Paddling Michigan's Inland Waterway

by  TRAmnesia

A self-supported trip created by TRAmnesia

Trip Overview

I heard about Michigan's "Inland Waterway" that effectively (but not actually) runs west to east from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron, and I convinced my friend, Bill, to do this with me. We're in our very early 60's and have been kayaking around Michigan together for a quite a few years. The length of the route is about 45 miles, so we had to paddle 15 miles (give or take) each of three days. Back in the day, and with different equipment, this could have been done in 2 days, but we had no time limit nor did we have any great expectations regarding our daily mileage abilities.

The Inland Waterway begins at Crooked Lake and a map will show it's just 2.5 miles from Little Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan. You might assume it empties into Lake Michigan, but no, it flows to the east, all the way to Lake Huron!

We both have 12' Perception Sport touring kayaks which will hold a lot of gear, but also ride like barge once loaded. They were also convenient because the cockpit is huge, allowing access to just about anything one may want or need out in the middle of a lake, as long as you keep it within reach.

We began by staging Bill's truck in a Cheboygan marina Lake Huron (with permission) and drove across the state to Petoskey, spending the night in our tents at the State Park on Little Traverse Bay.


First thing in the morning we broke camp, had coffee and a bagel, and drove to the southwest corner of Crooked Lake on Channel Road. We loaded up the kayaks and we were off at 10:10 am. It was a short three miles across Crooked Lake and into the Crooked River, where a lock took us down about 18 inches. Then 5 miles down the river passing through the little town of Alanson, followed by groups of homes, summer cottages, fishing lodges, forest, and open areas of reeds, cattail, and grasses.

Once into Burt Lake, it was another 7 miles to the Burt Lake State Park at the southern end by Indian River. Now it was early afternoon, yet with very little wind, the lake was amazingly calm. It was a bright day on the lake, about 74 degrees with fluffy white clouds and low humidity, just a beautiful late summer Friday afternoon. As more people got home from work and began their weekends by getting their power boats out on the lake, it began to get a little choppy but nothing to fret about. We had time and plenty of daylight to comfortably arrive at our destination.

The challenge was determining exactly where that destination was, but as we got closer to that end of the lake and actually decide what to paddle toward, we were still too far away to make out any real landmarks. On the other hand, one needs to realize that it's impossible to get lost on one of these lakes if you have the stamina to make corrections as we got closer. This is where the Maps App on a smart phone comes in handy as well as the Compass App to determine where you are and what direction you want to go. We hit the beach at the park at 5:30 pm, pretty much what we expected when we pushed of that morning. After checking in at the office, we set up our tents, had a much appreciated hot meal, and settled in with in nice fire.


I usually don't sleep well and I get up early. Bill, on the other hand, likes to sleep as long as he can. So by the time he woke up, I had my tent, sleeping bag, and air mattress rolled up and packed away. But this morning, he wasted no time getting packed and ready to go. It was a long trek from the camp site to the beach and we made at least 3, maybe 4 trips back and forth, but pushed off a little before 8:00 am, over 2 hours earlier than the day before. Indian River was only a quarter mile away and soon we were drifting past some beautiful homes along the river and taking pictures.

After the City of Indian River had faded behind us, we occasionally passed small groups of boat houses, docks, homes, a marina, and the occasional cottages. Passing under the I-75 bridge was a sweet moment for both of us. In Michigan every resident at one time or another in their lives will venture "Up North" for a holiday, a long weekend. or a week long vacation. We go hunting, fishing, camping, boating, and everything else you can think of doing in the great forests, the lakes and rivers, or on the Great Lakes, themselves. I can't begin to guess how many time I've passed over that bridge and looked to the east at the slow moving water of Indian River winding through the reeds of the nature preserve and thinking, "I'm really up north, now." Today, we were in that river, looking up at the bridge.

With all its twists and turns through the preserve, I would guess it was between 7 and 8 miles from the mouth at Burt Lake and its end at Mullett Lake. And once we cleared the reeds and glided into Mullett Lake, the view was unnerving. The bluest sky without a cloud above, 76 degrees, a slight crosswind out of the southeast, and 9.5 miles of smooth lake before us. The far end of Mullett Lake, was so far away that the curvature of the earth almost obliterated the trees at the other end. At Red Pine Point, the lake is only 1.5 miles across but it gets wider the further up the lake until it reaches 3.75 miles across near Aloha. Our goal that day, Aloha State Park, was 7.5 miles up the southeastern shore and the only thing to do - was begin.

It was a long afternoon and the sun was unrelenting, but we persevered. There are about 6 things one MUST take with them: Water, food (trail mix, nuts, pretzels, etc), water, sunscreen, water, and ibuprofen (or your pain reliever of choice). And don't forget to take enough water. We made landfall about 2:30, found our site, and set about pitching tents and getting settled in. As luck would have it, our neighbors were the best and I have to give a shout-out to Terry, his son Gabe, son-in law Travis, and their families from Caro, Michigan. As friendly and generous a group of people you'll ever find. Whatever we needed, they were right there, whether it was a ride to pick up a pizza or fire roasted corn on the cob they swore was the "Best Corn in Caro." I never slept so good.


I don't know if Bill awoke early on his own or whether it was me, stumbling around and knocking things over, that woke him up, and I never asked! But this morning I had already taken my kayak and gear down to the beach, so when Bill was packed to go I helped him with his and we hit the water at 7:00 am. The day will take us down the Cheboygan River out into Lake Huron to our final destination. But first, we have 4 more miles of Mullet Lake to cross to get to the Cheboygan, which is well hidden among the homes and trees along the shoreline. The problem with reflective channel markers is they don't "reflect" if it's dark or if the sun is behind them. But, like before, with a general idea of the direction, you will find it easily enough.

As with the Crooked and Indian Rivers, there is a slight current to help one along so there are a few approaches one can take. First, one may paddle as if there were no current and make very good time. Or, one can paddle just enough to keep the kayak pointed in the right direction and use the time to relax and enjoy the sights and sounds and your traveling partner(s). I think knowing that this was our last day, we chose a combination of the two and tended to relax and chat a little more than we had the previous 2 days. I have a tendency to focus on the goal and work tirelessly toward that goal. Bill, on the other hand, likes to enjoy the moment and will "get there" when he gets there. I've grown to really appreciate Bill's example and I need follow that more often.

Each river also had its own personality and sights. The Crooked River was rural and wooded, the Indian river was natural, bordered by reeds, wetlands, and forest, The Cheboygan was more urban with its proximity to a larger city, the homes were larger, cottages fewer, and expansive lawns and well manicured yards.

Soon enough, we were approaching the city of Cheboygan and then we entered the second lock of the journey, and much larger than the first. We were escorted in with 3 power boats and lined up next to a 32 footer with only a couple feet between us. The Captain looked down over the side of his bridge and quipped, "You guys make a fine bumper!" to which I replied, "You just stay over there and we'll stay over here!" and we all shared a good laugh.

Minutes later we were on our way down 12 feet and out into the last mile of the river. The lower level of the Cheboygan River took us through the city, past a beautiful multi-arch bridge, a pedestrian bridge, and an amazing Bascule bridge downtown.

Finally, we paddled past the USCG Mackinaw (WLBB-30), a huge icebreaker stationed in Cheboygan, and at the mouth, the Cheboygan Crib Light dating back to 1884. Then out into the Straights of Mackinaw to complete the journey at 1:30 on a glorious afternoon. Bill and I toasted our success with a delicious warm beer, then made our way to the marina to load our yaks into Bill's truck where we left it 4 days earlier. We drove back to Crooked Lake where I had left my truck, transferred my gear, and parted ways - He was off to visit his parents for a couple days and I made the 4 hour drive back home in the lower Thumb region of Michigan.

In retrospect, the entire trip was unencumbered by other boaters or any real difficulties such as deadfalls to avoid, rapids to deal with, or portages to struggle with. In all, 4 quiet, calm days of beautiful weather in an exquisite environment, enjoying the days and nights, the sights and sounds, sharing the aches and pains and quiet evenings with a good friend.

I would encourage everyone that's able to undertake a trip like this with one or more kayaking friends to do so. You'll be rewarded many times over by memories of good days with good people. This was a great trip for older paddlers and a great introduction for young paddlers to learn patience, endurance, and adventure.

Safety Notes

Being fully loaded with camping gear as well as clothes, food, and everything else, we decided in case of a capsize, we would abandon the yak and swim to shore with the assistance of the other person and our PFD. For that reason, we did not venture more than a half-mile from shore.

Gear Notes

General camping gear and your kayak of choice.


Slow moving rivers no more than 30 yards wide and open calm lakes are no threat to the average paddler. The skill level required is "Beginner", but may be "Intermediate" due to the endurance requirement of paddling a loaded kayak 15 miles a day. The amount of camping equipment one requires may dictate this.

Portage Notes

Not really portages as one thinks of portages, but rather getting your kayak and gear from the State Park Beaches to your camp sight could be a challenge, but working together, not difficult.

Trip Details

  • Trip Dates: 8/19/2018-8/22/2018
  • Sport/Activity: Kayaking, Canoeing
  • Skill Level: Beginner, Intermediate
  • Water Type: Flat/Sheltered Water
  • Number of Portages: 2

Trip Location