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  • Michigan’s Keweenaw Water Trail is a designated route established in 1995 for paddlers of sea kayaks and canoes. Nicknamed “A Superior Sports Port” by National Geographic Adventure Magazine, the Water Trail exemplifies the Keweenaw Peninsula in the most literal sense. The Keweenaw offers a rugged coastline that competes with that of the legendary Isle Royale, only without the ferryboat ride. It highlights a mixture of uninhabited wilderness areas, intermittent parks and nature preserves and sheltered harbors that offer the weary paddler the option for a hot meal, a hot shower or lodging at a comfy inn.

    The Keweenaw Water Trail is unique because it allows the ability to paddle a loop and return to your point of origin without having to backtrack. There is no need for two vehicles or shuttles for those paddling the entire route. The Keweenaw paddler can be totally self-sufficient. The entire route can be covered by the average paddler in 6 to 8 days, but you should allow a few extra days in your itinerary to compensate for being wind-bound.

    Gradually becoming more discovered, the Keweenaw Water Trail likely soon will be Michigan’s top paddling destination. In addition to doing the entire circumnavigation of the “Copper Island”, it provides plenty of opportunity for shorter overnights or day trips without compromising either scenery or safety.

    Copper Harbor is situated on the peninsula’s northern-most end and neighbors a good amount of undeveloped conservancy land, most of which is open for “Leave No Trace” primitive camping. This includes a 12-mile stretch of Lake Superior shoreline that was acquired by the State of Michigan in 2002 as a part of over 8000 acres, now in a state forest designation. A 25-mile expedition from Copper Harbor around the tip of the peninsula to Bete Gris showcases some of the peninsulas most scenic and rugged shoreline. This route is recommended only for experienced paddlers as the exposed shoreline is often uncompromising, sometimes with limited landing sites. This paddle, however, highlights sea stacks, giant and beautifully colored slabs of sedimentary rock below the surface of the gin-clear water, cliffs, waterfalls and a number of small arches and sea caves.

    Much of the mining and maritime history along the route gives an illustration of the significance that marine transportation once had during the copper boom days and help to tell the story of the Keweenaw. A few shipwrecks on shallow reefs are visible to paddlers, although many more lurk in the depths below. The remnants of old docks, a historic fishery, campsites visited by the Voyagers and copper smelters along the industrialized segment of the Portage Canal are visible along the route. Keweenaw County is home to more lighthouses than any other county in Michigan and include the historic Copper Harbor and Eagle Harbor lights, both of which are open for paddlers to explore while taking a break.

    The many moods of Lake Superior can change in short order. Although the Keweenaw receives a strong signal from NOAA weather radio at 162.4 Mhz – channel 2, paddlers need to be aware of strong winds that can arise with no forewarning. Additionally, quick moving thunderstorms can combine with heavy rain, lightning and/or high winds producing quick-brewed waves. Paddlers should be familiar with potential landing sites along the route as steep, rocky shorelines or cliffs and private property issues can be encountered. Cold water temperatures cool the air in the summer and a 10-degree temperature difference from the inland temperature and should be expected.

    Hypothermia and cold water immersion is the number one hazard for paddlers on Lake Superior. Water temperatures even during a hot day in August average only in the low to mid 50’s and the Lake is colder than that during most paddling season. The cold water creates even more of a need to wear a life vest (PFD) as the frigid water can quickly deplete motor skills if immersed in the event of a capsize. Most paddlers wear wetsuits for added protection. Paddlers should be competent with their rescue skills, familiar with the use of safety and signaling devices and know their abilities and limitations before venturing out of protected areas.

    Much of the Keweenaw’s shoreline not owned by the State is either in private conservancy land or is registered as Commercial Forest Reserve (CFR) land. This land is valuable to the owners and their generosity should not be infringed upon by the negligent use of the land. The Horseshoe Harbor Nature Conservancy Preserve is designated as day use only. Most other areas that are not posted are open to “Leave No Trace” primitive camping.

    “Leave No Trace” consists of these seven basic principles:

    1. Plan ahead and prepare.

    2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces.

    3. Dispose of waste properly. Pack out what you pack in. Bury human waste at least 100’ from any water source.

    4. Leave what you find….take only pictures, leave only footprints.

    5. Minimize impacts of campfires.

    6. Respect wildlife.

    7. Be considerate of other visitors.

    The practice of these principles in the Keweenaw are important to help to ensure that the land stays in its present status and contributes to the maintenance of a healthy Eco-system.

    Private land is encountered all along the peninsula. Please respect private ownership by not camping without direct permission from the owner and by obeying sign postings. It is recommended that paddlers obtain the official Keweenaw Water Trail Map and camp only at areas that are indicated. Water-proof/tear-proof KWT maps are available in Copper Harbor at the Keweenaw Adventure Company or at the Keweenaw Peninsula Chamber of Commerce in Houghton and the Keweenaw Convention and Visitors Bureau in Calumet for a fee.

    Additionally, the Keweenaw Adventure Company is Copper Harbor’s local guide and outfitter for sea kayak adventures on the Keweenaw Water Trail. They have something for novice and experienced paddlers, although no experience is necessary. They offer a 2.5 hour introduction to kayaking tour 3 times daily in Copper Harbor. They also schedule half day and full day trips that highlight various areas of the Keweenaw. Fully inclusive overnight/ multi-day tours are great for those looking for an extended kayaking adventure along the Water Trail.

    Isle Royale National Park

    While long known for and associated with its superb opportunities for backpacking, Michigan’s only National Park also is recognized to be a world-class destination for paddling. Passenger ferry service is available from Copper Harbor on board the Isle Royale Queen IV and they will transport kayaks and canoes for an additional charge. Nicknamed as the “Emerald Island” the opportunities for paddling on inland lakes and on Lake Superior are numerous.

    The entire island is about 45 miles long by 11 miles at its widest point, running from the southwest to the northeast in Lake Superior. Michigan visitors arrive on the island’s eastern end in Rock Harbor while those coming from Minnesota will land on the western end, in Windigo. This is a designated wilderness area and visitors to the Park are restricted to travel only by foot or by boat. The Voyager II ferryboat will transport paddlers and their boats on a Bi-daily circumnavigation of the entire island, stopping intermittently at points along the way. Rock Harbor, however, is the gateway to some of the best paddling locales on the Island.

    A chain of inland lakes ultimately connect with Lake Superior on the south and the north sides of Isle Royale. This route is Michigan’s best stab at a Boundary Waters experience and its short portages in between are best suited for paddlers of canoes. Several options exist for route selection and (Lake Superior) points of entry. MarCargoe Cove is generally the preferred portal on the Island’s north side and many paddlers either start or finish their journey here, often taking a ride on the Voyager II. Moskey Basin, Chippewa Harbor and Malone Bay are all serviced by the Voyager and are utilized points of entry on the south side. Paddlers may want to visit Ryan Island on Lake Siskiwit along this route. Its claim to fame is being the largest island on the largest lake inside the largest island of the largest freshwater lake in the world!

    Paddling on Lake Superior is typically best suited for sea kayaks. Both the southeast and northeast sides of Isle Royale are a paddler’s paradise with numerous barrier islands and finger-bays to explore. Calm water can often be found within the protected harbors, bays and channels on windy days, although some exposed areas do exist in between. Many campsites in this region are accessible only by water and summertime crowds are lower than at campsites shared with trail accessible sites shared with hikers.

    Special rules exist on the Island. Daily user fees are collected from while on the ferry crossing and a Michigan fishing license is required if putting a line in the water. Leave No Trace low impact camping rules apply and permitted sites for campfires are limited. Although a lodge exists in Rock Harbor, camping is the only real way to get out to see the island. Campers need to be self sufficient, including food, a water filter, stove, warm cloths, sleeping bag, tent, gear and equipment as basic services are provided only in Rock Harbor and in Windigo. The Keweenaw Adventure Company provides fully inclusive, guided sea kayak tours on Isle Royale.

    Keweenaw Lakes

    The many inland lakes of the Keweenaw offer many opportunities for paddling canoes & kayaks in a number of scenic and sheltered locations. Lake Fanny Hooe and Lake Manganese are both located within a mile of the Copper Harbor village limits and often times have placid conditions for a leisurely paddle. A day use permit to launch personal water craft is required for a small fee at the Ft. Wilkins Boat Launch and there is no fee for Lake Manganese paddlers.

    Lake Medora, just four miles south of Copper Harbor, is a Canadian-like lake that has a number of islands, scenic mountain views and is known to have some good fishing. Several of the islands are open to the public, however users need to respect the majority of the shoreline, as it is privately owned. The boat launch is located right along US 41.

    Lac La Belle neighbors Mount Bohemia and is just 15 minutes from Copper Harbor. Lac La Belle is one of the largest inland lakes in the Keweenaw, although it is relatively inhabited with a number of seasonal camps and cottages. A public boat launch is located on the northeast side of the lake and has long been a favorite of fisherman. Lac La Belle is unique in that is connects to Lake Superior and offers boaters access to the BIG LAKE while at the same time providing a harbor of refuge.

    Schlatter’s Lake sits on about eight miles east of Copper Harbor, on the State Forest land near the tip of the peninsula. Paddlers will need a 4-wheel drive vehicle to access its remote locale or be willing to portage for several miles. This uninhabited lake is great for its solitude and its fishing and is known for its island. Primitive camping is allowed on the lake’s shore, although a user permit, available for no fee, must be obtained from Ft. Wilkins State Park. Camping is prohibited on Schlatter’s Island, although day use is permitted.

    Lake Bailey, a.k.a. the “doughnut” lake, is located on M-26 about 10 miles west of Copper Harbor. A public boat launch is on the lake’s eastern end. This lakes shallow and marshy nature is very scenic and a waterfowl haven. The large island on the lake’s center is accessible for day use by the public.

    This section has been contributed by Sam of the Keweenaw Adventure Company. Rent a kayak or take a kayak tour with a company guide.

    Photo - Steve Brimm