A Record Shattering Fifth Lake Michigan Solo Paddle Crossing
- Everything came together on my seventh and final Great Lakes crossing -
- Complete three crossings during a single season: June 10, 27, July 13 (33 days)
- Complete four crossings in less than 1-year.
- Cross a total five times (’16, ’20, ’21 (3))
When crossing our Great Lakes I look for conditions where the winds are in the single digits and the lake is expected to be relatively calm. Having been watching long-term weather forecasts, Tuesday suddenly opens up and meets all my predefined ‘go’ parameters. I can’t pass up this window of good weather. I think to myself, “What a great way to celebrate my birthday and my final Great Lakes crossing. I will never forget what I did on my 60th!”
THE NIGHT BEFORE
With every Lake Michigan crossing, I visit Wisconsin’s 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.
Certain it will be my last, this trip is all about taking in the views and enjoying the journey. I don’t give 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. “Well, on this trip, there isn’t much they can say or do,” I tell myself jokingly
THE MORNING COMES QUICKLY
It is a restless night with the thought of the next day looming over me. At just past 4 AM, the best I can do is shift my weight while I imagine there being a chance for a little more sleep. At about 4:30 AM I give in to my excitement and begin to prepare for launch.
The forecast was correct, cloudy with a chance for rain. This morning there are no bright colors from a rising sun and the sound of rain hitting my car tells me it’s going to be a cold, wet start. I walk the beach and look over the horizon for clues about the day. As expected, the lake is calm and the sky is solid gray as far as I can see.
With the threat of rain, it is best I dress warmly to avoid having to fend off a cold wet chill. I will be wearing my 1.5 ml neoprene top and pants, and 3.0 ml booties. I was hoping to wear a lighter top as the temperature is expected to reach the low-to-mid 70s. I am a little worried as I know how hot I get when wearing my wetsuit and paddling tens of thousands of strokes when it’s warm, and having to manage the unpredictability of the lake.
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 onto Lake Michigan and what I expect will be my last Great Lakes crossing.
A minute later, having passed through the lake’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 ever done before. I can make claim as being the ‘first ever.’”
I take a deep breath, look above and give thanks, then tell mom and dad, “Let’s go!” As expected, their response is less than enthusiastic. Mom is not happy. LOL.
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 first 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.
Keeping 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?”
Around 10:10 AM the wind picks up, but remains within my desired range. When I pause, I am surprised by how quickly my kayak spins around and points nearly due north. It seems odd as the wind is still coming from the NNE. I don’t give it much thought, but I am puzzled.
MY PACE IS QUICKER THAN I THINK
When I stop to rest at 11:10 AM I pull up MapQuest to get a reading of my location. I notice that I am much further along than I thought. If I continue at this pace, I should reach the imaginary Wisconsin and Michigan state line after paddling only six hours. At this pace I will make it across in a record 12 hours!
I can’t help but get excited and pick up my pace.
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 too far north and in Manistee.
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 am thinking I will finish sometime after 14 hours and just before sunset.
MY SPIRIT IS LIFTED
At around 2 PM the thick gray sky begins to breakup. The bright shades of blue are a welcomed change and the distant cloud bank along Michigan’s shore gives me a sense of optimism. Instead of focusing on my compass, I select a distinct shape in the clouds to set direction and take in the panoramic views of this awesome, beautiful Great Lake.
It is this that draws me back to crossing our Great Lakes, the beauty, serenity, solitude, grand adventure, sense of accomplishment, and the closeness I feel to others and God.
With my spirit lifted, I look up to give thanks again for remarkable day and life. I imagine seeing the faces of family and dear friends, as I know they’re watching and wondering. I continue talking to mom and dad. Mom remains unhappy and dad continues trying to deflect any responsibility. I can’t help but smile.
I look around and am in awe of the breathtaking view. I am surrounded by an endless, awesome, open sea. It's spectacular, and I wish others could experience what I see.
CHASING A POSSIBLE 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.
With a little sense of optimism I pick up my pace.
THE FIRST SIGHT OF MICHIGAN
A little later I spot the discernible color of Michigan’s sandy shoreline. Instinctively, I give out a loud shout of joy, then look up and call on my life-long best friend Jack for encouragement, then my brother for even more support.
With my thoughts on those above, I imagine the faces of and begin talking to my grandparents, and long-time friend and personal confidant Pamela. Sadly, she also died this past year and just a couple of weeks after my best friend Jack.
With support of family and friends above, and mom and dad with me, my spirits are lifted and energy strengthens. Feeling hopeful and checking my watch for time, I am now almost certain I have a chance of setting a new personal best for speed.
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 struggle with basic math as I try calculating distance and time, to estimate my ETA. With the change in time zones, it adds 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.
I am now being punished with a diminished capacity to think clearly.
BIG SABLE LIGHTHOUSE IS IN SIGHT
At about twelve miles out I expect to see Ludington’s black and white striped Big Sable Lighthouse. While I am surrounded by an incredible lake view that I may never see again, I can’t help but keep my eyes lock toward shore in hopes of seeing Big Sable.
Then, aways in front of me I spot a small, gray, vertical landmark. Just as quickly it disappears. Certain it‘s Big Sable I keep looking toward its approximate location. It momentarily appears, then disappears again. I tell myself, ”There is nothing else of this shape along this section of Michigan’s shoreline. It must be Big Sable.”
With a laser focus on the area ahead, I spot this distinctive shape again and am able to confirm, it’s Big Sable! I let out a shout of joy and pump my fist. The finish is in sight.
It is close to 6 PM ET. My progress is much better than I thought, far better in fact.
PUSHING FOR A NEW PERSONAL BEST
On my final Lake Michigan crossing and 60th birthday, I am now 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 is 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 deeper, push harder, 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 setting a new record time.
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 fishing 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 a 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 is still 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 my 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!
A GRAND FINISH
At 8:18 PM ET, I complete my fifth and final Lake Michigan crossing in 13 hours and 8 minutes. This is 17 minutes better than my prior best time. Having just completed my goal of being the first to complete an in-season three-peat, I am feeling prideful, relieved, and content.
As I glide toward shore, where I plan to set camp for the night, I make a final sprint to drive my kayak up on the sandy beach. As I near, I can tell the beach’s slope is much steeper than I thought. I can tell it will be too risky to safely exit. Too late to change course, I plow forward to only confirm.
Lodged on the beach, I assess my options. Too tired to paddle the short distance to my right where there is clearly a much better area to exit the lake, I decide to back paddle, turn my kayak sideways, and let the lake gently push me parallel against the shore.
Although I know this is not the best option, as it does nothing to eliminate the steep slope and my likely spilling into the lake, I continue on anyway.
With my kayak pushed sideways up against the beach and paddle stuck deeply into the sand acting as a brace, I attempt my exit. With my aching stiff body and kayak perilously positioned on edge, I know my fate. Too tired or too stubborn to change, I begin my exit. As expected, before I’m even able to remove both legs from under the cockpit, I find myself flailing into cold Lake Michigan.
Naturally, the first thing I do is quickly stand up and look around to see if anyone saw my weak attempt at a landing and even more pathetic spill. No one saw me. My fragile ego remains intact as no one will ever know.
With Big Sable Lighthouse behind me and just over the grassy hill, I take a deep breath and take in what I just accomplished. I will never forget how I finished my final Great Lakes crossing and what I did on my 60th birthday. It was an amazing, record setting, grand finale.
THERE REMAINS ONE MORE THING TO DO IT’S A TEARFUL FAREWELL
The next evening, on a breezy Wednesday night with light rain, under the cover of an umbrella I walk the half mile pier leading to Ludington’s North Breakwater Light. With my parents’ ashes in my hand, it will be a solemn moment.
I approach the breakwater light, the rain has lifted and all that remains is a cool summer breeze. I make my way to the other side of the light where I am alone. I look over the horizon and take in the incredible view and vastness of Lake Michigan.
I look down and watch the clear, dark water crash against the pier. As I think about what I just accomplished, the lake’s strength and power shakes me to my core. I take a step back and catch my breath. After collecting my nerves, I look up and give thanks for having safely made it across this incredible lake five times and made seven Great Lakes crossings in total. I can’t help but think, “How lucky am I?”
As I give prayer the tears begin to flow. With no one around I begin to share my thoughts out loud. With a gentle toss, I release my parents’ ashes into the lake. I watch Lake Michigan’s powerful, crashing waves accept them with a surprising gentle ease. As the waves churn and ashes slowly disperse, my tears freely flow down my cheeks.
I stand there still, unaware of anyone or anything around me, and watch until their ashes disappear. All I see is the reflection of light coming from the setting sun above. I tell them I love them, and once again say good-bye.
Since I began paddling just over five years ago, I have logged over 5,500 miles. The distance paddled is equivalent to that from the Twin Cities to Japan. If you reference Hawaii, you would have to travel another 1,500 miles.
If you would like to read more about my Great Lakes crossings and other grand adventures, please visit: www.thenorthlandadventurer.com. I hope my stories and photography inspire adventure in you.
Mike Stout aka The Lake Rider