To Mackinac Island – via Kayak!

By on March 26, 2016

Google_Earth_MackinacMost folks who visit Mackinac Island get there via high-speed ferry. But we had a different idea…

Ok, so here was the plan: Drive the 10 hours from Erie, Pennsylvania to the Straits of Mackinac; cross the bridge to the Michigan Upper Peninsula, then settle in to a room in St. Ignace. Next morning, on July 3rd, paddle from St. Ignace to Mackinac Island in two Old Town Cayuga 160 touring kayaks. (We called them Lemon and Lime, since they are yellow and green.) It is 2.5 miles across to the island, then another 2.5 around to the harbor, where our island hotel would be waiting.

About Mackinac

Mackinac Island is one of those places that time has forgotten. Long ago, during the advent of the automobile, the island’s governing body voted to ban the motorized beasts for all eternity. There are high-speed ferries whizzing back and forth all day long during the summer, shuttling tourists back & forth, but the only wheeled vehicles they’ll transport is bicycles. So all travel on the island is done on foot, by bike, or by horse. Overnight accommodations on the island can be somewhat expensive, so many tourists, known as “fudgies,” just visit as a day trip. (The term “fudgies” comes from the fact that there is a fudge shop on every corner on Mackinac.) Strategically located near the Straits of Michigan, which link Lake Michigan with Lake Huron, Mackinac became a battleground between American and British forces during the War of 1812. When the National Park system became a viable program, Mackinac Island was actually named our second National Park, after Yellowstone. It was eventually turned back over to the state, and a large percentage of the island is still a Michigan State Park. The island is home to about 500 year-round residents.

The Launch

Getting to St. Ignace, the launch site with Lemon and Lime, and our view of the destination. It was just chilly enough that I opted for a dry top. It became a sweat top by the end of the trip!

The Crossing

Our northern crossing allowed us to avoid most of the ferry traffic; in the distance, one of Star Line's high-speed ferries

Our northern crossing allowed us to avoid most of the ferry traffic; in the distance, one of Star Line’s high-speed ferries

The plan was to stay north of the ferry lanes. Three different ferry companies, Star Line, Arnold’s, and Shepler’s, make regular runs to and from Mackinac all day long. It would not be wise to get in their way while paddling a 16-foot kayak. We noticed they tended to travel in packs, which made avoiding them fairly easy. Using our planned route, we would be able to paddle the two-and-a half-mile crossing from St. Ignace to the island, then follow the shoreline around into the harbor, and only cross the ferry lanes at the harbor. Looming in the distance like a mountain range, the island doesn’t look two miles away. It’s very deceiving! In the pic of me on the right, you can see one of the Star Line boats off in the distance. The Star Line fleet is easy to spot, with their huge rooster tails. While I always thought the unnecessary display was silly, it definitely made it easier for us to spot one of those ferries approaching on the horizon.

St. Ignace and the southern end of the Upper Peninsula are visible in the pics below. Also visible are the towers of the Mackinac Bridge. Both pics give a good visual on the size of the swells; My green Cayuga looks like it’s stern-low, while Kim’s yellow Cayuga appears to be completely submerged.

Land Ho!

We finally reach Mackinac Island, but we can’t get too close to shore, due to the disorganized breakers. We’re still in good shape anyway, so we continue the 2.5 miles around to the harbor. The Grand Hotel from a kayak is a grand sight, indeed. As we approach the harbor, Arnold’s dock is on the left, and our hotel, the Chippewa, is in view on the right. Timing coming into harbor is of utmost importance, as we need to be sure to avoid a pack of ferries either arriving or departing.

We find that there is no place to land the kayaks! In spite of what I’d been told by the hotel, there are no accommodations for us to land or store our boats. We paddle around to the other side of the Arnold dock and find about a dozen kayaks stashed in among the pilings. Kim talks nice to the dock manager and gets permission to add ours to the collection. This will be their resting place for the next two nights. We get checked into the hotel, rest, and prepare for the evening’s festivities: the annual Mackinac Stone Skipping Tournament Banquet, held this year at the Yacht Club.

Day Two

After spending the first half of the day at the Mackinac Stoneskipping Tournament, we get back on the water to explore Round Island, about a mile on the other side of the shipping lane from the Mackinac Island harbor. There’s a geocache there, and we hope to be the first finders, since no one had claimed it for the month it has been hidden on the island. Once on the island, it is interesting to look across the channel and see Mackinac in the distance. These photos show how incredibly clear the water of Lake Huron is.

Finding the Geocache

GPS indicated the geocache was straight up that cliff.

GPS indicated the geocache was straight up that cliff.

We pick a landing spot about 400 feet from what our GPS receivers tell us is the cache location, and then set off on foot to find the booty. We come to a halt at the base of this granite rock face, and our units tell us it is located another 30 feet directly ahead. D’oh! We find a way and manage to claim our find, only to find that two other teams had already beat us to it. Double D’oh!

After finding the geocache, we paddle back up the shore toward the Round Island Lighthouse for some exploring. In the early ’70s, this historic structure was in danger of falling into Lake Huron. Dozens of organizations combined efforts to get it back into the condition as we see it today.

Back on Mackinac

We head back across the treacherous shipping channel to Mackinac, where a big dinner and a good night’s rest are in order! For those who may be unfamiliar with Mackinac (pronounced “Mack-a-naw”), here is a little gallery of scenes throughout the island, which is amazingly diverse for an island that only covers 3.8 square miles. No motorized vehicles (including golf carts) are permitted on the island, so most travel is either by bicycle or horse & carriage. The downtown district has strict architectural codes, in order to preserve the genuine Victorian ambience.

Homeward Bound

We almost chose to stay another night on the island. The forecast called for 60% chance of rain, with heavy thunderstorms. We were prepared for rain and wind, but not lightning, while sitting on Lake Huron miles from land. A last minute check with the hotel lobby staff revealed that the prediction had gone down to 40% chance of rain. We decided to risk it. Paddling into 10-15 mph winds the whole way, we made our way back to St. Ignace. This proved to be the roughest water of the whole trip, with unpredictable 1-3 foot waves, and an occasional rogue 4-footer. We still made it back to the St. Ignace harbor in just 2.5 hours, with blue skies the whole way.

Michael Henderson

About Michael Henderson

Born and bred in Franklin, Pennsylvania, Mike learned about adventure from an early age. Even before he learned to walk, Mike made trips to the Outer Banks with his family, where he slept under his dad’s cot in a canvas tent along the beach. The adventures continued, to the mountains, the Great Lakes, the Pacific Coast, and everywhere in between. Those trips included backpacking into the Grand Canyon and up Mount Rainier, camping in the Rockies in the snow, and skiing right out the front door at home on old alpine skis with cable bindings. Other family activities including canoeing, water skiing, ice skating, bouldering, body surfing, and fishing.
By the 1980s, Mike’s interests expanded to include windsurfing, inline skating, photography, and eventually mountain biking, geocaching, and kayaking. He currently teaches photography at the Venango College of Clarion University, as well as windsurfing, geocaching, camping skills, and cross-country skiing at various local outdoor workshops. He collaborated and managed what has been considered the world’s largest, longest-running, and most successful geotrail, the Allegheny Geotrail. Some of his paddling exploits include two Ocracoke-to-Portsmouth Island crossings; St. Ignace, Michigan-to-Mackinac Island; and multiple excursions along the entire Pennsylvania shoreline of Lake Erie.

One Comment

  1. Kevin Quist

    October 27, 2016 at 8:43 pm

    My wife and I plan to make the same kayak trip in june 2017. really looking forward to it. We have been kayaking for a long time now, definitely NOT beginners. Any advice on THIS specific route you could offer?

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