Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Summer II 2019 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.
Mark Engelsman took a pair of paddlers on this season’s first Beaver Island Water Trail trip, which was filled with bird and fish watching, wilderness experiences and even a trip through Lake Michigan fog.
“It was a really splendid trip,” he said. “You paddle for a couple of hours then have a picnic and go swimming, then paddle a bit more before stopping to camp. I’m always in a better mood when I get back.”
Engelsman is the owner of Happy Paddle in St. James, the harbor town on Beaver Island. He said interest in the water trail has continued to grow since its official designation last autumn.
“We’ve had quite a few inquires, probably 15. We’ll probably do it seven times this year as a kind of guided tour,” Engelsman said.
Paddlers also are free to take on the water trail without a guide.
The main attraction for those who visit Beaver Island is its placement in the heart of Lake Michigan, of which the new water trail takes full advantage.
“We really are offering a unique opportunity for paddlers to experience,” said Pam Grassmick, Beaver Island resident and local coordinator for the new water trail.
The newly dedicated water trail circumnavigates the island found 30 miles offshore from the mainland in northwest Lower Michigan. It’s a 42-mile route with 18 designated stops on public lands, some of which feature rustic camp sites where canoeists and kayakers can stop to rest, take in the scenery or even seek shelter should Lake Michigan weather conditions rapidly change.
“It’s not your typical river,” Grassmick said. “This is the Great Lakes.”
Nicholas De Laat, director of the Preservation Association of Beaver Island which operates the Beaver Island Community Center, said the birding trail on the island proved extremely popular and the new water trail seemed like a logical next project.
“It’s not a trail, so to speak, but stops around the island. The trail goes around the island,” De Laat said. “Every single stop on the water trail is designed to get people out to enjoy the nature here on the island.”
Among the stops are Donegal Bay, French Bay, Iron Ore Bay, Martin’s Bluff and Luney’s Point. The trail stops are meant to direct visitors to the abundant available public lands and help them avoid private properties found around Beaver Island.
“We want the tourists to enjoy the natural beauty of the island,” De Laat said.
Interpretive signs and programs along the water trail are designed to highlight Beaver Island’s unique history — it’s the only place in the United States to ever have had its own king — natural resources and connection to the Great Lakes.
Engelsman said his late June trip guiding two other paddlers included sightings of American bald eagles and blue heron, which is typical for Beaver Island, along with glimpses of large, golden carp swimming through the island’s Lake Michigan flats. The stretches of dense shoreline wilderness also was to be expected, he said, but not the super foggy conditions on their next-to-last day.
“It was really interesting. I’d never paddled in the fog before and you had to hug the shoreline because it was easy to get disoriented,” Engelsman said. “You could see further through the clear water than through the fog. We saw shadows of trees on the shore and you could hear birds, but not see them.”
The last day was windy with stronger waves, he said, the sort of conditions that would ideally encourage novice or even intermediate paddlers to remain at their shoreline campsite and await calmer conditions.
The windy and foggy conditions are examples of how weather on Lake Michigan can change from day to day, or even much more rapidly. Going on the island’s water trail requires awareness of the risks of Great Lakes paddling, Engelsman said, adding that’s why it’s good there are so many designated stopping points along the route.
Matt Cowall, communications director for nonprofit LIAA, said that organization helped Beaver Island residents plan and develop the water trail in partnership with various state agencies and the Michigan Coastal Management Program. The project will improve public access to some of the most remote and wild places on the already far-flung Lake Michigan island, he said.
“Sometimes things are a little easier to get to by water there,” Cowall said. “It’s not a short paddle. It’s backcountry camping out of your boat. Everything is still pretty rustic.”
LIAA helped develop and publish a Beaver Island Water Trail paddling guide available online, which includes helpful information such as suggested gear and safety devices, flight or ferry transportation options to reach the island, accommodations and outfitters available there and other recreational opportunities.
Paddlers who come to the island for the water trail are encouraged to check in at the community center, which serves as the official water trailhead. That helps in terms of safety, so officials know how many people are out on the trail and their anticipated return schedule, Grassmick said.
There has been a recent increase in ferry passengers arriving with their own kayaks in tow, both Grassmick and De Laat agreed.
“Since the dedication ceremony we are starting to see an uptick of people coming to the island for paddling,” De Laat said.
The expectation is there will be more visitors to the island because of the water trail, he said, but changes on the island will not follow.
“They can come enjoy it how it is,” De Laat said.