Lake Michigan water trail moving forward; Michigan playing catch-up

A paddler enjoys exploring the sandy Lake Michigan shoreline by kayak, part of what will become the Lake Michigan Water Trail. Photo: Howard Meyerson.

A paddler enjoys exploring the sandy Lake Michigan shoreline by kayak, part of what will become the Lake Michigan Water Trail. Photo: Howard Meyerson.

By Howard Meyerson

The prospect of paddling Lake Michigan’s 1,600 mile shoreline isn’t something most take lightly though it’s been done in recent years by two young women in a dugout canoe. In 2012, Mary Catterlin and Amy Lukas, both 24-year-olds from Indiana, completed a three-month circumnavigation in the 11-foot, outrigger and sail-equipped dugout Catterlin crafted in her parent’s backyard.

Their accomplishment was a testament to their determination and self-assurance. It also illustrated the possibilities ahead for paddlers all around the four-state Lake Michigan Water Trail now being developed.

State and federal officials and local planning agencies are working to bring the trail to fruition. They report that parts of the trail are now in place, but a good deal of work is still ahead.

“A lot of people have asked to be kept in the loop, but we haven’t had people say they will do it. The challenge is finding local champions who can pull funding and planning together for things like signage,” said Elaine Sterrett Isley, director of water programs for West Michigan Environmental Action Council, in Grand Rapids. The organization recently completed a year-long study of the shoreline segment from Benton Harbor to Ludington.

That step – making it happen on the ground – is needed for the trail to become a household term and a marketable tourist destination, according to various planners.

“You can do the whole thing if you want to, but the trail doesn’t (formally) exist because the access points and amenities are not in place,” explains Diane Banta, a National Park Service outdoor recreation planner in Chicago. Banta coordinates the four-state NPS effort on Lake Michigan that may result in National Water Trail designation for the route – the prestigious federal imprimatur that recognizes “exemplary trails of regional and local significance.”

“One paddler from Illinois did the whole lake, but he had a lot of research to do before he went,” Banta said. “You need to know where you can take off, where you can land, and where you can camp.”


The days of just pulling ashore are gone on many parts of the lake. There are areas, like just north of Chicago, where private landowners are not thrilled to see visiting paddlers, according to Banta.

The sandy shoreline north of Michigan's Duck Lake State Park makes for soft landings when exploring Lake Michigan by kayak

The sandy shoreline north of Michigan’s Duck Lake State Park makes for soft landings when exploring Lake Michigan by kayak

Work to change that is underway in all the states. Government agencies, grassroots groups and others are working to develop community buy-in and support. Many are part of a new organization, the Lake Michigan Water Trail Network. The network will promote the water trail as well as hiking, biking and auto routes around Lake Michigan.

The Lake Michigan Water Trail concept was launched in 2011 when a 75-mile segment from Chicago east to New Buffalo, largely created by local paddlers, was designated as a National Recreation Trail by then U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar. The State of Wisconsin, with 450-miles of shoreline, moved quickly to begin planning its part.

“Wisconsin is now the farthest along,” Banta said “They are beginning to put up signs. Indiana is complete. Illinois is partly done and Michigan is moving right along.”

That’s a polite way of saying that the State of Michigan was late to the party. Michigan possesses nearly three-quarters of the shoreline trail. The state’s involvement is crucial for the concept to become a reality.


Paul Yauk, the land program manager for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Parks and Recreation division, said Michigan is now onboard. The DNR soon will hire a full-time staff person to work on this and other water trail projects. The agency manages a number of state parks along the Michigan shoreline – places where paddlers can camp or stop and rest.

Yauk announced in May, at the second annual Lake Michigan Water Trail Conference in Saugatuck, that any paddler – or bicyclist – who paddles or rides into a state park or state forest campground anywhere in Michigan will not be turned away (even if they are full) – a change of policy at the Michigan DNR.

The announcement got a standing ovation, according to Yauk.

“We are in last place when it comes to the Lake Michigan Water Trail,” Yauk admits. “Wisconsin is well ahead and we are in catch-up mode, but in the next few months to a year we will have a lot more information out there for people to review.”

Michigan, he explained, has been largely focused on developing linear trails. That 25-year effort resulted in having the largest rails-to-trails system in the country. Water trails will now get their due.

And this scribe thinks it’s about time.

About Howard Meyerson

After more than 30 years in the outdoor writing business, you would think I'd know better.
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2 Responses to Lake Michigan water trail moving forward; Michigan playing catch-up

  1. Tom Hamilton says:

    The best future crown jewel for West Michigan Lake Michigan Water Trail access site is Fisherman’s Landing on Muskegon Lake. This is a LWCF “public trust” protected 22-acres, 2000+ feet shoreline, with deep-water multi use boat launch with 250 trailer parking, pavilion, restrooms, picnic area, 100+ campsites, all of which is directly connected to the lakeshore greenway bike trail to the inland bike trail system. Contact your legislators and city Muskegon to make sure they reinvest the money they’ve been diverting away from Fisherman’s Landing.


    • ted stojak says:

      Public access to all of our natural resources needs to be respected, treasured and nourished as we owe it to future generations.


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