The Flatland's Private Big Blue

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1995

The Flatland's Private Big Blue

What's so great about the Great Lakes? Big water, big winds, big wilderness.
By Mike Steere

Great Lakes people use statistics calculated to amaze--like the lakes' six quadrillion gallons of water being enough to flood the country ten feet deep--to make a point that the rest of North America refuses to grasp: The five Great Lakes are this continent's singular natural wonder. If freshwater surface were altitude, they'd be the Himalayas. But only people who live on them give the Great Lakes their due for sport on land and water and for huge-scale northern wilderness. From the boreal to the Rust Belt, locals know where to find prime scuba diving, sailing and paddling, fishing, hiking, cycling, resorting, and--though ocean dwellers may harbor powerful doubts--decent surfing and big-wave boardsailing. For all of this, the lakes remain the midcontinent's private domain: big as hell, bright blue, visible from outer space, but secret nonetheless.


Apostle Islands National
Lakeshore, Wisconsin

Lake Superior
Cruising Lake Superior by paddle or sail is suddenly lonelier after Labor Day. It's also much more thrilling, as the weather loses its summertime stability and the lake develops an increasingly severe mood disorder--pond one hour, maelstrom the next. The season makes a strong case for giving up on long open-water hauls in favor of puttering around sheltered zones, like the harbors and inlets of the Apostle Islands. The 22 Apostles--cliffbound chips of wild northern Wisconsin, some big enough to have resident black bears--are too popular in midsummer for solitude connoisseurs but clear out in September and early October. Jump-off for the islands is Bayfield, Wisconsin, location of the 42,000-acre national lakeshore's headquarters, kayak rental, and what seems to be the Great Lakes' largest bareboat sailing charter fleet. Kayakers like to put in at the dock at Little Sand Bay; from there, Sand Island's closest point is a bit more than two miles offshore, its campsites about a mile farther. A cautious 20-mile trip from Sand Island hops to York Island, then Raspberry, then Oak, and back to the mainland, with the longest open-water crossing no more than two and a half miles and campsites on all the islands except Raspberry.

Sailors can rove more widely and boldly. But since they can't haul their boats ashore, they have to be more careful than kayakers in choosing where to overnight. The anchorage in deeply indented Quarry Bay, off Stockton Island, offers good protection, as does the gap between Rocky and South Twin Islands, each about 18 miles from Bayfield. A powerful nor'easter can wipe out any kind of boating in the Apostles, and retreat is always honorable. The point isn't distance, after all, but getting an eyeful of the maple, hemlock, and birch trees on these islands, where fall colors peak in late September and early October, after inland woods have already flamed out.

Trek & Trail in Bayfield (800-354-8735) can set you up for three days in a fiberglass single or double kayak ($95 and $155, respectively; $20 and $35 for each day beyond three). Unless you're an experienced paddler, don't head out without taking the basic safety course ($40). You can pick up free permits to camp at designated primitive sites on the islands and 12 miles of mainland coast at national lakeshore headquarters in Bayfield (715-779-3397). For bareboat charters, the low end at Sailboats Inc. in Bayfield (800-826-7010) is Born to Run, a 25-foot sloop with four berths; a four-day charter costs $625, $75 per additional day, with a 20 percent discount after September 4. Four days aboard Romance II, a 40-foot sloop that sleeps eight, costs $1,875. Bayfield suffers touristic thrombosis during its annual apple festival, this year on October 7-8 (call 800-447-4094 for general area information). The town is a 240-mile drive from Minneapolis, 493 miles from Chicago.


Munising Bay, Whitefish Point, and the Straits of Mackinac, Michigan (Upper Peninsula)
Lakes Superior and Huron
In 1679 the French built the Griffon, the Great Lakes' first sailing vessel, and it started a tradition by going down with all hands. Tough as they've been on ships, the lakes are very good to their wrecks, an estimated 3,000 to 10,000 of which litter the lake bottoms. Unlike seawater, which devours wood and metal, cold fresh water puts whatever sinks on almost permanent display. For an ultimate long weekend of exploring beautifully preserved wrecks, outfit yourself for frigid water and start with a day of diving in Lake Superior's Munising Bay, off Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The usual two-tank, two-wreck, half-day boat dive, $50 from Grand Island Charters in Munising (906-387-4477), includes a wooden ship sunk in the late nineteenth century in the shallows of Murray Bay. The intact hull and deck are 12 to 30 feet down in clear, sheltered water, a lark for novices or even snorkelers. The other dive of the day can be a deeper challenge, like the Smith Moore, a 223-foot wooden-hulled steamer 90-110 feet down. Munising has diver-friendly rooms at the Best Western (doubles, $64, $57 after Labor Day; 906-387-4864).

About 125 miles east in Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, Superior Dive Tours takes divers to Michigan waters off Whitefish Point in Lake Superior, a celebrated ship graveyard offering beginner, intermediate, and advanced dives down to about 150 feet, with visibility averaging 30 feet (two-tank dive, $60; 705-946-3929). In Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, get to know the Valley Camp, a lakes freighter now permanently docked as a maritime museum (906-632-3658), before diving down to see its fellow freighter, the Cedarville, the Straits of Mackinac's star wreck. The 588-foot ship, which sank after a collision in 1965, rests upside down with the pilothouse and superstructure about 125 feet deep. The Cedarville is standard fare for a $60, two-tank, two-wreck excursion aboard the Rec Diver (Macomb Scuba Center, 810-558-9922), docked at St. Ignace in the Straits of Mackinac.

All three dive sites are in underwater preserves of the State of Michigan, which protects more than 2,000 submarine square miles. Take an armchair look at the state's preserve system in Steve Harrington's Diver's Guide to Michigan ($19.95; call 906-643-6211 to order). Munising is about 119 miles northwest of the Mackinac Bridge, which is about 300 miles north of Detroit.


Bass Islands, Ohio
Lake Erie
Hook-sport can be great in all five lakes, but fishermen find the most bountiful casting and catching--so good it's ridiculous--in the last place most of us would look. Erie, Lazarus of lakes, has a greater tonnage of sport and commercial catches than its sibling lakes combined. Never quite as dead as commonly thought, Erie these days is looking downright preindustrial. The new, blue lake is part environmental victory--thanks to the curtailment of phosphorous discharges--and part catastrophe caused by the exploding population of filter-feeding zebra mussels. In the zero-sum ecological game, something is going to lose big to the mussels, but scientists still aren't sure what. We shouldn't borrow trouble, though; we should just go fishin'.

Limiting on walleyes, piscine prince of western Lake Erie and arguably the world's most delicious fish for pan-frying, is pretty much routine. Those who want to get beyond meat hunting must seek out rebel charter-boat captains like Bob Hughey, skipper of Fishin' Ful, moored near Port Clinton, western gateway to Ohio's lovely, limestone-shelved Bass Islands. Captain Bob prefers two-pound-test, refuses to use anything over four-pound, and encourages his clients to get light, too. The fish of choice--particularly in September and October, when walleyes, boat traffic, and tourism all slow down--is the Bass Islands' namesake. Smallmouth bass are abundant and huge in these waters, which produced Ohio's record nine-and-a-half-pounder. Were it feasible, Captain Bob would fly-cast to the bass, but they're 20 feet down in autumn. Nevertheless, he gets as close to the spirit of fly-fishing as spinning gear allows and rewards catch-and-release anglers with a 10 percent discount. Parties of up to six get an all-day charter with Captain Bob for $380 (call 419-734-9711). Fishin' Ful is moored about seven miles east of Port Clinton, which is about 75 miles west of Cleveland and 105 miles southeast of Detroit.


Coastal Trail
Pukaskwa National Park, Ontario
Lake Superior
The U.S.-Canada border, which cleaves four of the Great Lakes, is about as friendly and transparent as international frontiers get. Still, too many Americans fail to see what's just on the other side. The quickest trip from midcontinent cities to big wilderness is north to Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, then north and west on the Trans-Canada Highway along Lake Superior's north shore. The Great Lakes' grandest slice of untamed shoreline, on the south side of the highway's 114-mile inland cut between the towns of Wawa and Marathon, contains 765-square-mile Pukaskwa National Park, which practically nobody has heard of, even in Canada. The access road to Hattie Cove from the highway barely nicks the boundary of Pukaskwa (say it "PUCK-a-saw"). From there the Coastal Trail runs south, covering about two-thirds of the park's 54 miles of coast, which alternates between cliffs and beaches. The farther you go, the tougher and steeper the hiking. To do it justice, allow nearly a week for the out-and-back trip. Camping for hikers is at designated areas along the trail only; call the park (807-229-0801) to make optional backcountry campsite reservations. The only other trails in the park are made by resident moose, wolves, bears, and woodland caribou. The not-so-stalwart get all the magnificence they need overnighting at White River Campsites, about four miles from the trailhead, where the White River drops to lake level in a series of cascades. Registration, about $4 per person, is required at the park entrance kiosk; the fee is $6.80 per party per night. The drive-in campground at Hattie Cove ($9.50 per night, no hookups) is about nine miles south of Marathon, which is 254 miles from Sault Sainte Marie, and about 600 miles from Detroit.

La Cloche Silhouette Trail
Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario

Lake Huron
Art helped save this wilderness in the shockingly white quartzite La Cloche Mountains on the north shore of Lake Huron's Georgian Bay. The 60-mile La Cloche Silhouette Trail is the namesake of a painting by landscape artist Franklin Carmichael (1890-1945), one of the nature painters known as the Group of Seven, who worked here and championed preservation. A. Y. Jackson Lake, which the roller-coaster trail skirts, is named for another of the Seven who painted here. Do the whole loop, which begins and ends at the park's main drive-in campground at George Lake, and you'll have climbed a total of about 10,000 feet and descended as much, making you a backpacking artiste. The trail follows marble-smooth ridgetops with a thin cover of tortured-looking red oak trees and long views of Lake Huron and Baie Fine, a skinny, ten-mile-long inlet that does a great imitation of an ocean fjord. In northern portions of the park, listen for nighttime musicales by the resident timber wolf pack. Call the park office (705-287-2800) to reserve interior campsites ($2.90 per person per night) or drive-in sites at the George Lake Campground ($13.75 per night). George Lake is about 33 miles off King's Highway 69. The turnoff to Killarney Park is about 29 miles south of Sudbury, Ontario, which is about 260 road miles north of Toronto, or 533 miles from Detroit.


Pines & Mines Mountain Bike Trail System
Wisconsin and Michigan (Upper Peninsula)

Lake Superior
Trees, bears, deer, and porcupines are very bullish about the future around the onetime iron and lumber kingdoms of Hurley, Wisconsin, and Ironwood, Michigan, where human population and commercial confidence peaked early in the century. The surrounding resurgent forest, looking more and more like a forest primeval, is riven with roads to mines, mills, farms, and towns that are no longer there. The Pines & Mines system, established just this summer, has 300 marked and mapped miles of baroquely looping gravel byways and Ottawa National Forest roads. Some 21 miles of hilly, wooded back roads get you from Hurley to the mouth of the Montreal River at Saxon Harbor on Lake Superior. The system is long on North Woods scenic cruising and short on technical challenge, with less than 26 miles qualifying as single-track. One such stretch--Trail 6, running west from Montreal, Wisconsin, just west of Hurley--is a 6.5-mile crossing of the ancient, worn-down Penokee Mountains. Trail 13 goes south from Montreal toward flatter country around the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. With out-and-back cycling loops every which way, Montreal is a monument to the area's industrial devolution. Once a mining company town, now a national historic district, it has historic sleeping at The Inn, a former mine office building converted to a bed-and-breakfast (doubles, $50; 715-561-5180). Call Ottawa National Forest (906-932-1330) for information on camping, particularly near Michigan portions of the Pines & Mines, which are within the national forest. The Iron County Development Zone Council (715-561-2922) has trail maps and information about the area. Trek & Trail in Ironwood (906-932-5858) rents mountain bikes for $20 per day. The Ironwood-Hurley area is about 263 miles from Minneapolis, 411 miles from Chicago.


Grand Haven and St. Joseph, Michigan
Sheboygan, Wisconsin

Southern Lake Michigan
Lester Priday, director of the Eastern Surfing Association's Great Lakes District, looked east from Milwaukee last winter and saw the biggest ridable surf he'd ever seen on the lakes--smooth curls, some with tento 12-foot faces, nicely cleaned up by an offshore wind. Southern Lake Michigan, which Milwaukee fronts, holds the Great Lakes' star waters for surfing and big-wave boardsailing, with grand beaches, long open-water fetches, and surface water that can be delightfully warm early in the autumn wind season. The man-made gifts to Lake Michigan are harbor-mouth piers that focus and clean up waves; prize piers are in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and Grand Haven, Michigan, surfing capitals of the region. Priday, who first rode waves in his native Australia, gives the edge, surfwise, to the breaks on the north side of Sheboygan's harbor wall. Maybe so, but Sheboygan itself, a Rust Belt city best known for bratwurst and scarred by hard times, makes for tougher vacationing.

The better choice for a wind-and-waves holiday is Grand Haven, a much spiffier resort town on the lake's eastern shore. Big fall nor'westers create a primo break on the south side of Grand Haven's pier, and southwesterlies can stack up nice waves, too. Chapter Eleven Sports (616-842-9244) rents eight-foot boards for $15 per day and offers surfing lessons for $15 per hour. The shop also has boardsailing rental and schooling. An introductory lesson, with equipment for the day, costs $50. Winds gather strength in September, when they can gust at 30-40 knots.

St. Joseph, Michigan, 80 miles south of Grand Haven and a 92-mile drive from Chicago, also gets raves for both boardsailing and surfing. Here and elsewhere, the best plan is to make no plan, but to remain perpetually ready to take off when wind and water kick up. To check on conditions, call Outpost Windsports (616-983-2010) in St. Joseph; lessons there cost $60 for three hours, rentals, $50 per day. Grand Haven is a 170-mile drive from Chicago, 184 miles from Detroit. Sheboygan is 56 miles north of Milwaukee and 146 miles from Chicago.

Mike Steere, a frequent contributor to Outside, lives three blocks from a kayak put-in on Lake Michigan.

See also:

Old-Line Lodging on the Lakes

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