A Kayaker’s Journey From Port Huron to Minnesota Along Lakes Huron and Superior

How’s this for an open water adventure: A kayaking instructor, writer and photographer is paddling home to Minnesota from Port Huron in a mostly solo trip that takes in some of Michigan’s most spectacular Great Lakes scenery.

Bryan Hansel launched his boat May 14 in Port Huron. Paddling each day from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. with regular breaks for lunch or exploration, he’s already taken in Michigan’s Lake Huron coastline, the Soo Locks and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. He planned to jump a ferry to Isle Royale National Park and paddle home to Grand Marais, Minn., near the border with northern Ontario.

I caught up with Hansel by phone on Thursday, June 16.

A Healthier Michigan: Where are you now?

Hansel: I’m eating lunch on Grand Island just outside of Munising.

Bryan Hansel.

Are you alone?

Yes, solo trip except for four days. I had a buddy join me for four days.

What are you paddling and what are you packing with you? Give us a picture of how you’re traveling.

I’m paddling by kayak, so it’s a 17-and-a-half-foot boat, it’s 21-and-a-half inches (wide) and it has bulkheads for dry storage and all that. I’m carrying all my camping gear, so like tent and stove and extra clothes, sleeping bags, sleeping pads. Some camera gear — not as much as I normally carry. I’m going a little lighter on this trip just because it’s a big trip.

Have you done a solo trip like this before?

Yep, I’ve paddled quite a few solo trips. Another one on Lake Superior was from Grand Marais, Minn. to Houghton-Hancock (Mich.). So when I get to Houghton-Hancock I’ll have finished most of the American shore from Pigeon River and Grand Portage, which is right on the border of Canada and Minnesota, all the way to Port Huron. I just have like a four-mile section in there. If I go over to Grand Portage and I paddle down shore to Grand Marais I’ll have everything completed on Lake Superior and Lake Huron on the American shoreline.

Are you exclusively camping, or do you occasionally give yourself a comfort night in a hotel?

So far it’s been all camping except for two nights in Harrisville, I actually stayed in a cabin that the state parks have. I had a pretty bad cough and felt pretty sick so I just took a rest day and rested up in one of the cabins, which was a nice change from the tent.

How has the trip been going so far? Weather cooperating? Have you had any mishaps or anything like that?

No real mishaps. The weather has been pretty good. I was expecting a warmer trip at the beginning, so I kind of went south to do a trip and I got hit right away by 45-degree weather and gale-force winds. So my first few days were pretty miserable. And overall it’s been a pretty cold trip. At first I had a wetsuit, which I shipped home and had my dry suit sent out to me, which has been a lot better.

I know you’re a big proponent of packing light.

That actually saved me some weight, to get rid of my wetsuit and associated dry tops and all that stuff. To just go with a dry suit probably saved me five pounds.

You obviously enjoy paddling, but is there a larger point to your trip? I know on your website, you talk about promoting paddling as a way to get people to be more reverent for the natural environment.

Yeah, that’s a belief of mine, if people fall in love with a place that they’ll want to protect it. I have done trips that have concentrated on that. On this trip it’s been a little bit more about doing a trip for myself. Although in the end I’ll be able to turn around and do slideshows based on this trip that will talk about wilderness protection and issues such as that.

Speaking of wilderness protection, what kind of issues have you witnessed on your trip, if any?

I was really surprised on Lake Huron with how built up it is. There is very limited amount of public space left. It’s mainly cabin after cabin or mansion after mansion, depending on which part you’re in. There are a few sections where you would go five, six, maybe even 10 miles where it’d be undeveloped and it would sure be a shame to see those areas —because there’s such a limited amount of ‘em — to get developed.

But once I got up on Lake Superior, it’s been quite a bit more of a wild shoreline, but there have been cabins popping up here and there that probably weren’t there five or six years ago. Unless the shoreline gets protected, it’s going to disappear into cabin after cabin as well. Soon it will look just like Lake Huron does.

What else has stood out to you from your trip? What kinds of things are occupying your thoughts during your long days of paddling?

I just try to concentrate on the paddling mainly, but the mind wanders quite a bit and subjects are pretty broad. I could be singing songs or making up poems. The water is so clear, on the days that haven’t been wavy, I’ve been paddling in the shallows, just looking down to see what I can find. And I have found something interesting, actually.

Early on in the trip, down by Thunder Bay in Alpena, I was paddling along, just watching the shallows for carp — the carp were spawning — I found a 14-foot broken rudder, a wooden rudder from a boat. So it must’ve been like a shipwreck from the 1800s, and the rudder was in about 8 feet of water. So that was pretty interesting.

As a Minnesotan, what is your impression of Michigan’s Great Lakes shoreline?

It’s really sandy (Laughs). I like it.  It’s actually been a really enjoyable trip. I was a little surprise at how built up Lake Huron was, but there were a considerable number of parks where I was able to stop at for camping opportunities. I ended up spending the night in a couple people’s backyards.

There’s a big cultural difference that I noticed from the Lower Peninsula to the Upper Peninsula, particularly the switchover at the Soo Locks. People down on Lake Huron seemed to really celebrate that lake. Super friendly, and almost everybody that I met was excited about the kayaking trip. I can’t think of anybody that was down on it. So I got a lot of free food and stuff, and people would invite me over to their campers.

But once I got up on Lake Superior, it’s almost like people fear the lake up here, and it was a lot more of a caution attitude towards the trip. I had people say, ‘don’t die out there. Be careful on the big lake.’ Definitely a cultural difference in how people view the lakes.

But you’re staying safe so far, right? No close calls or anything?

Not really. I’ve been pretty lucky on the weather windows. I’ve had three days I’ve had to take off, but it was a no-brainer. Winds were above 30 knots, plus they were headwinds, so there was really no point in paddling anyways. The only – and it wasn’t even a close call – the other day I was listening to the marine forecast, it was saying 1 to 3 (foot waves). It looked 1 to 3 and I got out there and it was a little bigger. It built through the day. I think the biggest waves I paddled in were about 5 foot that day. No close encounters.

I’ve had some interesting encounters going up the St. Mary’s River, having some of the freighters pass me was interesting. They kick up some serious wake. •

Photo credits: BryanHansel.com and xray10

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