Kayaking Lake Huron and Thunder Bay

Years back, before I had any formal training in Sea Kayaking, I found myself in Lake Huron with three other friends. We had a great time on that trip but in retrospect we made so many mistakes that could have been easily averted.

Lake Huron's Thunder Bay is located near Alpena, Michigan. Known for its shipwrecks, it is also home to the Michigan Islands National Wildlife Refuge as well as the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

The east coast of Michigan, or the Sunrise Side as many locals to refer to it, is far less visited than the west coast. This is probably due to a combination of rocky beaches versus sand and the tendencies of most tourists who are attracted to sunsets as opposed to sunrises. After all, who really wants to get up at 5:45 a.m. to watch a summer sunrise when on vacation?

The economy is less tourist driven and frankly less visibly vibrant than the west coast. This however yields a certain allure for the person seeking a quieter, less touristy getaway.

A few friends and I decided that we should rent kayaks and make a weekend trip to a lesser known state forest campground on Thunder Bay and explore the area by kayak. It was late July and a kayak trip sounded great.

My only kayaking experience so far had been on the Platte River in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which is an easy paddle but by no means a proper introduction to paddling on Lake Huron. I had canoed extensively as a Boy Scout and more recently had gone canoeing with my wife back when we were dating.

Our first day was primarily to acquaint ourselves to the rented boats as only one of us owned our own kayaks. We drove up to Ossineke arriving mid afternoon and set up camp. The weather and water conditions were great! Low 80’s, low humidity, and the water was warm and calm. We paddled along the coastline toward Alpena for a total of about two hours. We all agreed that the location was great and the trip so far was a great idea.

Our plan for Saturday was to paddle from Ossineke to Negwegon State Park. We would drive two cars to the park, drop one off and return to our launch point. Once at Negwegon we investigated the landing point, looked for unique landmarks so we could find identify the landing point from the water. I realized a bit late that I had a hand-held GPS back at camp. We marked our landing with a six-foot long log that we placed stuck vertically in the sand. We figured that we could see this along with recognizing the cove.

We drove back to camp, loaded our boats, and set off. Shortly after launching, we spotted a bald eagle. It was another perfect day.

The waves were larger today, about two feet and rolling in slowly from the northeast. Since we were headed south, the waves were coming at us from our side. Each wave lifted us up like bobbers. This was initially exciting but after a few times of almost capsizing, the fun was over. We started to tack into the waves for a bit, taking them head on was far more stable but this led us further into the lake and away from shore, so we turned and paddled a zigzag pattern.

We paddled for several hours enjoying the scenery between waves. Lake Huron is crystal clear. This section is dotted with huge boulders lying on the lake bottom. Some so large that they are exposed above the water. Others however lie just below the surface posing a hazard as the waves rise and fall they appear and disappear. Running into one of these can easily capsize you. After playing dodge-em with boulders and skirting waves for a few hours, we landed on shore for had lunch. We became a bit concerned that we had not yet reached our destination and wondered if by chance we went too far. We did some exploring on shore and discovered that we were on the northern boundary of the state park. We continued for about another 45 minutes and finally found our landing point.

In retrospect, we very lucky. After the trip, I realized the mistakes we made and that it could have turned out far differently.

The boats we rented really were not meant for what we were doing. They were recreational boats not meant for rougher conditions but we didn't realize this fact. We came close on several occasions but we remained blissfully ignorant. We were lucky. Had the seas been rougher, our boats would have easily been swamped.

Recreational boats differ from Sea Kayaks in that their hull is mostly broad and flat designed for flat, calm water. A sea kayak is longer and narrower with a "V" shaped hull that is designed to cut into waves and stay upright. This is known a secondary stability. Primary stability is the solid feeling that beginners find comforting and is built into recreational kayaks. Typically, sea kayaks have less primary stability and more secondary. This tends to make them feel tippy but they are in fact quite sea worthy, far more than recreational boats. The broad and flat hull of a recreational kayak makes it feel very stable but if waves are encountered, the broad, flat hull will ride up on the wave and if the wave is encountered from the side, the boat can tip over.

Recreational kayaks typically are not designed for spray skirts. Spray skirts are meant to cover the cockpit preventing water from entering. Without this protection, sea kayaks wouldn't be able to venture out in anything but calm seas. Spray skirts can also help prevent hypothermia by keep cold water off your body. Luckily, on this trip the water was quite warm, the air temperature was in the upper 80's and risk of hypothermia this day was minimal.

Collectively we had many years of backcountry experience but for some reason we took this trip far too casually. Safety was not on our radar.

Sometimes groups, for various reasons, do not think as clearly or logically as an individual. This is known as Groupthink. This can lead to underestimating or minimizing the dangers or a situation.

While we had life jackets or Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs), and we did wear them, we did not however have bilge pumps to bail water that entered the boats though. While we had a GPS, we didn't plan to use it although we realized this mistake right away. We did have a map and compass. The GPS would have made it far easier to find our landing point but one should never rely on GPS alone. Knowing how to navigate with compass and charts is a safety essential skill that is overlooked by far too many people. We also lacked signaling and communication devices like a VHF marine radio. We also lacked tow belts or any other means to tow another paddler had an event occurred.

Researching your trip and planning for any possible scenario should be an automatic behavior for any venturing onto the water or taking backcountry trips. Checklists are easy way to help prevent oversights in equipment as well as spurring you to think about possible situations that you might encounter. Even better when traveling in groups be sure to review checklists with the other crew members. Also, seek local knowledge. The information you can get from local outfitters, retailers, and even bait shops can be invaluable. Look for facts rather than opinions; be sure to temper this knowledge with context of the trip.


Ossineke State Forest Campground

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Michigan Islands National Wildlife Refuge

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