by Ken Braband, republished with permission from 

During the final weekend of September I paddled and camped a portion of what might one day be America’s newest national park. There’s an effort underway to place The Grand Traverse Islands –  islands and some surrounding mainland from Wisconsin’s Door County to Upper Michigan’s Garden Peninsula – under control of the National Park Service. You can click this link to learn about the proposal and to sign the petition. It’s a worthy idea that would offer new levels of access and protection for this amazingly beautiful part of the world.

My weekend trip began Friday when I drove as far as you can drive in Door County without putting your vehicle on a ferry. I parked in the wooded parking lot at Northport Pier (where the Washington Island Ferry docks), packed my kayak with a weekend of camping and paddling gear and headed east across Death’s Door Passage.


At 3-1/2 miles long, Detroit Island is smack dab in your way if you’re attempting the eastern route around Washington Island. You have to choose whether to pass on the west side through the protected waters of Detroit Harbor or take the shorter but exposed crossing around the isolated east end of Detroit Island. I chose the eastern route because the forecast called for calm waters and sunny skies all day.

Before reaching Detroit, my first stop was about 3 miles to the east: Pilot Island. This tiny island was home to a lighthouse and keeper’s residence from 1858 until 1962. Today the island is a protected bird sanctuary. The buildings have been left to decay but efforts are underway by the Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands to restore them. Until the restoration is further along, Pilot Island is not open to visitors so I remained in my kayak.

I paddled a few hundred feet offshore to a buoy marking the Pilot Island Shipwrecks. The wrecks aren’t visible from the surface because they’re more than 40 feet down so I paddled on, heading 1-1/4 miles northeast to the eastern point of Detroit Island.

The boat house on Rock Island.

Boat house on Rock Island.

Pilot Island

Pilot Island

The automated light that replaced the Pottawatomie Lighthouse can be seen over the treeline on Rock Island. Photo by Dan Dallich.

Photo by Dan Dallich.

From there it was another three-mile crossing to the southeast point of Washington Island. By this time I was seven miles into my trip and ready to get out and stretch but I couldn’t find a good spot to land because of the rocky coastline. I pressed on northward to Hog Island. Like Pilot, Hog Island is a bird sanctuary so signs warn you that human visitors are not allowed. I managed to find shallow water outside the posted “no visitors” zone where I could step out of the kayak to stretch and snack. I could see my destination – Rock Island – four miles to the northeast.

After another hour of paddling I arrived at my reserved campsite. Site #19 is one of my favorite campsites anywhere. It’s situated on the island’s southern shoreline atop a 20-foot rocky bluff, so you get great views of the beach, Washington Island. And sunsets.

Photo by Dan Dallich.

Sunset, by Dan Dallich.

On the beach near campsite 19.

Beach near campsite 19.

There’s no better place to enjoy a sunset than the cockpit of a kayak. T

Sunset by kayak.

On Saturday I went on a six-mile hike on the island’s perimeter trail with several sidetrips along the beach. I also stopped at the old water tower and the Pottawotamie Lighthouse, the oldest on Lake Michigan.

Saturday afternoon I paddled from Rock Island to Jackson Harbor on Washington Island where I met up with fellow kayaker Dan. We paddled back to the campsite so Dan could set up his tent. We set off on an evening paddle into the the Rock Island boat house and out to the lighthouse. The sunset that evening was one of the most beautiful I have seen from a kayak.

Sunday morning we packed, paddled to Jackson Harbor, loaded our kayaks onto Dan’s car and drove across Washington Island to board the ferry for the return trip to Northport Pier. It was a great weekend at one of my favorite places in the world.

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