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One thing I’ve learned about Door County is that her summer season is short and glorious, and if you want to get the full experience, you have to get it from a boat.
A few years ago, while living in Green Bay, my fiancé announced that he had found a used sea kayak on Craigslist and intended to buy it. While we love the outdoors and both had a little canoeing experience, I had not known that Tim dreamt of reeling in salmon from a kayak. He bought the boat and took a class in kayaking basics at the YMCA.
He was in heaven when we relocated to Sister Bay. The place we’d rented had water access, so he could easily launch in the backyard. The only thing holding him back was me. I had kayaked a few times with my dad, a river kayak enthusiast who always procured friends’ boats for me to use. I found river paddling pleasant, but I was not hooked. Tim wanted to explore the peninsula from the water, but I had no kayak.
Tim brought me to a Labor Day-weekend sale at one of the Door County outfitters, and it didn’t take me long to try out some of the used boats. The prices were reasonable, and before I knew it I was strapping my very own fire engine red kayak to the top of the car. We went paddling in Sister Bay that very day. I hadn’t realized what a difference it makes to paddle a boat that fits you well. In the past I had been uncomfortable as I tried to get used to borrowed boats, but with the consistency of my own, I quickly gained confidence. Tim and I started exploring different launch spots in Door County each weekend. Of course we’ve repeated at some of our favorites, but in a year we haven’t tried nearly all of the places to kayak on the peninsula.
Having paddled mostly in rivers and creeks before, I learned the difference between navigating a winding river current and surfing Lake Michigan’s waves. I have learned that seeing the peninsula from the water is to be reintroduced to it. In a kayak I have 360-degree view of land and lake. The water is close, and I see it right next to me; I can put my hand in it. Near shore I can see all the way to the bottom and can spy bass zipping and carp sauntering along.
I get weird chills when a shipwreck looms up under me, as is common on all sides of the peninsula. The water is immense, and I can tear my gaze from the world underneath it and look out over it to the horizon. Some days it is clear and the horizon is defined, and on others the clouds are the same color as the water and it is impossible to see where the lake ends. The water is noisy, and where it meets the land there are often rocks and bluffs for it to crash against. Even on a calm day, the view from my kayak always includes the sound of water.
Another thing I’ve learned about paddling in Door County is that even if I’ve launched at a certain spot five times, it’s never the same place twice. The weather, season, time of day, and water level will always ensure that I have a unique experience.
One of my favorite Door County destinations is Cave Point County Park. I love the view from the small limestone bluffs on windy days when the waves are crashing in. The view from water level is even more impressive, and on a calm day I can paddle right into some of the caves. Tim and I launch from Lakeside Park in downtown Jacksonport. Straight out from the launch is a perfect view of a shipwreck just below the surface. We drift over it for awhile, marveling at the history preserved below. We paddle south to Cave Point, where we linger, taking in the view of the turquoise water and maneuvering our 17-foot boats carefully in and out of the caves. Truly, shorter boats than ours would be better suited to cave exploration, but we make do. We round the point and head for Whitefish Dunes State Park. We land on the beach and get out to stretch our legs and eat lunch. The entire paddle, including lunch, takes a half-day, once we paddle back to Jacksonport. To shorten the trip, there is a launch at Schauer Park south of Jacksonport.
Another thing I’ve learned is that if it’s too breezy on the lake side of the peninsula, it’s usually calm on the bay side. Most towns in Door County have public launches that kayakers can use. Public beaches and roads that dead-end on the water are also ideal launch sites. We use Water’s End Road in Sister Bay to launch away from the hustle and bustle. From there we can easily paddle south to Sister Bay or north to see the Ellison Bay Bluffs from the water.
Inland lakes, like Europe Lake, Mud Lake, and Kangaroo Lake are also great options for a relaxed paddle if the lake or bay conditions aren’t to our liking. The views there are different, involving plenty of wildlife like deer and birds.
I have learned that Door County’s kayaking views can include more than natural wonders. We took our first night paddle recently to attend Fyr Bal, Ephraim’s summer solstice festival. This event was ideal to watch from the water, as downtown Ephraim was jammed with people on shore. Equipped with headlamps and lights, we launched our boats at about 7:30 in the evening. We paddled slowly along the shore in the harbor, enjoying people-watching from a duck’s perspective.
About 8:30 the first of the Fyr Bal bonfires was lit, and we watched as at least ten huge fires grew on the beaches around us. We twisted back and forth in our boats, alternately watching the fires and taking in the gorgeous sunset. When darkness finally fell, we had the best seats for the fireworks display. Any festival, especially ones ending in night sky entertainment, makes an uncommon backdrop for a paddling adventure.
My dad still paddles several times a week, and now we regale each other with tales of bird sightings and perfect weather. Tim and I have plans to paddle to the northernmost point of Door County, Rock Island State Park, to camp this fall. My dubious early relationship with paddling has grown into a healthy hobby that I know I’ll continue for years to come. I know that I wouldn’t love it as much, however, without Lake Michigan’s blue expanses and the peninsula’s ever-changing shoreline.
Even if you don’t have your own boat, and have never kayaked before, it is a cinch to rent one in Door County. Outfitters offer a variety of services, from lessons to guided tours, that are a great way to get your kayaking feet wet and be reintroduced to the Door peninsula.
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