Sea Kayaking South Manitou in a day

Glen Haven – South Manitou – Glen Haven


posted by John Fleming

It’s 8am on Cannery Beach, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.  It’s me, a chain smoking heavy equipment operator, and nobody else.  He says that no overweight tourists will be at the beach until about 11, and he wants to lift the cannery up off the ground before they get there.  By the end of the day, my body and physics degree will both agree that the crane and I have each expended about the same amount of total energy.  To which my liberal arts education replies, “but I have been across the sea.”

In the grand tradition of doing things my mother would not approve of, I want to paddle out and back to South Manitou in a day.  It’s not the longest paddle, about an 8 mile crossing, but it is exposed.  The last time I did something like this, I didn’t see a soul from the time I left the highway until I got back to shore at the end of the day, which was cool but a little nerve wracking.  At least today I get to talk to chain smoking guy, which takes the edge off before I launch the boat into the surf.

Today is a beautiful, clear morning, with 15 knots blowing from the North with gusts to 20.  The day before had 4’ surf out of the west, and I was able to get a couple of decent rides in the surf kayak off the beach in Charlevoix.  The weather report for this morning says 2-4’.  What the report doesn’t convey is that there are still 2-4’ waves coming from the west, plus the 2-4’ waves coming from the North.  If you do the math, that’s not really 2-4’.  Off shore, this translates into arrhythmic sloshing, with big peaks occasionally obscuring the Manitous.  I choose the GL paddle, because I it feels good into a headwind.  I keep my eyes fixed on the South Manitou lighthouse.  I’ve never gotten seasick, but I’m not taking any chances.  After a time, the headwind is wearing on me, the island doesn’t seem to be getting any closer, and I keep dragging my fingertips in the water to check that I am still moving.  I alternate between wondering what the hell I am doing out here, are my kids going into the waves in Charlevoix without lifejackets on, am I going to develop tendonitis, and should I really have left shore with the GL paddle in my hands?  The need to throw my right shoulder into the occasional oncoming wave brings me back to the moment, and at least I can grin at the wave forecast.

Two and a half hours later, I am visiting the 1960 wreck of the Francisco Morazan, in the wind shadow of South Manitou island.

After this, my plan is to head over to visit the lighthouse and maybe take a nap.  Near the lighthouse I encounter a distinct sewage smell, and hordes of biting flies.  I walk the shore, in constant motion, swatting myself like a penitente.  My Freya-style sexy fuzzy rubber pants keep the flies off my legs, but are making me overheat.  (sorry, no pics)  My last act before launching is to rip off the pants.  Big mistake;  hundreds of flies descend on my sweaty legs.  (sorry again, no pics)  I jump in my boat and leave shore, but I can never get all the flies out of my cockpit before getting on the sprayskirt.  I paddle on, feel bites on my legs, open my skirt, flush out a few flies, quickly close the skirt.  Repeat.  Repeat.  About a half mile offshore, I jump in the water and flood my cockpit to remove the flies.  Brilliant.

Rather than take the most direct course back.  I paddle east for a mile or so, out of the wind shadow of the islands, so that I can surf downwind back to Cannery Beach.  The waves have cleaned up a bit.  I stare at the bow toggle.  Each time the bow drops, I lean forward, dig in, and surge ahead.  Compared to the slog out, I can’t believe how fast the islands are receding, and how fast the mainland is approaching.  In less than an hour and a half, I surf all the way back to the (now) crowded beach, broach at the last second, sideways high-brace surf-landing with a ceremonious ‘thump’.  I feel everybody’s eyes on me, impressed by my skillful arrival.

(To be honest, this is quite a bit different than my re-entry earlier in week.  Returning after my ‘reconnaissance’ paddle for this trip, I wet-exit and float on my back to cool off, until I realize that tourists are swimming out to “rescue me”.)


  1. I hope to make the same trip this summer. Thanks for the info on the fly’s! Great story. Mike

  2. I;m not much of a water person but reading your story and looking at the pictures from your kayaking adventure has me ready to take up kayaking. I don’t think I would enjoy the angry mob of blood thirsty flies you encountered. Thanks to Hollywood I would of expected an attack from beneath the water. Who knew a fly swatter would be needed on a kayaking trip.

    Great blog! Keep up the adventures, stories and pictures.


  3. That is some beautiful pictures and a cool wreck! I also enjoy the picture the beautiful light house. It was good of the tourists that they reacted but I understand that it must have felt a bit uneasy.



  4. Those picture look amazing! I thought my kayaking story was adventurous, but this is just awesome!