My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

First kayak trip of 2011, Muskegon Lake

Just got back home from my first kayak trip of the year. It was supposed to be with a group of people on the Rogue River, but every one else had plans. So instead, I decided to head over to Muskegon to do the first of what will be many trips there. I really want to get back in the Muskegon River delta where it enters Muskegon Lake, but after checking the weather forecast, I decided to do the west end of the lake today. The weather report was for clear skies, light winds, and a high around 50 degrees. Since part of my plans for the west end of the lake included large open water, and maybe out to Lake Michigan, light winds would be a good thing.

I stopped off for breakfast, then picked up my kayak from the storage unit, and when I got to my put in site on Muskegon Lake, there were waterfowl everywhere! I noticed two other things right off the bat when I got to my put in site, it didn’t seem as warm as they were predicting, and there was a southerly breeze blowing when the forecast was for a 5 MPH or less breeze out of the north. Nothing major, I was dressed for it. I loaded up my gear in my kayak and started out from shore. Right off the bat, I had to choose whether to risk ticking off some geese, or some swans. Since the swans were already giving me the Bronx cheer, which is a sign they are about to attack, I chose to risk it with the geese. Since they weren’t nesting, they moved out of my way nicely without any violence. If you’ve ever been attacked by either geese or swans, you know they are vicious birds. A great start to a great day!

All the way across the end of the lake to the channel to Lake Michigan I was surrounded by waterfowl. Geese, Swans, mallards, mergansers, bufflehead, coot, and I think a small flock of canvasbacks too, along with the gulls of course. I could never get close enough to them to get a really great picture, the were all skittish, and as it was the first trip of the year, I didn’t have my sea butt yet. Just like sailors take a while at sea to get their sea legs back, it takes me a trip or two every year to get comfortable enough in the kayak to take good pictures. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the waves were running about 6 inches, which is normally no big deal, but when you’re twisting around backwards in the seat, and not seeing the horizon when you’re looking in the camera’s viewfinder, it takes a while to get the hang of doing it without going over. I wanted to paddle up into the Devil’s Kitchen, which is a small arm of Muskegon Lake, but it was frozen over. Most of it was clear thin ice, and I thought I could break a path through to the open water around the edges of the Devil’s Kitchen, but it was too thick, and I kept getting stuck.

I made it to the channel, and of course the wind coming down the channel off from Lake Michigan was even stronger, and a little chilly as well. It wasn’t bad, the waves were around a foot when I entered the channel, and were a foot and a half to two feet on the Lake Michigan end. I wanted to go out past the breakwater, but with the waves as high as they were, I chickened out. Guess I am getting wimpy in my old age. A friend of mine died last spring up in Canada, of hypothermia, after flipping his kayak. The thing I will never understand about that is that Dave was one of those everything by the book kind of guys. I am sure he would have had all the right gear, and would have known how to use it. And actually, if the swells had been higher I would have kept on going, the waves today were just the right height and close enough together to really rock the kayak. Kayaking a river during the winter is one thing, but being out on Lake Michigan where I would probably be dead before any rescuers could get to me is something completely different.

So I turned around and headed back in, and that was fun! No paddling except to steer, and I was surfing on top of the waves for most of the way. I took a swing around the USS Silversides which is moored there in the channel. The Silversides is a WWII submarine that has the 3rd highest total of Japanese ships sunk during WWII of any American submarine. It was re-assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Reserve after the war as a training ship. When it was de-commissioned, a group from Muskegon bought it, and are restoring it as part of their efforts to preserve a little of our history. I think it is open for tours, but I didn’t check on that, but you can here. There is also a Coast Guard cutter moored there as well.

Muskegon has changed in the years since I used to fish Muskegon Lake a lot, there is a park along the south side of the channel now that I don’t think used to be there. When I got back into Muskegon Lake, I swung around to the south just a short way to check out what looks to be a park there as well. I needed a break to stretch my legs anyway, so I put ashore and wandered the beach there for a ways. It is all sand, but there are also the remains of an old boat dock there, as there are in many places on Muskegon Lake. There used to be 40 lumber mills on the lake, sawing up the logs that were floated down the Muskegon River to the lake. From what I have heard and read, most of the lumber that was used to rebuild Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871 came from Muskegon Lumber mills.

Like everywhere I went today, there were waterfowl all around, from small flocks of 4 or 5 birds, to huge flocks that must have been close to 100 birds. But also like everywhere else I was, they were skittish as well. I think it is because they are migrating birds, once they start nesting, I’ll be able to get some good close-ups.

I started back towards where I put in, which was the Snug Harbor boat ramp in Muskegon State Park, by the way, and tried again to work my way up into the Devil’s Kitchen. I had completely lost track of time and had no idea how long I had been out there, but a lot of the ice from in the morning was gone. I did make it up there a little way, but then ran into more ice and a mean swan, so I was forced to turn around again. I was going to hit the boat ramp, use the restroom, eat lunch, and paddle up one of the creeks that feeds into the lake, but those plans changed. For one thing, the south wind I had fought on the way out had now become the north wind they had predicted only stronger, so I was fighting the wind on my way back in. That always seems to happen when I paddle still water, I end up fighting the wind no matter which direction I go.

The other thing that changed my plans is that just as I was beaching my kayak, a Conservation Officer pulled up to scope out the lake. I walked over to thank him for the job the COs of this state do, as I always do when I run into them. I’ve said it before, but I’ll keep on saying it, the COs in this state are on call 24/7/365 days a year. They know they will be dealing with well armed lawbreakers on a regular basis, yet I have yet to meet one yet that has copped the attitude that most policemen have. They are friendly and very helpful if you give them the chance to be.

Anyway, he and I talked for at least half an hour, probably closer to an hour. As we talked, we watched the eagles hunting, and the flocks of waterfowl on the lake. We talked about the wildlife there, and across the state. He confirmed that the Muskegon River delta area is a great place for watching wildlife, over 10,000 acres of almost nothing, and he gave me a few tips on access sites and other good things to know. He got a call, and had to go check on a possible violator, or we may have still been talking.

I finally checked on the time, and decided it was too late in the day to set out again, so I was packing up to leave when the third large flock of sandhill cranes I saw today flew over. I saw one early, headed north, later, I saw a flock of around 30 fly over the lake, then they started circling and calling over the north shore of the lake. Here and there from the ground, more and more cranes came into view as they took off, and began to form up with the flock that was circling overhead. There had to have been over 50 cranes in the flock when they finally ended the circle, and headed off to the north, it was one of the coolest things I have ever witnessed. I was hoping the last flock would do something similar, but they continued to fly on to the north.

With my kayak loaded and my gear packed, I head off to check a couple of the access sites the CO told me about, and stopped off at the headquarters for the Muskegon State Game Area to pick up some information he told me was available there. It doesn’t get much better than today was, yes, it was chillier than it was supposed to be, and the wind was stronger, but not bad. But, seeing the amount of wildlife that I did was fantastic, because it dawns on me now that I didn’t mention all the birds singing along the shore line, or watching a squirrel come down to the lake to drink, or the muskrats, or the deer back in the woods. It was only the first trip of the year, but it is going to be hard to top it.

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