Sea Kayaking Grand Island

I was flying home from New Zealand thinking about what I was going to do with the two weeks off I had when I returned to the UP of Michigan. Coming back to summer from winter kind of makes you want to really get the most out of summer as I knew in two weeks it was back to winter again. It didn’t take terribly long to hatch a plan, a sea kayaking trip, but where? At first I thought I wanted to tackle a trip on Isle Royale, the most remote of the National Parks in the lower 48. It lies in the northwest corner of Lake Superior and is accessible from Michigan via either a 4 or 6 hour ferrry ride depending on where you want to catch it from. Isle Royale is amazing but a circumnavigation of it was a risky proposition in good conditions with an experienced paddling partner and going solo is greatly discouraged due to the rough conditions and long stretches of cliffs which allow no way out if trouble arises. There are some great portage routes but with a loaded sea kayak, portaging is absolutely no fun. So, Isle Royale was out, option 2 paddle Munising to Grand Marais, MI across the entirety of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. This seemed appealing and despite a couple of long stretches of unprotected cliff coast line it seemed alot safer for a solo paddler. The old mantra “when out to sea, no less than three” still resonated in my head and I knew I better have all my i’s dotted and t’s crossed despite the last minute planning of the trip. Weather was the key one. NW to N winds can be deadly here generating waves in some storms in excess of 25 feet tall. 4-8 foot tall waves are very common and combined with cliff shorelines, and clapotis waves, that can get dicey fast.

Well it was obvious that the forecast was going to make or break this outing. What I had to work with was one full day of south winds, day 2 with south winds clocking to southwest then west by afternoon, northwest by evening with waves building to 8 feet. This was going to make the Pictured Rocks paddle a no go. But alas, right out of Munising is yet another world class paddling opportunity, and one I had yet to do. Grand Island National Recreation area. It was a roughly 25 mile circumnavigation with dispersed camping possible in several areas. I decided to set out from Sand Point in Munising and work my way around the west, more exposed side of the island on day 1 and get around the north end to the west side on day 2. This would get me out of the wind and waves and allow some more relaxed touring of the island’s 200 foot cliffs, sheltered bays and wildlife watching.

I had convinced UP Overland buddy Tom to come out for awhile the first day to get some snorkelling on a shipwreck off of Murray Bay on the south side but due to time constraints had decided to bail as we were at the beach. OK, solo now the whole time, sweet. haha

First off, some fun facts about Lake Superior… Largest freshwater lake in the world, 32,000 square miles surface area, water volume 2,900 cubic miles, the deepest point (which is just north of Grand Island) reaches 1,332 feet deep. Lake Superior is so large in fact that all of the other great lakes could fit inside of it plus 3 additional Lake Eries. Yeah it is big, it is a freshwater sea.


All packed up and preparing to launch from the beach at Sand Point


It was fortunately one of those glass calm days on Lake Superior, the ones that get rarer and rarer as the seasons change and summer becomes fall. One could almost be fooled into thinking of Superior as docile and gentle on a day like today, that could be a deadly misjudgement though.


Passing the Sand Point Light on the Island’s south end. The crossing from the mainland to this point was a nice short 1/2 mile stretch on glass smooth waters. The clarity of depth was amazing, I estimate 30foot + visibility. At times it gave the eery sense that you were actually not in a boat on water but actually flying. Very cool. Gotta love clear clean water.


My shadow hanging loose in clear waters. Right after I snapped this shot I saw a mature bald eagle perched on a branch over the beach. I slid up quietly with it watching me intently. I was no further than 20 yards from the beach, and the tree the eagle was perched on when an adult black bear walked out of the woods onto the beach DIRECTLY if front of me! I was shocked! I watched as the bear began sniffing and walking in a serpentine pattern down the beach. It either didn’t see me, or care that I was there, it was just minding it’s own business. In amazement as I was staring at it watching the whole event, I suddenly realized, duh! Get a picture. By the time I fuddled around getting my iphone out and ready, it walked back into the woods! D’oh! Then right as that happened, the eagle flew from his perch, swooped down right over me, fairly close and flew out over the open water. I got pictures of neither! Bummer, but the experience of it will be in my memory for some time, very cool.


Stopping for a little snack break and relief from the strong sun and warm temps. This summer is the warmest recorded temperatures of Lake Superior since they started taking water temp measurements. This makes for some refreshing and comfortable swimming conditions. I floated around and enjoyed it for a good hour.


Working my way up the coast on the west side, small cliffs arose here and there.


Exploring a fairly large sea cave.


Looking out of it.


Landing on Mather beach. This was to be my spot to camp for the night. The beach has the classic sandstone and limestone striped bottom that you see between Marquette and Munising. It is almost pyschadelic in its designs and patterns.


It was still early in the day as I pitched the tent on the small bank overlooking the beach. The plan was to rock hunt and swim the early evening away. Mather Beach has an amazing array of quartz rocks of every shape and color as well as some other cool rocks.


A nice rose quartz in the shallows.


This giant rock intrigued me, big metallic flakes all over it.


An array of colors collected in a couple of minutes.


Whipping up dinner on the beach, some freeze dried goodness, actually much better tasting than you might imagine.


Taking a self portrait while playing in the water, awaiting dinner to cook


As the evening was winding down I decided to stretch the legs a bit and hike north a bit to explore the upcoming section of cliffs a bit. The island is riddled with great hiking and biking trails and not many folks out and about on them. I didn’t see a soul.


The pines where my camp was setup.


End of an amazing day! I ended up paddling out to check out some of the cliffs to the north and catch the full moon rise. The moon was spectacular as it cleared the island and washed the water in light. I was beat from the day’s activities and climbed into the tent early. I awoke to northern lights dancing across the sky like phantom green tentacles crossing the sky. A nice cool breeze blew in from the water making it a perfect night. wow

I awoke at 5:30am while still dark and realized today was going to be a different animal entirely. I had strategically camped here, at the south end of a major stretch of cliffs that continued uninterrupted for 6 miles to the north end of the island. My plan was contingent on that pesky marine forecast. It had called for a calm morning with winds building and clocking west during the day. This is an important thing to note. Being on the exposed west and north end of Grand Island is no joke. It is subjected to the full fury of Superior waves and as the wind clocks NW a HUGE amount of fetch delivers some dangerously large waves to the west and north shore of the island. My forecast of a calm morning was already wrong. The wind was blowing strongly from the southwest. White caps were forming and the seas were building. Granted the fetch, or open water for waves to build to the southwest wasn’t very big due to the mass of land referred to as the UP to the south of me. I wasn’t terribly worried but knew if the forecast was arleady wrong then I needed to take precautions to get off this beach ASAP. If the wind switched west sooner I could be stuck there for days given the forecast. I packed the tent and gear up before the sun even came up. After eating a quick, cold breakfast I climbed into the kayak and pushed off.

The wind was already pusing 20-25mph as foam streaks were forming in the sharp, steep breaking waves. Not ideal. As I rounded the point where the cliffs began the waves were already pushing 3 feet, very steep, and breaking. This makes for some excitement no doubt. Clapotis is the effect of waves reflecting off rock or cliff walls. It was in full effect. I had to make a quick decision. If I chanced it and pushed on, the waves would get nothing but bigger and bigger as I worked my way to the north end of the island. It was a trailing sea which tends to push and work the kayak a bit and I was already finding myself bracing frequently. I would have no chance to beach it and bail, the cliffs required a committment to get through. The other major issue was the thought of flipping. If I didn’t nail my roll and had to wet exit the kayak, things could get bad quickly. The direction of the wind and waves would quickly push me out to sea and away from land. If I had issues getting back into the boat alone, it could be very bad news. I made a decision that was definately the smart and correct one, to turn around and hightail it to the south end of the island. I was bummed as the north end of the island is spectacular. I did however want to return from this endeavor.

Turning south put me into a growing headwind and waves. It was a grueling paddle. Luckily the breaking waves and spray kept me cool. The kayak, loaded to the gills with gear was incredibly composed and stable and I was glad for it! There were some sections of cliff coastline that created rough clapotis but by getting farther off shore it negated the effects somewhat. When waves are coming at you from one direction it is fairly easy to brace and work through them. Head on, you mostly just paddle through them. When there is clapotis you have chaotic seas and waves coming at you from every direction making it a bit unerving. I finally rounded the south end of the island and enjoyed the relative calm. This lasted only shortly though as I went for the open water crossing of Murray Bay, around a mile and a half, I was again subjected to large waves and winds, now from the side. I was frankly surprised at how large the waves were blowing out of Munising Bay. There were sets of steep breaking 3 and 4 footers hitting me from the side requiring some care. The wind was positively howling. I was a getting a bit tired too from the nonstop paddle to this point and wanted to take a break soon.

I was thinking that if I rounded the south end of the island and made my way to Trout Bay on the east side I could camp in my intended location for tonight. As I neared the Sand Point Light I again was in strong trailing winds and waves. I decided to pull off by the light and enjoy a nice calm landing on a sheltered beach.


I decided to hangout for a bit and let the wind settle and shift west, bringing me some calmer water. A shot of the lighthouse from the calm looking, sheltered beach. I took a nap, had some food and watched the ferrry boats going by taking spray over the second level of the boats. Watching for any signs of improvement. Again, the conditions created a situation where if you had trouble you would be blown out to sea, this time between the mainland and the island.


It was a nice place to chill on that beach though. I made the decision that I was going to just head back over to the mainland, enough challenges and close calls for the day and the wind was starting to clock a bit but was still strong. I decided to just cross back to the mainland. Of course as I left the shore, dark clouds were blowing in with the promise of making things even better. The paddle over was fairly uneventful, I used a small sandy island as shelter half way across then just battled messy chop the rest of the way.

I was a bit defeated but took solace in knowing I made a smart decision and that you can have the best plan possible but mother nature will exert her will at times and you just need to roll with it! I treated myself to a nice burger in Munising. I will return to complete that trip this fall yet. Maybe early October.

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Categories: camping, kayaking, Lake Superior, Upper Peninsula | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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