There are those moments when the Great Lakes are sleeping giants. A stillness settles in and the water becomes smooth as mercury with barely a ripple. So it was as Andrea and I slipped the kayak into Lake Michigan. The morning fog was thick on the lake but low to the water. The shoreline blended into the mists behind us as we paddled out and followed our guide Rachel south along the shore of Wisconsin’s Door County.
We were traveling in a two-person sea kayak which gave us more stability than the shorter craft I had at home. This was my first time using a kayak with a rudder. Steering is done with the feet, and once I started paddling, the two tasks in combination seemed a bit like rubbing one’s belly and patting one’s head at the same time. It took a short while to adjust to the task and the rudder actually made steering far quicker and easier.
Our route, which we had discussed with Rachel over a map back at Door County Outpost, would take us past two of the most attractive points in the peninsula: Whitefish Dunes and Cave Point. The weather was cooperating but the lake was already waking up, stretching in gentle swells.
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The caves are the handiwork of millennia of the lake’s less gentle moods. The dolomite rock of the Door County peninsula was formed 410 million years ago by accumulating deposits of plants, animals and calcareous sands when this area rested under a warm sea somewhere near the equator. The advance and retreat of glaciers during the Ice Age—the same glaciers that formed the Great Lakes—removed the softer rock covering the dolomite, leaving this exposed to the more patient carving of the waves and the wedge work of expanding ice in the cracks during winter.
This section of shoreline was our first choice for the day, but as the weather can change suddenly, one needs to be flexible. Door County, fortunately, offers many good backup plans. If Lake Michigan is rough, the drive to the Green Bay side is short and towering bluffs there are especially nice viewing toward sunset. If the winds are too much, Clark and Kangaroo Lakes offer some sheltered paddling and a good chance to see wildlife. In fact, the over 300 miles of shoreline sometimes make it easy to overlook the abundance and beauty of the streams, small lakes and freshwater estuaries.
Cave Point shows a roughly 15-20 foot high jagged edge to the lake with hollowed out areas along the length of it, some of them large enough for a kayak. Rachel first demonstrated how to back into an opening and hold a position where the water rebounded from the rock, and then we tried it. The caves are not deep but we bobbed in its shelter, invisible to the frequent visitors to the park and cliff edge above. The rising sun infused an emerald color in the water and deep bass tones surrounded us as the weight of each wave dissipated on the rocks sending up a fine mist. We could have lingered there for an hour.
We didn’t have to paddle far to see a drastic change in the shoreline. Right next to Cave Point is Whitefish Dunes. Just beyond them, farther inland, is Clark Lake, a bay which eventually became closed off by the rising sands of a sandbar combined with a receding waterline. The resulting dunes host a fragile ecosystem and they run alongside one of Wisconsin’s most beautiful sandy beaches.
The fog had burnt off the lake and only wisps of it remained along the sandy shore. The efforts of paddling had taken away the chill coming off the water. Even in July and August – the best time to kayak here – Lake Michigan is cold, and while this can be a relief on a hot day, it can be a problem on a kayak tour. The best advice is to prepare to be wet. It’s best to wear waterproof items or things that dry quickly.
The best time to paddle is usually in the morning when the lake is calmer. But wind direction and temperature are just as important. Door County Kayak Tour employs the “100-degrees rule”: if the water and air temperatures don’t add up to 100, they choose an alternative location.
We continued paddling past the dunes and along the beach that showed some vacation homes. Prior to this the view was nothing but nature. Door County’s numerous state and county parks and other protected lands have done much to preserve the beauty that unchecked tourism development might have squandered, and the view from the water is the best proof.
Just before we arrived at our takeout point, Rachel pulled out her GPS device – not because we were lost, but to locate an elusive shipwreck. The waters around Door County have been the bane of many boats; for kayakers probably the most popular of the unfortunate vessels is the Fleetwing. Sunk in 1888, the schooner rests in 11 to 25 feet of water at the northern tip of the peninsula. We stopped to view the wooden skeleton of a much smaller craft buried in the sand 15 feet below our paddles. This one has no name that anyone remembers.
Our shuttle was waiting when we arrived at the pullout point. As we dragged the kayak onto the sand, I looked back up the shore and realized just how little of the coastline we had seen. Cave Point, as lovely as it is, is really only just the beginning.
If You Go:
Independent kayakers can put in at Schauer Park just north of Cave Point County Park or at the Whitefish Bay boat ramp just south of Whitefish Dunes State Park. Check out the Bicycle and Silent Sport Map on www.doorcounty.com for more places to launch a kayak.
For kayak rentals or guided excursions:
Door County Kayak Tours
Tours begin at the Door County Outpost
4690 Rainbow Ridge Ct (off Highway 42)
Egg Harbor, WI 54209
Standard tours of 3-4 hours (morning, afternoon, sunset) are $48 per person.
Minimum guide ratio is 1 for every 6 kayaks.
Bay Shore Outdoor Store
2457 S. Bay Shore Drive
State Highway 42
Sister Bay, WI 54234
Reservations in advance are recommended, though not required.
While you’re in Door County, check out a traditional fish boil.