LAKE MICHIGAN 2021
My Third Crossing
I arrive at Wisconsin’s Point State Park Beach Thursday evening. With the sun setting behind me. I walk below Rawley Point Lighthouse to check out the beach and lake conditions, and get my game face on.
The first thing I notice is how calm the lake is compared to last year. It’s a good sign and helps put me at ease as I am about to make a record setting third solo paddle across Lake Michigan. I’m quite sure, other than me, no one has done it twice. Certainly, no one has done it three times.
But, my goal is much bigger this year. It is my plan to cross Lake Michigan three times this season alone, shattering my own personal record and resetting expectations about cross lake journeys.
In the back of my mind I can’t help but think, “How cool this is, to have the health, means and opportunity to set out and achieve something no one else has?” And to create the memories and stories my seven year old granddaughter will tell her children, and grandchildren.
THE FORECAST IS NEAR PERFECT
The conditions for tomorrow are near perfect for a solo paddle across Lake Michigan. The wind is forecasted to be in the single digits and peaking at 8 mph, with waves no greater than one foot.
To save time and prepare for an early start, I camp out in my car at Wisconsin's Point Beach State Forest just 100 hundred yards north from Rawley Point Lighthouse.
IT’S A RESTLESS NIGHT
Just before 5AM I am awakened by a phone alert. Samsung sends me an autogenerated message telling me to immediately unplug my phone to avoid possible moisture damage. I’m surprised as I am simply charging my phone in my car. But, it’s alright. With my phone charged at 86% and set on airplane mode, I will be fine for today’s trip across Lake Michigan.
It’s time to get up anyway as it was a restless night. I tossed and turned as I couldn’t stop thinking about the challenge ahead and my air mattress when flat. It was an uncomfortable night’s rest and laying around any longer is just wasting time. It’s time to go!
After struggling to free myself from my mummy shaped down sleeping bag, I look over the driver’s side seat to take a peek at the lake. The pathway carved through the sand dune and early rising sun reveals the lake is calm.
As I pour myself out of my car, there is a growing number of early morning risers coming to view another spectacular Lake Michigan sunrise. I decide to join them, walk the beach and take in the view of this vast blue sea and this morning’s brilliant red and orange sunrise.
I place my phone, now a makeshift compass, on my skirt to see if using it is even possible. Surprisingly, I think, “This may work!” The challenge will be to keep my phone from sliding on my skirt so I can quickly focus on my directional reading of ESE 104º.
Even on calm days like today, this is going to be difficult at best.
I give it more thought, “I have always wanted to learn to navigate by using the sun and stars. This could be that opportunity. What could possibly go wrong?”
Despite my not liking my answer and against reasonable judgement, I decide to launch.
IT’S A GO AND NO TURNING BACK NOW
I am excited about today’s challenge with the added twist of having poor navigational tools.
With a push off the beach I smoothly launch onto Lake Michigan and embark on my record setting journey. I am all fired up. The excitement, my confidence in my paddling skill, and early season training overshadows the known risks.
It isn’t long before I realize how foolish my decision is. My phone, makeshift compass, is slipping all over my skirt and I find it difficult to quickly find my desired ESE 104º reading. With my head is bobbing up and down trying to focus on the view and my compass reading, It is becoming a miserable experience. I just can’t to do this for another 14 to 15 hours.
I soon develop a rhythm where every 20 seconds I paddle, I skip a stroke to click on my screen to keep it from going dark, then check to make sure I remain headed in the correct direction. I tell myself, "I must find be a better to make this a pleasant journey."
NAVIGATING BY THE SUN
Leaning into my Boy Scout skills, I begin thinking about how to use the sun and its reflection on the water for guidance. By referencing my compass reading, I learn if I keep the sun’s view above and slightly to my left, it will keep me on my desired course. For the next hour I test my theory, recalibrating every 20 minutes and adjust as needed.
It’s working remarkably well, allowing me to enjoy the view and my paddling journey.
A CALM SETTLES IN
With the water calm and knowing I am well on my way and headed safely toward Michigan, I begin to take in the full beauty of the journey. The views are breathtaking. At times, the blue water takes on the blueness of the sky and becomes nearly impossible to discern the difference. With no clouds above it creates an endless panorama of brilliant blue.
As expected, the sun is hot and with very little wind I am working up a full sweat. To avoid dehydration and risk exhaustion, every hour I stop to hydrate and snack. Every three hours I have a meal.
SETTING A NEW COURSE
In the distance I spot the first sign of something other than a different shade of blue. It appears to be a billowy cloud bank and I guess its running along Michigan’s west shore. I don’t remember being so excited to see clouds before.
Looking down to my compass I project my desired direction and select a discernible shape in the clouds ahead. I decide to paddle toward a v-shape break, similar to what you find at the end of a rifle. It allows me to again refocus on the incredible views and take in this wondrous trip with much less worry.
I have no other choice than to continue on until I find a break of clean water. But, if I don’t come across clean water soon I will have to try my luck dipping into this rich microbial field.
At a moment of near desperation a clean patch of water suddenly appears. I paddle towards its center then dip an empty bottle into the lake and raise it above to admire its clarity. The water is pure, Michigan Pure. The refreshing cool drink goes down wonderfully well. Before I continue I fill both bottles.
SHARING THE LAKE
Every hour I recheck my compass reading then select a new shape in the distance clouds to remain on course. I can’t help but marvel at the views all around and give thanks for the fine weather and lake conditions. Of all my Great Lakes adventures, this is turning out to be among my most favorite.
Looking over the horizon I spot a fresh water freighter. It’s too early to tell which direction it’s headed and I wonder if we may cross paths.
After a while it is clear the freighter is heading south toward either Ludington, Muskegon, or further south around the lake to Gary or even Chicago. I am heading east toward the freighter, but certain it will pass well ahead of me and out of danger. But, I wonder if I will be paddling over its trailing wake?
A half hour later I spot a collection of something white in the distance. It’s too far away to tell if it’s a group of fishing boats, possibly wildlife, or something else. But, what’s odd is that it’s so far off shore.
THE END IS IN SIGHT
The horizon begins to take shape and my heart begins to race.
It’s hard to judge distance over the water. But, I am thinking I am on pace to set a personal record for speed. I would love to cross the lake in under 15 hours. Feeling optimistic, I pick up my pace and about the same time I notice a solitary white manmade object. I am certain this is Big Sable Point Lighthouse, my final destination.
I look down and take another compass reading, then pull up Google Maps to estimate its distance. The good news is, it is the lighthouse. The bad news is, I have veered well off course and coming in from the northwest. Apparently, my navigating via the sun and clouds has set off zig zagging across the lake.
I haven’t given up hope for a personal best time, but wonder how much further ahead I would be if I had a better read on direction and taken a more direct route.
The sun begins to set behind me and the sky takes on a different color. The clouds are turning different shades of brilliant blue, pink and purple. The reflections on the open water make it all the more spectacular and I am the only one experiencing this incredible beauty and solitude. I am truly blessed.
As the sun continues to drop I look around and take in the incredible display of color. When I look back I am finding it difficult to find Big Sable. I discover by referencing the cloud bank to the south, raising up my right fist and positioning it just to the left, the lighthouse stands just below and to the left. It works every time.
With no one around and no sound other than the gentle splashing of my paddling penetrating the lake, I look up to heaven and achieve a special closeness to God. It is here where the phrase that I often hear, “There are a thousand angels looking over you,” comes to realization.
It is here when I achieve an incredible sense of peace while feeling the weight of what feels like many around me. At times, the likeness my parents, grandparents and brother is so vivid and clear, it feels so real. It is for this reason I am so eager to return for another Great Lake nighttime adventure, to experience something so surreal and otherwise not possible.
A NEAR COLLISION
With Big Sable Lighthouse straight ahead and not far, I look down to make sure everything is properly packed away. I then quickly pick up my speed to prepare for a landing on the gradual sandy beach. I look up and to my surprise, the combination my headlight and the lighthouse’s backlight, reveals the impenetrable steel wall protecting Big Sable. Just as quickly, I reverse paddle to slow my momentum and escape a certain disaster of a head-on collision.
How embarrassing would that be to cross Lake Michigan to only crash into Big Sable’s retaining wall then spill into the cold water of Lake Michigan?
After catching my breath and collecting my nerves, I paddle to my right just south of Big Sable where I find the sandy beach I will call home for the night. It takes me 15.4 hours to complete my third solo paddle across Lake Michigan.
After pouring out of my kayak, working through the sharp pain in my lower back, I unpack my clothes, sleeping bag, leaking air mattress, toiletries and other gear. I attempt to quickly remove my sweat soaked neoprene top, pants and shoes. It proves to be a greater struggle than I had hoped, but I eventually prevail.
With every grand adventure you must be able to overcome the unexpected. It may be bad weather, equipment failure, fatigue, injury, self-doubt, or other. On this trip, my challenge was to navigate without the use of my kayak's compass.
By using a downloaded app (compass) on my phone I was able to set out on course, learn to use the sun as guidance, then reference a distinct shape in a distant cloud bank, until I found a trusted Michigan landmark.
While I zig zagged my way across the lake, I finished at the specific location I had originally set out for.
Paddling our Major Tributaries
• Rum River 2017
• Rum River 2019
• Cannon River
• Superior Bay
• Upper St. Croix
• Headwaters of the Mississippi
• Namekagon River
• Kalamazoo River
Top Stops and Events
• Lower St. Croix - Taylors Falls, MN
• Lake Pepin and Lake City, MN
• Lake Hamlin, MI
• St. Paul, MN and Raspberry Island
• Stillwater, MN
• Tall Ships Duluth Festival
Subjects of Interest
• The Joy of the Journey
• Overhanging Branches
• Best of All It's Fall
• Get Off the River!
• Michigan's Prized Grand River
• Crossing Lake Huron
• Straits of Mackinac
• Crossing Lake Michigan #1 - 2016
• Crossing Lake Michigan #2 - 7.24.20
• Crossing Lake Michigan #3 - 6.11.21
• Crossing Lake Michigan #4 - 6.27.21
• Crossing Lake Michigan #5 - 7.13.21
• Crossing Lake Superior - 2017
• Campus to Coast - A 150 Mile Race
• Paddling the Pere Marquette
• ABC NEWS: Avid Kayaker Brushes Death
• The Whole Story
• A Narrow Escape
• A Wonderful Journey
• More about Mike Stout
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