Lake Michigan: Horseshoe Island
Touring Horseshoe Island in Door County
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There are a lot of opportunities for paddling in Door County, but here’s a great half-day destination paddle to a crescent-shaped island that offers a short hike, as well as prime fishing within that deep-water indent. As long as the water is calm and the weather is right, there’s nothing better for the paddling soul than floating along the waters of Lake Michigan.
July 5, 2019
Skill Level: Expert
Class Difficulty: Great Lakes Paddling
Put-In + Take-Out:
Tennison Bay on Lake Michigan, Peninsula State Park, Fish Creek, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 10:15a. Out at 12:55p.
Total Time: 2h 40m
Miles Paddled: 5
Wildlife: Seagulls, bass, lake trout and mergansers.
I’m still a newbie to big/deep water kayaking and it’s been awhile since I’ve done any Great Lakes paddling. So when given the opportunity to do so when the weather looked right, and to paddle with Mr. Craig Charles, the guy who literally wrote a book on exploring Door County, I wasn’t going to pass it up (even though I almost overslept and missed said opportunity).
Craig is an an all-season adventurer – hiking, biking, paddling, you name it, he’s game. Dead of winter, or the heat of the desert – he does a lot of stuff. More than I’ll ever do. Full of stories of adventure, thought-provoking and entertaining ideas, and years of experience, he’s the kind of guy that you’ll comfortably fall sidecar with because he just knows what the hell he’s doing. And if he suggests doing this-and-that paddle was a good idea, as was the case with this trip to Horseshoe Island, I knew I should seize the opportunity.
Named for its distinctive shape, (more of a croissant than a horseshoe but that’s neither here-nor-there) Horseshoe island is one of few public islands that surround the Door Peninsula and this one’s actually part of Peninsula State Park. Located about a mile from Nicolet Beach, it’s a popular destination for visitors who paddle from the beach because you can rent kayaks and SUPs there. (Important safety tangent: It’s worth noting that we saw many stand up paddlers without life jackets on their boards or bodies – which is illegal. SUPs fall under the same Wisconsin and U.S. Coast Guard law as canoes and kayaks – even though there’s been a proposal to change that. But regardless of whether that passes, the law would still require pfds on the Great Lakes).
Horseshoe Island has been settled, resettled and changed hands numerous times but its main commodity was lumber. In the 1850s, a guy by the name of Ole Larsen logged the island and sold the wood to ships for fuel that passed to and from Green Bay. In a weird sidenote, he invited Norwegian settlers to join him on the island who brought a housewarming gift of cholera and seven people died. He eventually logged the rest of the precious wood remaining and moved to Nicolet Bay. After the island changed hands a few more times, the property ultimately made its way into the State Park System (lucky for us daytrippers)
There are a couple put-in options available at Peninsula State Park. Instead of launching from Nicolet Beach, Craig suggested we use the access point located at Tennison Bay. I’m not totally sure why but he tends to know these kinds of things. It certainly made for a less crowded/busy put-in – it was Fourth of July weekend, afterall. I could only surmise that he knew it made for a more well-rounded excursion by adding three more miles with more shoreline to explore than a there-and-back trip from the beach. I can appreciate that.
After putting-in, you’ll head northeast around the park. In the distance on your left you’ll see Adventure, Little Strawberry, Jack and Pirate islands, collectively known as the chain of Strawberry Islands. Here’s a great article on their histories, as well as others around the peninsula.
You’ll navigate around Eagle Bluff Lighthouse towards Eagle Bluff. The shoreline is rocky but only modest outcrops when compared to that of Cave Point. It was along this stretch I commented on how clear the water was, as it was giving me a very interesting visual and physical feeling like my boat was floating in air. Craig pointed out that the water was actually not as clear as it normally is due to an abnormal amount of rain and increased depth. Indeed, the water is unusually high in Lake Michigan. In fact, July levels are 1-inch lower than the all-time record which has also caused an increase in fatalities. We say it all the time but it’s really amazing how things change so quickly and so often when it comes to water levels. Case in point: I was on a charter fishing trip here in 2013 and the lake was the lowest it had been since they started recording levels in 1918. At that time, there was a very real concern about this being a “new normal”.
Nearing Eagle Bluff, Horseshoe Island is seen straight ahead and soon Nicolet Bay will soon open up on lake-right. We could see the enormous crowds at Nicolet Beach soaking up the sun and paddlers on SUPs and kayaks heading out into the Bay towards us.
Then comes a broad but manageable open water passage. When crossing open water amongst large and/or fast moving boats (and there are lots of them) that can bring about large anxiety-inducing waves, small boats technically have the right-away but you’re never going to “win” a battle with a larger boat. Craig had a tip that made a lot of sense as far as direction and that is, to paddle at the boat crossing in the distance because by the time you may “collide” with it, it’ll be past your navigation line (of course, common sense prevails here – 200 yards is much different than 20 feet from a motor boat).
Upon reaching the island, you’ll find the opening which faces south. A bass boat and a pontoon were parked in these perfect fishing waters (do have the proper license if you plan on fishing the Lake Michigan). There’s a dock which was partly dilapidated and submerged due to the aforementioned high water but it was shallow enough to walk our boats to the shore and find a place to tie down.
Once on the island, there’s a one-mile hiking trail that wraps around the 38-acre island called the Engelmar Trail (named for one of the two owners who had inherited the property in the early 1920s and built a summer home there). There’s not a lot to see, save for a rundown outhouse, but it’s a pretty nature walk and if you were to look real hard you might find some history in the rubble. It’s believed that Jean Nicolet may have camped at Horseshoe Island in 1634, so I was on the lookout for some “Jean Wuz Here” or “JM + MC” graffiti carved in a tree, but alas, nothing. Also of note, camping and fires are prohibited on the island, but we saw evidence of both.
After the hike, we paddled around the island, where you’ll find more modest but also more interesting rock formations than anywhere on the trip (as well as a multitude of mergansers, for us). On our return trip towards the mainland and after paddling back past Eagle Bluff, we made an impromptu stop at Welckers Point, a cliffside park on Peninsula property. We parked on the rocky banks below and climbed our way up where we had lunch (because Craig always comes prepared – even thought I wasn’t, of course). Do note that if the water is rough, it would make for a tough approach to the rocky bank without actually crashing into it, not to mention finding solid footing to tie up your boat.
After lunch, we set out to return to where we began in Tennison Bay, passing other kayakers who were also out enjoying the amazing weather and conditions.
What we liked:
This is a great five-mile paddle, made even better by having a destination because it brings about a feeling of purpose. The conditions were perfect and it had me longing for more because paddling the Great Lakes can be really special. You kind of forget how wonderful it can be, because it can be an intimidating prospect with the slightest of bad weather.
But for me, the best part of this trip was paddling with Craig. I basically had my own guide who shared endless stories about his own adventures as well as his knowledge of Door’s rich history.
What we didn’t like:
There’s nothing to dislike about this trip.
If we did this trip again:
I’d absolutely do this again. It’s a great diversion when seeking out paddling opportunities in Door County. Great Lakes paddling isn’t to be taken lightly however – only do it when it’s calm, the wind is slight and the weather looks good. It’ll be much more enjoyable and safe.