South Manitou Island Sea Kayak Trip

View of crystal clear lake michigan over the shoals on South Manitou Island from my Nigel Foster Sea Kayak
View of crystal clear Lake Michigan over the shoals on South Manitou Island from my Nigel Foster Sea Kayak

The Manitou Islands of Lake Michigan are the Lower Peninsula’s greatest treasure. Michigan, funnily enough get’s a reputation as an industrial rust-belt state, that frankly it doesn’t deserve. I hope in some way, it keeps this undeserved reputation so that our secret remains safe. The sand beaches between Grand Haven Michigan and Mackinac City are some of the most beautiful, scenic beaches I have ever seen. And the Islands of Lake Michigan are the sparkling gem in the crown of our Lower Peninsula. As a younger man I always dreamed of far off places that were more exotic. Ireland, France, Eastern Europe, North Africa. Those places are pretty awesome. But in some ways Lake Michigan, and the islands will remain even more special because they are where I’m from. I can pack my car with my family, my kayaks, and head out to one of the most scenic places I’ve ever seen in hours instead of days.

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North and South Manitou Island are two of the best islands to introduce sea kayakers to offshore paddling. I’ve been to the Islands off the coast of Lake Michigan before. The first time was with Jason Roon in 2002 right after I got into paddling. I knew three things about kayaking. How to paddle forward, how to eskimo roll, and how to turn. Jason thankfully knew a lot more than that. We went to North Manitou in November. As I remember it we went out in 3-5 foot seas from Good Harbor beach and aimed for Dimmick’s point, and wound up on the west site of the island and had to paddle back into the wind to land more by Donner point. We were stranded for a day on the island due to weather. And then paddled back in dead calm. It was great fun, but somewhat terrifying at the same time.

The next time I went to North Manitou I went with Justine Curgenven and a few other paddlers to camp on North in beautiful weather. We visited South Manitou island and had a beautiful time visiting the wreck and the Valley of Giants. My most memorable moment, and probably Pastor Van Doren’s as well was surfing back to North Manitou Island from South Manitou. Doug cut left, and I parked my Silhouette up to the cockpit on top of his Betsie Bay Valkyrie, I could have given him a kiss from where I stopped. We were four miles between the islands and about eight miles off shore. Probably not a good place to put a hole in someone’s boat?

This trip we organized around being able to have families take the ferry from Glen to South Manitou. My brother in law Shawn Denton and I paddled over from Cannery Beach. The crossing is an easy one, 6 miles. It took about an hour and forty minutes. We had glassy conditions for the crossing. Having done the crossings in steep waves with a serious headwind, I was quite happy to do it in ideal conditions. I would recommend getting a chart and making sure you watch the freighter traffic. Two freighters passed through the Manitou Passage while we were making the crossing. Freighters are not looking for kayaks, and will have a hard time turning or stopping to avoid obstacles due to their size, so consider them a hazard. If fog or other weather hampers visibility you better be on your game for navigation because the only landfall after Manitou is Wisconsin.

Once on the island you have to register at the dock for a campsite. Because we landed near the weather station campground in the middle of the southern part of the island we had to have our families pick up the tags for the campsite. Be aware that due to the high number of visitors to South Manitou island, they have many, many, many rules and regulations about what you can do. Here is a short list of things you can’t do on South Manitou:

  • You can’t camp near the water
  • You can’t walk down to the water anywhere except where marked because of dune erosion
  • You can’t walk off of trails due to the need to not trample vegetation
  • You can’t pee within 100 feet of water or the trail
  • You can’t bathe with soap near any water source
  • You can’t take anything from the island

They have good reasons for each of these, so don’t think I am mocking them, but you should stop by the ranger station for the indoctrination to get a handle on the rules.

Once we settled in camp, we spent the rest of the afternoon lounging on the beach and playing in the water. Once sunset was approaching Laura and I took off around the western tip of the mountain to have a look at the wreck. Having seen it once before, I wanted to take Laura. Interestingly enough, the reference to the Francisco Morazan as the cormorant hotel in This is the Sea II has changed, the park service has started to control the population of cormorants, (shooting them). So there are significantly fewer cormorants than there were in 2005 when I was there last. Nevertheless, the wreck of the Liberian freighter stood there in all it’s glory. Some skin divers, who may have been illegally diving the wreck of the Morazan also pointed out the wreck of the Walter L. Frost, which was run onto the shoals in 1905. Ironically the Morazan hit the Frost as it ran aground scattering the wreck over a wider underwater area.

Photo of the underwater shipwreck of the Walter Frost in Lake Michigan
The Walter L Frost a wooden steamship sank in 1905 in a storm on Lake Michigan

We ended up making many trips out to the wrecks on Sunday with wives and kids, so everyone could see the wreck. Gabriel and I go to paddle out together to see both. He was really excited about the Morazan. And pleasantly surprised by the Frost.

We hiked around the island and took many pictures as the full moon was out on Friday night, and was still quite full come Sunday. The moon was so bright and so close it looked like it was hanging over Empire dunes. I took many pictures and then discovered the night setting on my pentax. Each image had a ghostly effect that reminded me of Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World. They have a machine that shows what your dreams look like on a video player.

Ghostly image of the full moon over south manitou island

Come Sunday we packed and hiked the remainder of our vast food supplies back to the dock. The return paddle was nearly as calm as the way out. We managed the crossing back easily and landed near Cannery beach.

Go Kayak Now! Manitou Island Photo Gallery on Flickr


  1. I just sailed to the Francisco Morazan this weekend and took a few pic’s really cool! Then we left heading South, South East about a 1/2 to 1 mile offshore we discovered wreckage. Something red and rusty resembling a giant claw missed the hull of my sailboat by a foot. Scared the “blank” out of me. Was there something like that at the frost wreck? Not sure if I accidently sailed over it or something else?

  2. Hey, both those boats went down in November! Should be change the date of the 2nd Annual Survival Paddle?