Ile Aux Galets (Island of Pebbles), aka Skillagalee, is a very small island about 7 miles offshore from Cross Village, near the NW tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula. The island sits atop a large shoal. On the east it is separated from the mainland by a deep channel about 5 miles wide and 100’-200’ feet deep, on the west lies the Gray’s Reef shipping route. Numerous wrecks on the island led to construction of a series of lighthouses in the 1800’s. The current lighthouse was built in 1888, and was automated in 1969.
Last year I did long day trip in the area, paddling around the beautiful islands of the Waugoshance point peninsula. Since then, I have become very interested in doing some larger crossings over to the islands of Gray’s Reef (Beaver, Garden, Hog), but have had difficulty scheduling enough vacation or partners. With only enough time this season for a long day trip, I thought that Ile Aux Galets would make an intriguing and slightly intimidating ‘inaugural’ off-shore voyage. Despite its proximity to the shipping lane, it is only accessible by very shallow boat, and does not appear to be visited very often, if at all.
The NWS report for the area predicted a stable high pressure system for 24 hours, with 20 knots winds from the SW and 1’-2’ waves, which would give a nice rear-quartering tail-wind for the return leg. Because the SW fetch is over 100 miles, I was skeptical about the wave estimates, and I was also curious how the waves would behave over the deep water.
The visibility was excellent, and the waves at shore were 1’ and choppy, matching the NWS report. Looking out from the beach confirmed what I would have guessed from the wind speed and fetch: scattered whitecaps were visible and larger waves formed the horizon. The top of Ile Aux Galets lighthouse was barely visible from the beach, but you had to really search for it. (Even less visible were the light houses on Gray’s Reef and White Shoal – I think most people visiting the beach would not be able to see any of them.) Launching was easy, and the water was shallow until about a ½ mile off-shore. As the bottom dropped out, the water color changed to the deepest blue, and the confused water gave way to nicely-formed 3’ to 4’ swells rolling down the channel. The quartering swell and 20 knot wind were fine, but kept me on my toes. This was fun, but the lighthouse didn’t seem to get any bigger for over an hour… Unsure about what the conditions would be like over the shallow shoal, my plan was to approach the leeward side of the island. I turned directly into the wind for the last half-mile, and progress became pretty slow into the 15-20 knots. The smell of bird poo grew quite strong, and I probably could have followed my nose to the island; but I was glad to get out of the boat for a break.
The island was stunning, and very exposed. The shoal is shallow about a half mile in every direction around the island, and the wave energy appears to dissipate quite a bit before reaching the island. However, I am sure the island would be a pretty exciting place to be in a large storm.
About a thousand birds were slightly pissed off that I was there. The first birds I saw off-shore were two types of tern (Common and Black?), followed by Double-Breasted Cormorants, and ring-billed gulls. Near-shore I was surprised to find ducks and Canadian Geese, paddling around with babies that appeared to be a few months old. Rodent and fish bones were scattered around the island, along with the occasional dead bird. The cormorant nests were particularly amazing, and appeared to be abandoned for the rest of the season. (Its seems like a visit earlier in the season may be more disruptive to the breeding cycle?) The nests were built on the ground or shrub branches (there are no trees). The taller ones (2’ – 3’ high) seemed to be particularly old, and I would love to know how old they really were. They had bones, rope, and other flotsam embedded in them. There were rodent bones laying around the nests, but I think that these were prey that the parents delivered to their chicks.
It was really hard to tell how often the island is visited. There was absolutely NO garbage. There is one-hundred year old construction debris, but no signs of recent visitors. It was also refreshing that there was only one piece of flotsam on the beach, a float for a fishing line.
I finished taking pictures, and being careful not to touch any bird poo, ate some lunch. Meanwhile, the swell had grown a tad bigger. Paddling straight back the way I came would mean continuous rear-quartering swell, which would be a waste of some really nice waves. The psychological stress of this trip involved the initial dread of launching towards a miniscule point on the horizon that disappeared with each wave. Now, pointing the boat back towards that big shoreline wasn’t as intimidating, and I wanted to have some fun. I decided to dogleg back, a SE reach across the swell until about half-way across, then heading NE directly down-wind for about four miles to the launch-site. Once I got away from the reef, the swell was consistently well-formed 4’rollers, with the occasional bigger set rolling through (big enough to have real fun on). Despite the wave heights, I was still surprised to see only two boats on such a beautiful, cloudless afternoon. The first was a big party boat that hailed me for a radio check to see if I was okay, and then finished by telling me I was crazy. The second was a tug boat that crossed close by on its way towards Little Traverse Bay; it just absolutely pounded its way through the swell, and I was convinced that I had the better craft. After an hour of swell directly from the side, turning directly down-wind was a gas. Until I got within a mile or so of Cross Village, I got to play on the most consistently well-formed waves I have ever experienced. Once I reached the right speed, decently long rides were the norm. The occasional bigger set had me yelling “woo-hoo!” to no one but the wind. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and eventually the water became more confused near shore, as the deep water ends and the bottom comes up to about thirty feet. This shallow area extends about a half-mile from Cross Village, and it diminished wave heights by at least half. After surfing such nice conditions out in the channel, it was a bit surreal to paddle back into the beach on little, tiny waves.
I am definitely going to try to paddle further off-shore on windy (but friendly) days!
Posted by John Fleming
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I think the island must smell a lot worse on a calm day! Still, it was really beautiful. Any idea how old those cormorant nests are?
Note to self: stay away from arctic terns
With the exception of Doug and Josh, who I went with, you are the only other person I know of who has bothered to go out there.
There wasn't much wave action when we went, maybe 1' or so on the way out. Dominant impressions of the island: gulls eating dead cormorants and the absolutely putrid, strong and memorable smell on the downwind side. That, and afterward looking up and feeling lucky that the terns weren't arctic terns – those are the ones that peck your eyes out.
If you decide to do some of the larger crossings and are looking for people, Josh, Doug and I are likely interested at least. If you want to go back to Ile Aux Galet with shotguns and mortars, I'm interested – I really don't like cormorants, something to do with their destroying the lone tree on the island with feces.