Adventurous Island Hopping on a Paddleboard in Lake Michigan


If you’re like us, and trying to raise outdoor-loving kids, then it’s likely that many of your family adventures aren’t exactly what you’d describe as “epic.” You know, trips to the beach, short hikes, bike rides and fun at the playground. But odds are that if you’re focusing on introducing your kids to the great outdoors, then you’ve cultivated a love of nature during your life as well.

As important as it is to spend active time outside as a family, it’s just as critical for parents to schedule their own outdoor recreation as well. It’s obviously more difficult to find that time once you have kids, but it’s necessary in order to stay motivated while nurturing your family’s love of nature. Plus, it’s good for your kids to see you and your spouse hurtling down the trail on a mountain bike, or cruising across the bay on a paddleboard. It gives them something to be excited about as they become older and ready to take on new adventures.

Fall is fast approaching, so the window for warm weather activity – at least here in Michigan – is closing. We wanted to provide some end-of-summer ideas for exciting adult fun outside, so I reached out to two of the most adventurous guys I know for a little inspiration. I asked them to share some of their recent anything-but-ordinary adventures in Michigan, including tips and things to watch out for.

In a couple of weeks we’ll be featuring my friend Chris Ledtke’s weeklong backpacking trip to a remote island in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

In this post we share Tom Chinonis’ island hopping adventure on a paddleboard in Lake Michigan.

Meet Tom

Tom Chinonis and I met and became friends when we were colleagues at a law firm in Detroit. Coincidentally, we both left the firm at almost the exact time to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors. Tom is now the owner of Kalamata Greek Grill, which serves up some of the freshest and most delicious Greek food you’ll ever taste from two locations in Troy and Royal Oak, Michigan. (Pro tip: If you order the Gyro, get it “Detroit Style”). In the summer, if he’s not at work or spending time with his family, you’ll probably find him on his stand up paddleboard. In addition to being a great entrepreneur, Tom is an all around great guy.

Tell us about your trip, Tom!

Last summer my friend, Matt Wise, and I decided we wanted a little bit of adventure. Our goal was to experience a new area in Michigan that had not been traveled a lot by stand up paddleboard (“SUP”) and kayak. Having already done paddleboard-plus-camping trips along the Lake Michigan shoreline and the Les Cheneaux Islands in the Upper Peninsula, we wanted to explore the mostly uninhabited Beaver Island archipelago.

The key points to this destination decision: (1) it looked gorgeous – the shallow waters around the islands made it ideal for safe – yet beautiful – paddle conditions (2) the various islands within that area were reachable by SUP/kayak, providing bona fide destinations along the way, and (3) there were state land areas allowing us to set up camp in complete isolation.

We chose August to take advantage of the warmer water temps, as well as increased chances of calmer waters (which didn’t pan out – see below). Because we did a full three day/two night trip, we had a fair amount of gear that was easier to tote in a kayak as opposed to two SUP’s. Matt volunteered to be the mule and toted the bulk of the gear in the kayak (i.e., he lost in rock-paper-scissors).

We took the ferry – SUP and kayak in tow – from Charlevoix to Beaver Island. From there, we started paddling from the Beaver Island Harbor toward High Island. The goal was to set up camp and see the sand dunes on the west side of the island that we had heard a lot about from boaters who had been there (and the pictures looked amazing), then setting out north toward Squaw Island on Day two.

Unfortunately, a couple of miles in toward the crossing to High Island, the west winds grew so strong we ended up bailing on the plan. The decision was initially frustrating, and we fought the idea as we really had our eyes toward setting up camp at the base of the dunes. But as we continued to get blown backwards, the choice was pretty much made for us.

Not wanting to settle on Beaver Island where we had just left, we shot northeast toward Hog Island. The channel between Hog Island and Beaver Island proved a bit dicey, as the winds created 3-4 foot waves – never ideal on open water but especially with a lot of gear. One dump on the kayak plus a lost fishing rod later, and we cleared the channel into the calmer waters around Hog Island where we set up camp on a beautiful opening along the west shore. This allowed us to check off our criteria to maintain a sunset view. The enjoyment of the trek took shape once we hit the calmer waters surrounding the island, as the clarity and relatively shallow surroundings made for great viewing. We also tried to hook some fish once things calmed in order to upgrade to our packed camping food. No luck.

Unfortunately, contrary to forecasts, the west winds increased overnight, making Day 2 extremely difficult to make progress as we had to head windward toward Garden Island, our revised Day 2 destination. We hugged the shoreline of Garden Island, finally setting up camp on the west side to again capture a spectacular sunset.

One benefit of the winds was that they shaped fun little waves into our cove on Garden Island, making for an impromptu paddlesurfing evening as the sun went down.

What was the biggest highlight of the trip?

The highlight of the trip was the nighttime show, which was a surprising twist to the planning. For all the photos we had seen of the beautiful waters and shoreline, it wasn’t until nightfall that the entire experience exploded with stars unlike we’d ever seen. We’d been in northern Michigan areas plenty of times where the light pollution is low, but the total seclusion on the islands created a whole new level of sky formations. It was by far the clearest Milky Way either of us had ever experienced. The only bummer was the sheer lack in photo skills to capture the night sky, so for now the images of those stars have to remain in our heads only.

Biggest challenges?

As noted above, the winds were stronger than we had anticipated, making our original plan useless. Nothing new for big water trips, and the sights of the other islands were great enough that we didn’t feel we missed anything. That said, it makes for a definite excuse to get back and explore the other islands on a calmer trip.

Any tips you can share for someone planning a similar trip?

Your SUP trip will always be dictated by winds. Have a full understanding of distances and safety points on different wind directions before you go. As anyone who has experienced any of the Great Lakes knows, conditions can change fast.

With over 10 years of SUP experience, and a seasoned kayaker on the team, we still made a conservative decision to forego the long open-water crossing in the conditions we faced at the last minute.

For equipment, SUP camping requires light, efficient and waterproof packing. So be sure dry bags are properly used to keep your gear in good shape, even with a tumble. The board I used was a 14′ open water SUP, which allowed for carrying cargo in the front and handling rougher waters.

Personal flotation devices are an absolute must as well as a leash for the SUP. Alert the coast guard of your float plan, as well as others.

Surprisingly, cellular reception was good. We were torn by this – while great from a safety standpoint (and we certainly checked in with our families each night to confirm everything was fine, the goal was to be completely off the grid and the cellular safety net created a non-legit vibe in a sense.

The area is world famous for its carp fishing, so if you’re feeling very adventurous bring your specialized fishing gear.

Follow all camping guidelines required by the State of Michigan. We were particularly careful not to disrupt any of the land at either of our destinations, utilizing spots directly on the shoreline already inhabited by prior explorers.

Sounds like an amazing trip, Tom! If I wouldn’t slow you down so much, I’d say that I’d join you on the next one. Thanks for sharing your adventure with us!

AdventuresJay Harrington