I’M A CLAUSTROPHOBIC with control issues, so it was a huge step for me to try kayaking. What if I roll over? What if my legs get trapped? What if I get lost? Here I am, though, paddling a cherry-colored sea kayak around the Les Cheneaux Islands, in the big waters of northern Lake Huron.
Turns out — a few hours in — I’m a natural, a nimble muskrat, slicing soundlessly through a thicket of tall wild rice with only the suggestion of a path cut by a kayak far ahead. I’m helplessly in love with the graceful grasses tickling my neck, with the satisfying ache in my arms, with a tiny sedge wren I hear trilling nearby. It’s all wild rice and blue sky, and I’m happily immersed.
These 36 Les Cheneaux Islands once provided shelter and calm waters to natives traveling between nearby lakes Michigan and Superior. Today, artists, naturalists and mariner types call this locale home.
Earlier this morning, we launched from Hessel, a charming little burg in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Listening carefully to our guide’s on-shore instructions, I squelched my fears and climbed into the kayak. The worst part was snapping the protective skirt around the kayak’s opening. I just knew I’d roll over into the drink, never managing to unsnap and escape. But after the first five tippy minutes, I got used to the feel and began calmly paddling through the clear waters. We followed, initially, the shores of the larger islands.
Now, though, we’re in different territory, wilder, surrounded by dense vegetation and thousands of little chirps and rustlings. I’m an explorer, a brave adventurer, alone in the wild.
“How you doin?” I hear, and suddenly our guide, Jessie Hadley, emerges from the smoothly parting grasses in front of me, grinning — a cheerful sight in her blaze orange dry suit. Part of Hadley’s responsibility is to make sure we all stay together, so I fall in behind her as she glides through the Great Lakes marsh.
Hadley’s business, Woods & Water Ecotours, is headquartered in Hessel, but her true work space is vast: the forests atop the rocky peninsula, the calm waters of Lake Huron, and the ancient trails and shores of the islands. This place is wildlife-rich and environmentally sensitive, and business owners take care to operate in ways that harmonize with nature.
In the past 15 years, Hadley has explored it all, and she can take you places not many people have seen.
For now, though, I’m comfortable right here, in my kayak, spying an eagle overhead watching me just as closely. We beach at Penny Island to feast on chili and monster chocolate chip cookies from Hessel Grocery. Breathing deeply, I decide that the air — fragrant with white cedar, quaking aspen and balsam fir — should be called “eau de trees.”
Back in the water, we glide past Government Island, where U.S. employees lived while building the Martin Reef Lighthouse in the 1920s.
After a long day, it’s a little harder to paddle, but somehow I keep up. I even pass one or two kayaks, feeling slightly superior. But then a cormorant sails past me with no effort at all, and I’m humbled. This is his turf, not mine. More than 250 species of birds can be found here, including hundreds of colorful spring songbirds, hopping along the shorelines to feed on newly hatched midges.
By the time we reach shore, my body is exhausted, but my soul feels charged. OK, so I’m not exactly a brave adventurer, but maybe I’m not a completely claustrophobic control freak, either.