KAYAKING THE BIG WATER, Paddlers Explore Alpena’s Thunder Bay.
by Nathan Rapheld, True North Magazine
ALPENA — We looked skyward nervously. Above, the heavens shifted between clear blue and foreboding thunderheads. After so much preparation for our two-day Kayaking Voyage into one of Michigan’s most beautiful regions, I silently hoped Mother Nature would stay her hand.
To our delight, the menacing weather abated and, leaving the day of paddling much as it started –with splendidly calm waters and an obliging breeze.
Here, in the Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary off the east coast of Northeast Michigan’s Alpena County, the mostly wild shoreline of Lake Huron drifted by lazily. Only the occasional cottage peeked through the northern white cedars to remind us of civilization.
The expedition began in Rockport, a small and well-protected cove that’s complete with parking, restrooms, boat launch and dock about thirteen miles north of this city. Our destination was a small strip of state owned property in Misery Bay, located about twelve miles south, where we planned to make camp in the sanctuary.
Thunder Bay Sanctuary stretches from Rockport in the north, to Negwegon State Park on the southern border, jutting out nearly 22 miles into Lake Huron.
It has the distinction of being the first Great Lakes sanctuary and the first sanctuary nationally to focus exclusively on underwater resources, namely a collection of more than 100 shipwrecks, many dating back to the 19th century.
Several shipwrecks can be visited by kayak, though the main attraction for kayakers here is the unique assortment of islands, wildlife and geological oddities.
A friend once mused that open water kayaking (as opposed to white water kayaking across running river rapids) is akin to taking a walk using your arms. While this comparison has merit, it fails to account for the entire breadth of the kayaking experience.
Interacting with the great outdoors in a kayak introduces the explorer to a profound and unique relationship with nature and offers a sense of solitude as well as adventure.
Imagine the serenity of gliding across a body of deep-blue glossy water in peaceful silence, destined for an estuary teaming with avian and marine life unfettered by human interference.
Imagine the euphoric adrenaline of paddling through wind-churned waves against a sky of steel grey, witnessing all manner of wildlife gathering in sheltered coves to wait out a storm.
Kayaking allows you to thouroughly experience the allure of the natural world.
During our voyage, we pulled ashore several times to stretch our legs refuel and check the map. The heavily wooded area beckoned us to explore its’ flora and fauna on foot, but we decided to remain close to shore because we did not want to trespass on private owned property.
After several hours of paddling in open waters, we rounded Potter Point and our destination, Misery Bay, came into view.
We decided on a route through the labyrinth of shallows, sandbars and islands after consulting our GPS. But continually shifting winds, strong water currents and migrating silt keep Misery Bay in a state of perpetual evolution, a reality that leaves most maps open to interpretation instead of being reliable navigational aids.
When we left behind the wide open waters of Lake Huron and entered the decidedly nmore intimate envirement of the bay, it also meant that we were in for a different type of kayaking experience.
At times our kayaks hover mere inches from the rock-strewn, sticky mud bottom of the bay. More than once, we were forced toi retreat from waters too shallow for our miserly six inches of draft.
Eventually, we found our way to a 10 foot-wide, man made channel that cut through the berm separating us from the intended campsite on a strip of state- owned shoreline.
Kayaks secured, tents erected and dinner prepared, we reclined on basketball-sized rocks near the lakeshore to watch darkening sky yield to a full moon. Only the sound of our own muffled conversations competed with the cicadas on this night.
The next morning was markedly cooler, imposing gray skies and a heady wind. Fortunately, our itinerary kept us within the sheltered confines of Misery Bay and away from Lake Huron’s rolling wave and white-capped open waters.
The day’s primary objective was to visit the El Cajon sinkhole, an underwater formation that’s about 76 feet deep and 350 feet in diameter., It was formed when the earth’s surface was collapsed into an underground cavity, a result of slow erosion by a subterranean river.
After a brief paddle, low lake levels forced us to examine native flowers and plants, mineral formations and recenmt animal footprints in the soft earth proved a refreshing deviation from our watery voyage.
It wasn’t until I approached the sinkhole that its’ immenseness became real. A subtle vertigo gripped me as I stepped to itds embankment. The water was impeccably clear, but an overcast sky made gazing into its depths hazy. I decided not to go too close. Why tempt fate?
We passed the remainder of our time paddling within Misery Bay’s maze of islands, inlets and shallows. The persistent wind seemed to have spirited away much of the bird life. Apart from the occasional cormorant, we paddled in isolation.
A passion for the sport of kayaking and the solitude of Mother Nature has led me to paddle in many diverse locales. From California to Maine and from the Caribbean to Michigan, each voyage I’ve been on has taken me into regions with there own distinct and beautiful identity.
Our adventure in Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary was, without question very impressive.
To find out more about the Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary, visit :www.thunderbay.noaa.gov/.