Island Hopping on Lake Michigan

This past weekend I paddled and camped a portion of what might one day be America’s newest national park. There’s an effort underway to place The Grand Traverse Islands — — islands and some surrounding mainland from Wisconsin’s Door County to Upper Michigan’s Garden Peninsula — under control of the National Park Service. You can click this link to learn about the proposal and to sign the petition. It’s a worthy idea that would offer new levels of access and protection for this amazingly beautiful part of the world.

My weekend trip began Friday when I drove as far as you can drive in Door County without putting your vehicle on a ferry. I parked in the wooded parking lot at Northport Pier (where the Washington Island Ferry docks), packed my kayak with a weekend of camping and paddling gear and headed east across Death’s Door Passage.

A map of my eastern route around Washington Island to Rock Island.

A map of my eastern route around Washington Island to Rock Island.

At 3-1/2 miles long, Detroit Island is smack dab in your way if you’re attempting the eastern route around Washington Island. You have to choose whether to pass on the west side through the protected waters of Detroit Harbor or take the shorter but exposed crossing around the isolated east end of Detroit Island. I chose the eastern route because the forecast called for calm waters and sunny skies all day.

Before reaching Detroit, my first stop was about 3 miles to the east: Pilot Island. This tiny island was home to a lighthouse and keeper’s residence from 1858 until 1962. Today the island is a protected bird sanctuary. The buildings have been left to decay but efforts are underway by the Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands to restore them. Until the restoration is further along, Pilot Island is not open to visitors so I remained in my kayak.

Pilot Island

Pilot Island

Pilot Island

Pilot Island

I paddled a few hundred feet offshore to a buoy marking the Pilot Island Shipwrecks. The wrecks aren’t visible from the surface because they’re more than 40 feet down so I paddled on, heading 1-1/4 miles northeast to the eastern point of Detroit Island.

Pilot Island shipwrecks buoy

Pilot Island shipwrecks buoy

From there it was another three-mile crossing to the southeast point of Washington Island. By this time I was seven miles into my trip and ready to get out and stretch but I couldn’t find a good spot to land because of the rocky coastline. I pressed on northward to Hog Island. Like Pilot, Hog Island is a bird sanctuary so signs warn you that human visitors are not allowed. I managed to find shallow water outside the posted “no visitors” zone where I could step out of the kayak to stretch and snack. I could see my destination — Rock Island — four miles to the northeast.

Hog Island

Hog Island

After another hour of paddling I arrived at my reserved campsite. Site #19 is one of my favorite campsites anywhere. It’s situated on the island’s southern shoreline atop a 20-foot rocky bluff, so you get great views of the beach, Washington Island. And sunsets.

On the beach near campsite 19.

On the beach near campsite 19.

Sunset as viewed from my campsite on Rock Island.

Sunset as viewed from my campsite on Rock Island.

On Saturday I went on a six-mile hike on the island’s perimeter trail with several sidetrips along the beach. I also stopped at the old water tower and the Pottawotamie Lighthouse, the oldest on Lake Michigan.

The water tower provided both hot and cold running water.

In its day the water tower provided both hot and cold running water.

I was pleased to see an article I was asked to write for the Friends of Rock Island newsletter is now posted on the boat house bulletin board.

I was pleased to see an article I was asked to write for the Friends of Rock Island newsletter is now posted on the boat house bulletin board.

The exquisite ballroom of the Rock Island boat house. Read more about the history of the island in this article by Tim Sweet: http://washingtonisland-wi.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/archive_22_1_rockisland.pdf

The exquisite ballroom of the Rock Island boat house. Read more about the history of the island in this article by Tim Sweet.

Visitor arrive on the Karfi passenger ferry from Washington Island.

Visitors arrive on the Karfi passenger ferry from Washington Island.

Nap time at Rock Island's campsite #19.

Nap time at Rock Island’s campsite #19.

Saturday afternoon I paddled from Rock Island to Jackson Harbor on Washington Island where I met up with fellow kayaker Dan Dallich. We paddled back to the campsite so Dan could set up his tent. We set off on an evening paddle into the the Rock Island boat house and out to the lighthouse. The sunset that evening was one of the most beautiful I have seen from a kayak.

The boat house on Rock Island.

The boat house on Rock Island.

Inside the boat house. Photo by Dan Dallich.

Inside the boat house. Photo by Dan Dallich.

Limestone bluff on the northwest corner of Rock Island. Photo by Dan Dallich.

Limestone bluff on the northwest corner of Rock Island. Photo by Dan Dallich.

The automated light that replaced the Pottawatomie Lighthouse can be seen over the treeline on Rock Island. Photo by Dan Dallich.

The automated light that replaced the Pottawatomie Lighthouse can be seen over the treeline on Rock Island. Photo by Dan Dallich.

The wood staircase leads from the north shore of Rock Island to the Pottawatomie Lighthouse.

The wood staircase leads from the north shore of Rock Island to the Pottawatomie Lighthouse.

Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island is the oldest on Lake Michigan.

Pottawatomie Lighthouse on Rock Island is the oldest on Lake Michigan.

Limestone bluff on the northwest corner of Rock Island

Limestone bluff on the northwest corner of Rock Island

There's no better place to enjoy a sunset than the cockpit of a kayak.

There’s no better place to enjoy a sunset than the cockpit of a kayak. That’s Dan providing the perfect point of interest for my photo.

Photo by Dan Dallich.

Photo by Dan Dallich.

Moonrise over Rocky Island. Photo by Dan Dallich.

Moonrise over Rocky Island. Photo by Dan Dallich.

Moon rising over the boat house.

Moon rising over the boat house.

Sunday morning we packed, paddled to Jackson Harbor, loaded our kayaks onto Dan’s car and drove across Washington Island to board the ferry for the return trip to Northport Pier. It was a great weekend at one of my favorite places in the world.

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