Prairie Fever » Blog Archive » Biking and paddling the Michigan coast

Biking and paddling the Michigan coast

My friend Kari Lydersen recently interviewed me for a short piece for the Great Lakes Town Hall, a website where she served as a guest writer. She wanted to learn more about a trip I took in August bicycling the west coast of Michigan. As I explain below, for much of the trip, I was hauling my folding kayak with a bicycle trailer.

After reading the interview, be sure to check out Great Lakes Town Hall. It’s an excellent website with plenty of news and views on the Great Lakes.

My kayak awaits assembly on North Manitou Island.

My kayak awaits assembly on North Manitou Island.

Q: How exactly did you travel by kayak and bike down the coast of Lake Michigan?

The idea for the trip was to combine a couple of my favorite outdoor activities–cycling and kayaking–while exploring some of the west coast of Michigan’s lower peninsula. For much of the trip, I was hauling my sea kayak (it folds up into a suitcase-sized bag that weighs about 35 lbs) behind me in a bike trailer. I stayed as close to the shoreline as possible and camped most of the time at the numerous parks along the way.

I started the 10-day trip by paddling around North Manitou Island off the coast of Sleeping Bear Dunes. From there, I bicycled my way down to Muskegon, stopping frequently for paddling, lollygagging on beaches, bike rides and exploring parks and towns. When I reached Muskegon, I took the ferry to Milwaukee and then rode home to Chicago.

Sleeping Bear Dunes

Q: It was a windy and stormy few weeks; how did you deal with the weather? Were there times you wanted to be comfortable and dry at home?

Sure, there were a handful of times when I would have liked to be home on the couch. I’ve learned that having a fairly loose itinerary helps a lot. That way, you don’t feel compelled to push yourself to ride or paddle through conditions that may be uncomfortable, or perhaps dangerous. Since I was paddling by myself, I took a very cautious approach to paddling in the lake, and avoided it if lake waves were more than one foot.

During the trip, it rained three days or so and a couple nights. Fortunately, for a couple of those days, I was able to forgo campgrounds and stay in an affordable little motel right on the lake. I had stayed in the motel on my prior travels in the area. It’s located in a village called Arcadia, just 40 miles southwest of Traverse City. There are big beautiful dunes, excellent beaches, and a recently opened nature preserve with miles of hiking trails. And surprisingly, no tourism to speak of. That’s the beauty of this area–unbelievable natural beauty and, if you look for it, plenty of places where you can have a beach or a towering dune all to yourself.

One evening while in a state park campground during pouring rain, instead of setting up my tent in the rain, I decided to sleep under a picnic shelter. I was nervous when the park’s cleaning crew visited the shelter in the early morning, and thought they might have some harsh words and even call the police. Instead, they wanted to hear about my trip and were eager to offer advice for the next leg of the journey. It’s a perfect example of how welcoming people tend to be toward those traveling on a bicycle.


Q: Do your travels like this show people can explore the Great Lakes region even without a car or lots of money?

How lucky we are to live on the Great Lakes! All this beauty so close to home presents a strong invitation to explore. As the author of a handful of outdoor guidebooks focusing on Illinois and the Chicago area, I feel like part of my job is to convince people that the Midwest and Great Lakes region offer some wonderful places to visit. The famous parks of the nation are great to see, but how often can you do that? How often can people on a budget do that?

Michigan and much of the Great Lakes region is pretty well suited for bicycle travel. Plenty of quiet, scenic roads. Towns and parks appear frequently. Plenty of hills that are manageable on a bike. A minimal number of big urban areas to navigate. That said, I’ve learned to beware of heavily trafficked roads. Several years back, my brother and I bicycled around Lake Superior. Ninety percent of the route was great, but in a few places we were stuck riding alongside heavy truck traffic on the Trans Canada Highway with no alternate routes.

I like how traveling on a bicycle cuts expenses substantially. I also like how it puts you fully into the setting. Taking a vacation on a bicycle makes me think about things differently. I think about time differently because, of course, the pace is slower. I think about the wind, the sun, the landscape, and the plants and animals more fully. Having grown up in west Michigan, I had traveled this coast perhaps a dozen times. So I wasn’t expecting to discover much that was new to me. I was wrong. While cycling and paddling, I got to know the water and the terrain much better.

sunflower field and barn

Q: You said you enjoyed traveling alone, why?

I like traveling alone because I find that people feel more comfortable approaching a solo traveler. For me, a big part of the thrill of travel is meeting people from the area. I also find that I feel more compelled to strike up conversations while traveling solo. Traveling by myself, I sometimes get a little desperate for conversation–and need something to distract me from my own thoughts. I also want to learn about the area. To do this, I’ve become adept at finding people who don’t look like they’re in a hurry and asking them for directions, asking about local history, and just striking up idle chitchat.

Q: What is your favorite spot on the Great Lakes, why?

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on the south shore of Lake Superior. Years back, I paddled and camped for several days along Pictured Rocks, and was transfixed by the colored cliffs, waterfalls, and beaches. While paddling the shoreline, you can see house-sized boulders within the strikingly clear water. It looks like the ruins of a sunken city. A remote ambience adds much to this place. Lake Superior has always held a special place for me–I’ve been camping on its shore since I was child.

In second place is the Chicago shoreline. Instead of the sandstone cliffs at Pictured Rocks, the cliffs in Chicago are skyscrapers. The shoreline offers some 20 miles of parkland in the shadow of the most enormous and arresting buildings in the world. I love the Chicago shoreline because it’s where the city comes together; it’s the city at its best. Fortunately, the city has begun embracing the shoreline more fully, making it more accessible and giving it proper status as the city’s front yard.

The page where the interview appears is here.


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