Beaver Island: A Paddler’s Paradise

Planned island water trail will provide camping and access points along with interpretation of its history.
Beaver Island
Photography by Frank Solle

Pam Grassmick and others are betting that a dark sky full of stars, the sunken remains of a 19th-century schooner, clear blue waters and miles of sandy shoreline with dedicated campsites will be a siren song for adventurous Great Lakes paddlers in 2018 or 2019 when the new Beaver Island Water Trail is dedicated.

The 50-mile paddling route around the island is expected to boost island tourism and pump up enthusiasm for Michigan’s coastal water trails that totaled 2,850 miles in 2017.

“We have so much to offer paddlers,” said Grassmick, a member of the Beaver Island Association and island resident who spearheaded the project that developed into a cooperative venture with the Little Traverse Band of Odawa Indians, The Nature Conservancy, Little Traverse Conservancy, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes.

“One of the best features is the dark sky. We have no light pollution,” Grassmick said. “You can see meteors, satellites and the Milky Way. That’s one that people are startled by. And the water here is completely clear. The Bessie Smith is a (200-foot-long) sailing vessel that sunk in the 1800s on the south end of the island in 10 feet of water.”

Photography courtesy of Thinkstock

In time, the island’s native history and other things will be explained with interpretive signs along the trail. Maps and signage will inform visitors about various access and camping sites. Maritime historical records show the three-masted Bessie Smith was built in Toledo, Ohio, in 1873. She was less than a year old when she went aground with a boatload of iron ore and, eventually, broke into pieces.

Boasting of being “America’s Emerald Isle,” a tribute to the immigrants from Ireland that settled there, Beaver Island is known today for its harbor, sandy beaches, forests and wildlife. There are 657 year-round residents, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Central Michigan University maintains a biological station there. The island, approximately 13 miles long and 3 to 6 miles wide, is popular with birdwatchers, boaters, and increasingly, kayakers.

Looking to provide more opportunities to camp, the Michigan Natural Resources Commission last October approved building five campsites on the island’s state-owned land. In all, there will be 19 sites, seven of which will be accessible by water. The others will be accessible by road. “This is small scale camping on platforms,” said Harry Burkholder, executive director for the Land Information Access Association in Traverse City, which received a state Coastal Zone Management Program Grant to help develop the water trail and document endangered species and historic sites on the island.

Beaver Island is the largest island in Lake Michigan. It is 32 miles offshore from Charlevoix. Visitors arrive by boat, ferry or plane. The Beaver Island Boat Company ( in Charlevoix operates two ferries, the Emerald Isle and Beaver Islander. The trip each way takes approximately two hours. Paddlers can bring their boats and gear onboard. An island outfitter, Happy Paddle ( offers kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals, along with cottages. The island also has seven inland lakes paddlers can explore.

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