|By Thomas Bamonte
Last week I completed a 7-day, 125 mile circumnavigation of the Keweenaw Peninsula ("KP"). The KP is about 450 miles north of Chicago on the Lake Superior shore of the Michigan UP. The KP technically became an island decades ago when the Portage Canal was constructed across its base. For general information about the KP:
The KP offers a wonderful paddling environment. Its west and north sides are exposed to the full force of Lake Superior, while Keweenaw Bay is more protected. The Portage Canal offers even more protected paddling. There are several inland lakes large enough to paddle. During the spring snow melt the rivers would offer some challenging conditions for river paddlers. There are mountains that run the length of the KP, some lovely harbors, and relatively few people. Indeed, several nights I could not see a single electric light except for a lighthouse 20 miles away. The shore includes stretches of sheer rock walls 50 feet high, long beaches, and rocky coasts with sea caves and neat stone formations. Power boat traffic is nearly non-existent once you get off the Canal. Once on Lake Superior I never saw more than about 5 boats a day, including the stately lake freighters.
The local paddling community has put together a very handy Keweenaw Watertrail map:
On Saturday night I met Sam Crowley, an experienced paddler and instructor from Marquette, Michigan at McLain State Park, which is on the west coast of the KP at the north entrance to the Portage Canal. Here's link to Sam's kayak school:
Sam and I paddled together from Sunday through mid-afternoon on Tuesday and then I paddled solo for four days, landing for good on Saturday afternoon. Sam was a great source of instruction, knowledge and encouragement.
We woke up Sunday to high winds and 5'-7' seas so put in at Houghton, a funky and well-situated college town midway on Portage Canal. The wind blew us down the Canal and out the south entrance past a large lighthouse into Keweenaw Bay. This was the first of many lighthouses on the KP. From there we headed north, past the first set of sheer cliffs, to a campsite on a beach on state forest land. It was my first time camping out of a kayak so I provided Sam plenty of entertainment as I fumbled with gear and the like.
The next day we headed north, into a modest but still pesky headwind. We cruised past more cliffs and along rocky shores and beaches. Other than a few nearly deserted groupings of cottages we had the place to ourselves. In the late afternoon we encountered an eerie moonscape comprised of stamp sands that had been dumped into the Lake by a copper mining operation. The KP had rich deposits of copper and there was extensive mining from the 1840s through the 1930s. The land still bears the scars and relics from that area. We camped near the community of Gay, which has a current population of 25, but once was home to almost 1500 people. A couple of beers in the Gay bar that evening sure hit the spot.
The next day we took advantage of a tailwind to fly up the coast to Bete de Grise. This is a lovely bay, with a long sweep of a beach at the west end and a range of mountains (I use that term broadly) running
along the northern shore. When we were most of the way across the bay Sam peeled off to return to his pick up point. I was truly on my own for the first time. It was a strange but good feeling. I paddled another 5 miles or so and camped on the long beach at Big Bay. I had a great view of the stars as they emerged after a long sunset.
The next day I continued paddling east to Keweenaw Point and then north and west to Copper Harbor. The rock changed from sandstone to something called Keweenaw composite, which looks like someone was in a hurry when the rock was made. It contains everything from sand to large boulders mashed together into rock. The waves have carved lots of nooks and crannies into this rock, which were fun to paddle into.
Copper Harbor is a small tourist town nestled in a beautiful harbor. I camped on a sheltered beach on the north side of Porter's Island, facing away the harbor. I had no sense of there being a town just a couple of hundred yards away. Copper Harbor was good for a pasty, a local meat/vegetable stuffed pastry, and beer. Later, I was still hungry enough to cook a meal while I enjoyed perhaps the most pectacular sunset I have ever seen.
From Copper Harbor I paddled past Agate Harbor to Eagle Harbor, another small grouping of cottages in a lovely bay. After Agate Harbor the rock becomes hard and granite like and the paddling environment feels a lot like the Maine coast. Unfortunately, a sizable portion of the coast from Agate Harbor down much of the west coast of the KP is settled with summer homes. The KP has not been spared the plague of McMansions. It's sure nice to know that the tax cuts for the rich are being used so productively. Along this stretch finding a camping spot can be a challenge, although discreet camping certainly is possible. It will be a real challenge for the local paddling community to secure a place for paddlers in this area.
I continued on from Eagle Harbor into Great Sand Bay, which is ringed by sand dunes, a Lake Superior rarity. Midway in the sweep of the bay is an onion-domed monastery. I almost found religion in the JamPot, a bakery operated by the monks that specializes in jams made from wild berries picked locally. That night I camped in the sand south of Eagle Harbor. The landowner happened by just as I was setting up and we made a friendly arrangement where I would pick up some of the broken glass in the sand (ah civilization!) in exchange for the chance to camp. I'm told that many KP property owners are willing to accommodate kayakers.
From Eagle River I continued down the coast, stopping at Seven Mile Point for a break. There was an incredible selection of colorful rocks on the cobble beach--as there is throughout much of the KP--and I stowed some rocks to bring home. I pitched my tent on another beach, about 16 miles from Houghton, in mid-afternoon and took a nice nap while it drizzled. That night the sound of pounding surf awakened me, but by morning the waves were 1-2 feet, as they had been all week. The surf always sounds higher at night.
I pushed off early and paddled hard to get around the lighthouse at the north entrance of the Portage Canal. After a short break I paddled the final 10 miles straight, into a bit of a headwind. However, as I got close to Houghton the Canal turned and I caught a nice tailwind that pushed me back to the starting point. The Canal is pleasantly scenic but heavily settled and finding a campsite would be difficult.
The final tailwind was a fitting end to a surprisingly easy trip. That evening I satisfied my taste for beer at the Keweenaw Brewing Company and then spied an all-you-can-eat buffet at a Chinese restaurant. When I walked in I'm sure the proprietor took one look at my skinny self and foresaw a fat profit. I'm afraid I disappointed him. 4-5 full plates of Chinese food never tasted so good!
Feel free to contact me if you would like more information about the KP. While the KP is not as well known as either the Apostle Islands or the Pictured Rocks, in many ways it offers a less crowded and more varied paddling environment. Give it a try sometime.