any point. Yes, understood, I promise I’ll make that clear, I say.

We meet on a sunny Thursday afternoon in the flats below Pyramid Point’s east flank. “This is the kind of place that could be a campsite,” he says as he heads off down a narrow trail rimmed with poison ivy. And other than the poison ivy, the patch of forest does seem perfect. The land is soft and level, and just to the north, the Good Harbor Beach makes for easy kayak access. The Pyramid Point ridge would offer protection from western storms. We walk to a l0-foot cliff that drops to the beach. The soft purl of waves mixes with birdsong and the periodic moan of the lighthouse crib out in the Manitou Passage. Of course the spot is beautiful. “I actually proposed to my wife just down the beach there,” Ulrich says, pointing down the way.

I share an idea that Kerry Kelly, president of the Friends of Sleeping Bear told me. Kelly worked with the U of M students on the 2014 report, hiking the forest, checking out pathways and campsites. He said, why not just build the campsites for paddlers now and worry about the trails later, at least get that piece done. Ulrich looks off, considering it. “Not a bad idea,” he says. “But you’d kind of have to go through the process twice, because you’d need to do it again for the trails. Plus, if you had the campsites and no trails, people would still find a way to hike to them, but you wouldn’t be controlling the route and they’d just be beating down a path.” It’s not easy adding a trail.

On a Saturday morning in June I shove off from the beach access at County Road 651, Good Harbor Bay, to paddle to Glen Haven, the 14-mile northern leg of the Sleeping Bear shore, the stretch that lightning and high winds forced us to abandon a couple of weeks prior. Today the winds are from the southeast, and the water is as flat and transparent as can be in the protected bay.

I head south along the arc of the shore. I see a merganser duck mom with 10 ducklings. I see six herring gulls squatted down at water’s edge. They take flight, squawking as I near, tilting against the blue sky. I see a miles’ long run of giant white pines rising from the low sand dune rimming the shore. One thing I don’t see: people. A few miles on, I paddle past the patch of ground where Deputy Superintendent Ulrich showed me a potential site for a backcountry campsite. From the water, it looks ideal. Sun filters through the forest to the flat ground. Soft sand awaits for beaching a kayak. And that boundless view north out of Good Harbor Bay, wonderful.

Yes, I paddled the Sleeping Bear shore to see what the water trail could be like one day, and my instinct tells me the trail, the spirit of the idea, is so right it is destined for the not-too-distant future. But the better takeaway is that, if you have the gear and the experience, there’s no reason to wait, because the water and the shore are there today.

Beware the Big Water

America’s iconic national parks all offer remarkable beauty, but they also typically present risk. The same is true of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Lake Michigan can be a dangerous place, and kayaking on the big water demands you have safe equipment and some training or paddling partners who know weather and self-rescue techniques. This is said not to scare you, but to prepare you.

“People come here and think, Oh, it’s just a big lake. But it is not to be trifled with,” says experienced paddle instructor Michael Gray. “Also, the park is not really managed for water rescue, so paddlers should have solid self-rescue skills—practiced in rough water conditions.”

For lessons contact Gray at 231.882.5525 or uncommonadv.com.

Find more training resources at the American Canoe Association website americancanoe.org.

Source a Boat:

Sea Kayak Rentals

Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak, Empire, 231.326.9283 (If you are heading out on Lake Michigan, be safe: talk honestly with the outfitter about your skill level.)

River Rentals

Not quite ready for the big water? Find plenty of family paddle fun on the calm and shallow Crystal River and Platte River, both of which have portions in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Crystal River
Crystal River Outfitters, Glen Arbor, 231.334.4420

Platte River

Charter a Powerboat

Captain Scott McDaid, Reel Tales Charters, Glen Arbor, offers tours of the Sleeping Bear coast and Manitou Islands (and traditional fishing trips). 231.334.3632, reeltalescharters.com. More charter captains at michigancharterboats.com.

Ferry to the Islands

Manitou Island Transit, from Leland daily during summer; shoreline cruises as well. 231.256.9061, manitoutransit.com.

This article was featured in the August 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy for more travel ideas!


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Article Comments

  • Buzz Burrell

    Thank you for the idea. Did this on my Stand Up Paddleboard yesterday, 9/9/16. 29.0mi, 8hrs 36mins. Lovely route! Getting across the bays in wind can be arduous.