Looking to improve your kayaking skills? Uncommon Adventures offers certified training and themed discovery tours around the state.
By Dianna Stampfler
Kayakers looking to expand their horizons, enhance their paddling skills, and enjoy a multiday nature-based journey will find that Uncommon Adventures in Benzonia provides all that and more.
Michael Gray, considered one of the most experienced kayak guides in the country, has been leading tours and inspiring the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts since founding his company in 1984. Over the past four decades, his exploration trips have taken him to Alaska, Antarctica, Patagonia, New Zealand, Greenland, Iceland, and Central America.
His company also creates tailored sea kayak tours in those countries and others in the winter and summer, as well as guided coastal Great Lakes kayak adventures.
This season, Gray is offering several themed trips around Michigan. The Sleeping Bear Sampler, for example, includes outdoor adventures beginning on Gray’s own property, situated on 40 hardwood acres along the Betsie River, while the Sleeping Bear Camper is geared for families looking to explore the woods and waters.
The Manistee River Camping River Boot Camp provides instruction focused on paddling in flowing waters, as well as the enjoyment of camping out of one’s kayak.
Those wanting a longer trip (a week or more) might like an excursion around Isle Royale in Lake Superior, which start and end in Copper Harbor, located at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. In addition to paddling, participants will head out on day hikes, swim, and cast a line in the hope of landing a trout or two.
The five-day Keweenaw Rock Gardening Trip is for intermediate paddlers looking to elevate their skills while exploring an array of natural environments.
For the Lake Superior tours, Gray advises participants have decent sea-kayaking handling and rescue skills and are able to navigate in 2- to 3-foot seas, with winds of up to 15 knots in open and sometimes rocky spaces, for 12 to 16 miles per day.
While dependent on the weather conditions, the Keweenaw adventure traditionally begins in Lac La Belle on the southeast side of the Keweenaw (an Ojibway word that means “the crossing place” or “land crossing between two bodies of water”), and travels counterclockwise around the tip of the peninsula and west across the north coast. Along the way, paddlers are exposed to picturesque sea caves, sea stacks, rock gardens, waterfalls, and pocket beaches.
Among the first natural wonders participants will see is Montreal Falls, which cascades over a series of ancient volcanic rocks just six miles up the shore from the Mendota (Bete Grise) Lighthouse, near where Lac La Belle flows into Lake Superior. Fish Bay comes next, followed by Peninsula Point — where, if conditions are favorable, there might be a chance to surf the shoal. High Rock Bay, across from Gull Rock Lighthouse and Manitou Island, provides a great stop-off location, just south of an abandoned NASA rocket launch site that operated from 1964 to 1971 (according to a historic marker erected there in 2000).
The north shore is home to Horseshoe Harbor, with its unique rugged bedrock beach comprised of reddish-brown rhyolite pebbles, the volcanic equivalent of granite. It’s part of the 1,200-acre Mary Macdonald Preserve that stretches for five miles along Lake Superior.
Beyond that sits Fort Wilkins Historic State Park, a restored 1844 military outpost, and the historic Copper Harbor Lighthouse, which has guarded the shoreline since 1848. On the east end of Copper Harbor is Hunter’s Point Park, with nearly 5,000 feet of shoreline that’s ideal for rock-hunting, birdwatching, or simply relaxing.
The trip concludes in Agate Harbor (named for the colorful semiprecious mineral rock found here) where bays, inlets, reefs, and islands are open for exploration. Arch Rock, one of the noted geological treasures, is a massive basalt formation that’s the largest span of any arch on the north side of the peninsula.
“The trip opened my eyes to parts of the U.P. that I never knew existed, outside of Isle Royale,” says Carol Anderson, from Kalamazoo. She traveled with Gray and his team during the summer of 2021. “The paddling was dynamic and exciting, and the scenery along the coast was much more dramatic than I expected. We saw more eagles than we could count, and we also had a great time surfing off the tip of the peninsula one afternoon.”
At the end of the day, it’s time to relax around the campfire telling stories, reading, or listening to the musical sounds of crickets, frogs, owls, and other woodland creatures.
This remote region also offers some of the best stargazing in the state, supported by the establishment of the Keweenaw Dark Sky Park during the summer of 2022. While locating Orion’s Belt, Cassiopeia, and the Milky Way are easy, given the reduced light pollution, Gray admits the elusive Northern Lights have yet to be seen during one of these trips because they’re not prevalent during the summer months.
No matter the adventure, Gray treats his paddlers to uncommon meals at the end of each day. His menus border on gourmet with things like hand-rolled sushi, pan-fried whitefish, and mouthwatering desserts made with foraged berries.
In addition to being a skilled kayaker, Gray is also a fabulous backwoods cook, and the author of the 2010 cookbook, “Hey, I’d Eat This at Home — A Fresh and Fearless Approach to Wilderness and Home Cooking.”
In addition to trips, Uncommon Adventures also offers a variety of sea kayak skill classes and weekend workshops for groups of up to 10.