There’s an old saying that clichés are clichés for a reason. That applies to outdoor destinations as well. Moab is a riding cliché, but you still won’t find better slickrock anywhere else. The Gunks are a climbing cliché, but they live up to their reputation. In the case of Midwestern flatwater paddling, the most famous spots—Pictured Rocks, the Apostle Islands, and the Boundary Waters—really are the premier places to paddle. For those of you who are determined to avoid clichés, I’ll provide three less-famous alternatives.
Apostle Islands National Seashore, Wisconsin
Despite the name, there are actually 22 islands in the Apostle group, all huddled in Lake Superior 12 miles off the undeveloped shores of the Bayfield Peninsula. The area’s rock-infested waters are difficult to navigate with motorboats, and they’re generally protected enough for prime sea kayaking. Among the cliffs, caves, rugged shores, and white pine forests is an entire field guide’s worth of wildlife—from black bears to piping plovers to more than 800 plant species. Living Adventure leads half-day, daylong, and overnight kayak trips. Alternative: Willow Flowage Scenic Waters Area, Wisconsin. Spilling from the Tomahawk River in northern Wisconsin, some 117 islands are speckled off the Willow Flowage's 73 miles of shoreline.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota
This million-acre necklace of lakes and rivers west of Lake Superior beneath Minnesota’s border with Canada is the country’s crown jewel of flatwater kayaking. There are more campsites—roughly 2,000—among its 1,500 miles of routes than there are people, and there are far more deer and moose than campsites. You’ll also find waterfalls, hardwood forests, eagles, bogs, towering cliffs, Native American pictographs, and complete, glorious solitude. River Point Outfitting Company in Ely runs kayak and canoe trips, and rents equipment. Alternative: Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota. Just west of the Boundary Waters, near International Falls, Minnesota, hide the four broad , interconnected lakes of Voyageurs National Park, which spreads across a pine-forested area about one-third the size of Rhode Island.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
About 15 of the 42 miles of Lake Superior shoreline that make up Pictured Rocks are topped with colorful sandstone cliffs rising as high as 20 stories about the water. Most of the rest is occupied by long, empty sandy beaches. Other sights along the lakeshore include waterfalls, dunes, sea caves, and birch forests. Paddling Michigan leads daylong and extended trips. Alternative: Grand Island National Recreation Area, Michigan. Much like a miniature version of Pictured Rocks, Grand Island's 30 miles of undeveloped shoreline feature 30-foot-high cliffs, sea caves, arches, and forests. Northern Waters in Munising rents boats and guides trips (northernwaters.com).