LAKE MICHIGAN 2021
My Fifth Time Crossing And Birthday Celebration
BEST PADDLING CONDITIONS • RECORDS ARE SHATTERED
THE NIGHT BEFORE
With every Lake Michigan crossing, I visit Point Beach State Forest the night before to take in the view and get my game face on. With the moderate winds having not yet pushed through, I take a little more time watching the white caps crash on shore. It is a healthy reminder to never take the power of our Great Lakes for granted. Before I leave, more than once, I get on my knees to give prayer and ask for safe passage.
This crossing will be like no other. Certain it will be my last, this trip is all about taking in the views and embracing the journey. I don’t give too much thought of setting a personal record for speed. To celebrate this grand finale, I bring with me the partial remains of my parents. I think, “How special it will be to share this grand adventure with mom and dad.”
It will make for interesting conversation along the way as I imagine my mother’s disapproval and dad’s apprehension.I think, "How special it will be to share this grand adventure with mom and dad."
IT'S A LAUNCH
With my bright red open sea kayak packed and partial remains of my mother and father carefully placed under my seat, I launch at 6:10 AM on what is expected to be my last Great Lakes crossing.
A minute later, having passed through Lake Michigan’s tricky shallows and crashing waves, I stop to pause. I think to myself, “How lucky am I to have the opportunity and good health to set out and achieve something that no one else has before, to make claim as being the ‘first ever.’”
Having reset expectations about paddling across our Great Lakes, I wonder how long will it be before someone else attempts the same. I think about the memories made and shared, and the stories my children and grandchildren will tell. I can’t help but feel a little proud about what I am about to achieve.
Who would have thought, what began as a weekend hobby for summer fun on the local lake, would evolve into an obsession of continuously seeking new adventure and greater personal challenge. At the end of this season, my sixth, I will have paddled 6,000 miles on many of our country’s most scenic rivers, bays, and Great Lakes. This distance is equivalent to that from Minneapolis to Japan. If you reference Hawaii, you must travel another 2,000 miles.
NNE WINDS CHALLENGE MY SENSE OF DIRECTION
The trip goes much as expected. The only surprise is my being challenged by NNE winds for the fist time, and an unrelenting lake that pushes me north and well off course. With the only thought being to enjoy this last grand adventure, I simply focus on keeping my kayak upright and pointed SSE 104º.
Because of the overcast conditions and the lake taking on the colors of the sky, for quite awhile there is nothing to view but a blanket of monochromatic gray. I find myself often staring at my compass as there is little else to hold my interest.
Remaining true to plan, every hour I stop to rest, drink and snack, to avoid dehydration and fend off fatigue. Over the first two hours I am making rapid progress. At 8:15 AM it begins to rain and the temperature quickly drops. I worry, “Will I face the same type of pounding deluge with strong gusts of wind as I experienced in Michigan two weeks ago?”
FATIGUE SOON SETS IN
With the high humidity, my core heating up, and strain on my arms, I am forced to pull back and give up any thought of a record pace. I take a reading of my position and discover I am well off course. If I continue in this direction I will land 16 miles north in Manistee.
I can’t help but get excited and pick up my pace.
I later learn when I crossed the Wisconsin and Michigan state border, I was four miles north of my desired course. I had journeyed further off course than ever before. Despite the favorable NNE winds, the undertow of the lake had overpowered me. It’s another reminder, “Never underestimate the power of the lake.“
To adjust for being so far off course and tired, I reset my compass reading to SSE 120º and focus on; improving my stroke, moving my source of power to my abs, and relaxing my grip on my paddle. I now expect to finish sometime after 14 hours and before sunset.
CHASING A PERSONAL BEST
It’s time to pause, refresh, and take a reading on MapQuest. Having slowed my pace, I wonder how much my progress has been effected. To my surprise, it appears I haven’t lost any time at all. I estimate my distance and begin thinking I may come close to matching my personal best time of 13.25 hours, maybe even beat it.
Before I get too excited I search for any sign of Michigan, my home state. The first sight is often the sand dunes just south of Big Sable Lighthouse. When I see them I know I’m about four hours out. Sadly, I don’t see any sign of Michigan the time, I suspect the sand dunes are hidden by low hanging clouds.
But, with a little sense of optimism I pick up my pace.
PUSHED TO NEAR FATIGUE
Having paddled for more than 10 hours on this hot and humid day, I have worked up a heavy sweat and drank over 120 ounces of water. With the occasional cramping of my abs, I know I haven’t been drinking enough. I dip into the lake to fill up another bottle with Pure Michigan water.
There are other warning signs that I have pushed myself to the limit.
I am struggling with basic math as I try calculating distance and time, to estimate my ETA. With the change in time zones, it's adding another layer of complexity that’s challenging me. I know I shouldn’t have, but I traded out a couple of scheduled heavy meals with quick snacks. I thought I could get away with it and at the time the thought of consuming warm food didn’t set well.
It is close to 6 PM ET. My progress is much better than I thought, far better in fact. If I dig deep and push hard, I have a reasonable chance of finishing by 8 PM ET. This will give me a record sub 13-hour time!
Looking above, I reach out to my best friend Jack and brother John again. I tell them, “Let’s do it! Let’s get at it.” I think of my grandparents and dear friend Pamela, I know they’re watching and will be cheering me on too.
PUSHING FOR A NEW PERSONAL BEST
On my final Lake Michigan crossing and 60th birthday, I am determined to finish with a personal best time. Before I begin my two-hour sprint, I take my mandatory break to generously hydrate and have a hearty snack. With a focus on working my abs, keeping a relaxed grip, and taking long deep breaths, it’s a go!
While pushing as hard as I can, I scan the shoreline north and south looking for Great Lakes freighters that I may have to navigate around. It’s the first Lake Michigan crossing where I haven’t seen any freighters. While it’s a relief to not have to worry, I miss seeing them.
An hour later I take my last mandatory break. It’s a bit shorter this time as I am trying to squeeze out every minute. It’s difficult to estimate distance on the lake, but I am still thinking of a sub 13-hour time. I dig deep, push hard, then call out above for support. Every minute Big Sable appears larger. While there remains incredible lake views to take in, I am super focused on Big Sable and achieving a new personal best.
Coming from a WNW direction and with Big Sable just in front of me, I glance down at my watch. It is clear, I won’t be finishing before 8 PM ET. I am disappointed and reset my goal to finish before 8:10 PM, the 13-hour mark. I dig deeper, and sadly this too slips by.
THE FINAL STRETCH
As I continue my sprint toward Big Sable, I watch the path of the fishing boat coming from my right. So fatigued, I struggle to determine if we each maintain our course, will we collide?
We’re so close, the captain and I have made eye contact. His lines are out and I am racing to finish my Lake Michigan crossing. I know he has the right of way, but I am determined. I am hopeful and think there may not be any need for either of us to change speed or direction.
I am wrong.
I lean forward, dig deeper, paddle a little quicker, doing all that I can to muster additional speed. I can tell it’s not going to enough. While keeping an eye on the captain and his boat, I make a slight turn north to create additional separation. It’s not enough. The captain makes a slight course correction toward shore, enough to be certain that we don’t collide.
Too tired to think about anything other than finishing quickly, I sheepishly give him a quick nod and smile, then push forward toward Big Sable. With every paddle she grows incrementally in size. How I love this lighthouse!
LAKE MICHIGAN RECORDS AND INSIGHTS
While there is no central source keeping records of Lake Michigan solo paddle crossings, I believe I hold several:
Lake Michigan Records
The Four Parts of a Great Lakes Paddle
Part 1: Fresh, excited, optimistic.
Part 2: The realization of the strength and endurance needed sets it.
Part 3: The strain of the journey hits you. You wonder, “What am I thinking?”
Part 4: With the end in sight, spirits are lifted.
Thoughts after Finishing
The moment of: So tired, you swear never again.
Days later: You think of the excitement and accomplishment, and the possibility of another.
For insights on how to prepare for your Great Lakes crossing, click here.
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Subjects of Interest
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• Crossing Lake Michigan #1 - 2016
• Crossing Lake Michigan #2 - 7.24.20
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• Crossing Lake Michigan #4 - 6.27.21
• Crossing Lake Michigan #5 - 7.13.21
• Crossing Lake Superior - 2017
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• 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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