Paddling the Blues: Chains of Lakes

The Great Lakes State offers ribbons of waters and pools of blue for leisurely exploration. // Photography by Ken Scott
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Michigan Top 5 Paddling

An inland lake is a beautiful thing. A string of them is even better. While we don’t have a Boundary Waters, the famed million-acre wilderness in Northern Minnesota that contains more than 1,000 lakes, there’s no shortage of watery chains for paddlers and boaters to explore in Michigan, either.

Following are my top five places where lakes are connected by rivers and channels for easy travel or portages for the more adventurous.

Antrim County’s Chain of Lakes. This 75-mile-long waterway consisting of 14 lakes and connecting rivers stretches from tiny Beals Lake and ends with the Elk River flowing into Lake Michigan. It includes 18,770-acre Torch Lake, Michigan’s second largest inland lake where you can rent a pontoon for the day (torchrivermarine.com) to explore the lower half of the chain. Most kayakers (jvoutfitters.com) prefer the upper half where the lakes are long, narrow bodies of water, perfect for paddling on a quiet summer evening.

Widewaters. From Munising, Country Road H-13 heads south into the Hiawatha National Forest (www.fs.usda.gov/hiawatha) and in 13 miles arrives at Widewaters Campground, a scenic spot that lies between Irwin Lake and the Indian River. Widewaters picks up its name from this stretch of the Indian River, which heads north into a series of three wide ponds. From there it’s easy to continue into Fish Lake or then Bar Lake. In all, the campground provides access to six ponds and lakes that provide excellent wildlife viewing or a wilderness-like fishing experience without having to portage your canoe.

Inland Waterway. Michigan’s best-known chain encompasses four lakes — Crooked, Pickerel, Burt and Mullett — and three rivers — Crooked, Indian and Black — that flow 40 miles from Cheboygan to within six miles of Petoskey. For hundreds of years Native Americans used this inland passage to avoid the choppy waters of the Straits of Mackinac by portaging from Little Traverse Bay to Crooked Lake and then paddling the rest. Today these large lakes (Burt Lake is 17,120 acres and 10 miles long) have the distinction of being the only chain in Michigan where you can rent a houseboat windjammermarina.com).

Sylvania Wilderness. Located west of Watersmeet in the Upper Peninsula, this 18,327-acre tract of the Ottawa National Forest (www.fs.usda.gov/ottawa) is Michigan’s best destination for paddlers seeking the solitude of a wilderness experience. Its 34 non-motorized lakes are connected by short portages, surrounded by old growth forests and offer legendary fishing for smallmouth bass. Scattered along the shorelines are 50 backcountry campsites that can be reserved in advance (recreation.gov).

Pinckney Recreation Area. Not every chain of lakes is Up North. This 10,201-acre state park in Southeast Michigan has a chain of seven lakes connected by channels and used by both motorized boats and canoes. During the summer you can rent canoes on Halfmoon Lake (gotohellmi.com) and head west to explore Blind, Watson, Patterson, Bruin and Woodburn Lakes. Or east to follow a channel into contoured Hiland Lake and then to a dam site in the village of Hell.

It would be a seven-mile paddle to Hell and back.


BLUE “Top 5” columnist Jim DuFresne is a Clarkston-based travel writer and the main contributor to MichiganTrailMaps.com.

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