Cruising Michigan’s Great Lakes

By CASEY WARNER
Michigan Department of Natural Resources

With more than 3,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline and thousands of miles of rivers and streams, Michigan offers ample opportunity to traverse the state over the water – no matter the size or speed of your vessel.

While designated water trails are a relatively recent development, use of Michigan’s waterways for transportation isn’t new.

Historical Significance of Our Waterways

Grand Haven State Park
Gorgeous summer day at Grand Haven State Park – Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“Our harbor system along the Great Lakes is the first water trail system we’ve had in this state,” said Jordan Byelich, waterways development program manager for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “In fact, going back hundreds of years, the Great Lakes served Native Americans and Europeans as a water trail system.”

Native Americans first used Michigan’s waterways for sustenance and trade, early European settlers used them to transport goods and timber, and water resources were the foundation of Michigan’s earliest manufacturing and shipping industries.

By the 1800’s shipping lines were well established on the Great Lakes as the primary mode of transportation. The concept of going up north for the long weekend was born by the ability for workers in Detroit and Chicago to luxuriously cruise north to Michigan’s resort areas. They could spend the weekend with family staying for the summer and return overnight by Monday morning.

These waterways also had a significant impact nationally.

“The Great Lakes and a network of rivers opened the vast American heartland to a nation moving west. Inland waterways are a road map to much of the nation’s history,” explains a passage from the National Museum of American History’s online exhibition “On the Water: Stories from Maritime America.”

“They guided the travels of Native Americans, explorers from Europe, and streams of newcomers who established businesses, towns, and cities. … Inland waterways helped hold together the people and economy of the nation as it grew throughout the 1800s.”

Today, while still important for industrial transport, Michigan’s waters often host more leisurely travelers.

Michigan consistently ranks among the top three states in the nation for watercraft registrations and boat sales.

Recreational boating has an economic impact of more than $7 billion annually in Michigan, according to data from the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

Cruising from Harbor to Harbor Along Michigan’s Shore

Cedar River State Harbor Dedication, June 2005 – Michigan Department of Natural Resources

As boating became a popular pastime, the state set out to provide safe public access to the Great Lakes and inland waters of Michigan.

In 1947, the state Legislature created the Michigan State Waterways Commission – a seven-member advisory board that works with the DNR on the use of dedicated funds, provided by boaters, for the acquisition, development and maintenance of public harbors and boating access sites.

So began the state’s Great Lakes Harbors Program. The Waterways Commission was granted authority and supporting funds to create a marine “highway” along the 3,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline.

From 1947 to 1964, the commission developed the majority of Michigan’s harbors of refuge, providing tens of thousands of boaters safe harbors and hospitality as they circumnavigate the state.

In 1966, the commission became part of Michigan’s Department of Conservation, the precursor to the DNR.

“Today, the number of safe harbors has grown as the Waterways Commission continues its mission to provide safe public access to the Great Lakes and inland waters of this state,” reads the Michigan Harbors Guide. “The program’s goal is to locate harbors so that no boater will ever be more than 15 shoreline miles from safety.”

Michigan Harbors Map
Michigan Harbors Map – Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Boaters have paid for much of this harbor network through taxes on marine fuel purchases and boat registration fees. Under the Waterways Grant-In-Aid Program, local units of government are given grant funds for construction of facilities. Federal funding also supports the development of harbor facilities.

“Of the over 80 public harbors, most are operated by our Grant-in-Aid partners,” said Linnae Dawson, DNR recreational harbor coordinator. “GIA harbors are owned and operated by a local unit of government but have received waterways funding in the past.”

Local communities are responsible for continuing operation and maintenance of harbor facilities. The state only considers assuming these responsibilities where local resources are unable to support them, so the DNR operates only 18 of Michigan’s harbor facilities.

Information about planning a day or overnight trip to one of Michigan’s 83 state-sponsored harbors is available on the DNR’s ‘Boating the Great Lakes’ page. Here boaters can find access to the digital harbor guide, including harbor locations, amenities, reservation information and more.

Michigan also has more than 1,300 public state and local boating access sites, both developed and undeveloped.

Paddle Michigan’s Water Trails

Kayak in the water
DNR biologist Nick Kalejs led a short kayak expedition on the Muskegon River through the Muskegon State Game Area as part of the DNR’s Wetland Wonders Challenge II, a program designed to foster appreciation for wetlands and Michigan managed waterfowl areas. Marie Kuehl.

While boating has long been a popular pursuit for Michiganders, participation in paddle sports like kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddle boarding has flourished in recent years.

In 2018, to offer paddling travelers more opportunities, the state first designated water trails – eight waterways totaling 540-plus miles that flow through more than a dozen counties.

A water trail is a designated route on a navigable waterway such as a lake, river, canal or bay, which is designed and managed to create a positive outdoor recreation experience for the user.

Paddleboarding Michigan's Waters
Paddlefest 2013, Aloha State Park. – Michigan Department of Natural Resources

They feature well-developed access points, often are near significant historical, environmental or cultural points of interest and often have nearby amenities like restaurants, hotels and campgrounds.

“Water trails naturally are an increasing trend in Michigan and throughout the country, as interest in paddle sports and other water-based recreation continues to grow,” said DNR Parks and Recreation Chief Ron Olson. “We are pleased to help advance these opportunities by recognizing model public water trails that set the standard for the future of Michigan’s water trails program.”

Paul Yauk, the DNR’s state trails coordinator, said that Michigan is in a great position to work with partners to create a statewide water trails program that complements Michigan’s broader trails system.

“Designating these rivers as official water trails shines an even brighter light on some incredible natural resources,” Yauk said. “We fully expect that offering – and expanding – water trail opportunities in Michigan will encourage more outdoor recreation and healthier lifestyles, and also serve as regional destinations that will give a boost to local economies.”

Whether it’s cruising the Great Lakes or paddling down a quiet stream, there are plenty of opportunities to explore Michigan while traveling by water.

If you’re planning a boating or paddling trip, please be aware that rising water levels on Michigan lakes, rivers and streams can present hazards for boaters, swimmers and others enjoying the outdoors. Find tips on keeping you safe in and around higher water levels, plus ideas for lessening the impacts to fish and wildlife, at Michigan.gov/HighWaterSafety.Learn more about boating at Michigan.gov/Boating and about water trails at Michigan.gov/DNRTrails.

Check out previous Showcasing the DNR stories in our archive at Michigan.gov/DNRStories. To subscribe to upcoming Showcasing articles, sign up for free email delivery at Michigan.gov/DNR.


Port Austin Street Scene 1951

First called Byrd’s Creek, after Jeduthan Byrd, who built a sawmill here in 1839. Selling his firm to Rollin Smith, Alfred Dwight & P.C. Austin, it had been renamed Dwightville for Alfred Dwight in 1854.

Alfred Dwight put a street light on a pole for a lighthouse, the vicinity came known as Austin’s Dock, then Austin Port, and finally Port Austin. Rollin Smith became the primary postmaster in January 1856. The community was incorporated into a village in 1887.

If you’re looking for something new to do on your visit to Port Austin Michigan, we have some fantastic and unique ideas. Here 15 Amazing Things to Do In Port Austin Mi.

1881 Michigan Forest Fires

Michigan Forest Fires
The fires made national news.

Michigan Forest Fires in the 1800s Impact Today

The great Michigan forest fires of 1881 swept over four counties in three days, destroyed nearly two million dollars’ worth of property, and killed one hundred and twenty-five people. Their extent and irresistible power were largely due to atmospheric conditions. The summer of 1881 was excessively dry, and the drought had done its work nowhere more effectively than in the wide, blunt, tongue of land which lies between Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. At the northern end of this tongue is Huron County. It was one of the worst fires in Michigan forest fire history.


Related Michigan Forest Fire Reading

  • In 1881, 138 years ago, over a series of several days, a devastating fire overtook the Thumb. Here is a synopsis of the days of that horrific event and its aftermath. Great Michigan Thumb Fires of 1881
  • The summer of 1871 was dreadfully hot and dry in Michigan’s Thumb. Farmers watched their crops wither in the dry heat. In the fall, relief from the drought was no better. Folks began to worry that there were to be some lean winter months ahead. The heat and the lack of rain did not only affect eastern Michigan. The conditions stretched west into Wisconsin and northern Illinois. The whole region was a tinderbox for the great fire of 1871. 1871 Great Fire – The Burning Great Lakes
  • The Great Michigan Fire of 1881 devastated one town above all others; Parisville. Parisville Michigan was Founded by Polish immigrants escaping the oppression of the Prussian Empire, this community claims to be the first Polish settlement in North America. 1881 Fire: The Devastation of Parisville
  • Michigan’s Forest Fires in the 1800-1900s

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All of Minnesota’s Electricity Generation Needs Can Be Met by Wind and Solar

Renewable Project

From 2012 – All of Minnesota’s electricity generation needs can be met by wind and solar sources combined with improvements to the state’s electric grid system and energy efficiency policies, according to a report released. “Renewable Minnesota: A technical and economic analysis of a 100% renewable-energy based electricity system for Minnesota” was researched and written by Dr. Arjun Makhijani and Christina Mills of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) in Takoma Park, Maryland and Dr. M.V. Ramana of Princeton University.

Researchers reviewed the energy production demands and compared to production potential from Wind and Solar methods and found that Minnesota can meet 100% of its energy needs from renewables. In a study published March 2012 the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research based it model on Minnesota energy usage from 2007.

Major components of their analysis are the use of renewable energy storage technology and smart grid technology. The storage technology that they assumed is compressed air energy storage (CAES), which has been used commercially for decades with coal-fired power plants in two locations: Germany and Alabama. Compressed natural gas storage in caverns and aquifers is also a standard technology. CAES is only one option for commercial scale storage technology, and because it has a proven track record, they used it as the placeholder technology for the storage capacity needed.

Renewables Feasible to Replace Fossil Fuels

Wind Turbine

A renewable energy-based electricity sector is technically feasible, using available and proven technologies. If this is supplemented with an intelligent grid with two-way communication and more efficient use and integration of distributed generation and storage resources, this can help reduce the costs of implementing a renewable energy-based electricity sector.

There are ample renewable resources in Minnesota. There is more than enough wind and solar energy potential to meet the entire 2007 demand of Xcel Energy’s customers every hour and to accommodate growth in the foreseeable future. These technologies are already commercially available. While we have not examined the subject in detail here, there is evidence that the requisite amount of utility-scale storage technology can also be installed within the state.

An efficient, renewable electricity system can be achieved at an overall cost comparable to the present total cost. The added costs of renewable energy generation, as compared to the current generation from mature and fully-depreciated fossil fuel and nuclear generation facilities, can be offset by increasing the energy efficiency of household and building appliances. The net costs of electricity services – lighting, cooling, running appliances, etc., would be the same as today, but partitioned between generation, storage, efficiency, transmission and distribution.

Energy efficiency lowers the effective cost of electricity services and electricity bills.

The full study can be found at Renewable Minnesota.

Related Reading


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Climate Change in the Great Lakes

Climate Change

It was December 1st, 2012 and I was listening to no less than three lawnmowers running in my neighborhood in the suburbs north of Detroit. I refused to participate. I’ll admit it was tempting to neaten things up a bit but somehow the idea of running a lawnmower in the same month as Christmas at this latitude strikes me as wrong. What is going on? 

Fast forward to December 2019, here we are again. Temps in the upper 50s in late December and I hear leaf blowers in the neighboorhood, not snow blowers. NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) reported that November 2019 was the planet’s second warmest November since record-keeping began in 1880. NASA also considered November 2019 as the second hottest November on record, a scant 0.04°C behind the record-setting November 2015.


Climate Change and Great Lakes Water Levels

Climate Change
Channel Buoy Aground at Caseville Harbor 2012

Back in 2012, it was feared that up to 30 small harbors in Michigan would not open the following year due to low water levels on the Great Lakes. The Caseville harbor was about 18 inches away from being worthless. When we were up for Thanksgiving I noticed a large crane at the Huron Yacht Club (HYC) staged for dredging. The water was below the break wall at the HYC and some portions of the wall at Hoys Marina are in danger of being undermined because the water is no longer holding up the wall. I seriously wondered if we could be able to get Trillium (A 27’ Catalina Sailboat with a 4’ keel) out in the spring.


Climate Change Forces Action Many Will Not Like

Climate Change
Caseville Harbor during low water in 2012 

In 2012 the Detroit Army Corps of Engineers released a report that confirmed my worst fears.  Back then, we have matched the low water point in Lakes Huron-Michigan that was the last set in 1964, 48 years ago. What are worse were the projections.  If they held true, we were guaranteed to fall below the low water mark record through April 2013. (We didn’t) However, if there is a period of too little rain and snow then the situation could easily get to the point where no boat drafting more than 3 feet will be able to use a slip in Caseville. I’m sure that the same situation existed in Port Austin and Harbor Beach.

Now seven years later in 2019, we have the effect in reverse. Due to high rainfall over the entire Great Lakes region, we have near-record water levels in all of the lakes.


What is the Definition of Climate Change

Saginaw Bay Beach High Water
Beach Erosion due to High Water Levels in 2019

Simply put it’s a change in global or regional climate patterns. Particularly a change apparent from the mid to late 1900s onwards and attributed largely to the increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by human use of fossil fuels. Climate change also refers to notable changes in global temperature, rainfall, wind patterns and other measures of climate that occur over several decades.


Climate Change and Relationships

Climate Change
Are Snow Days Gone?

It was the 1st of December 2012 and a balmy 52F. Fast forward to December 26th, 2019 and the high was 58F. When I was 10 years old in 1974 we had almost 2 feet of snowfall in Detroit in December. That was the second-highest snowfall ever recorded. The dads in the neighborhood all piled into a Pontiac Bonneville to make a beer run and the moms made chili and toddy’s and gathered at the house at the end of the street to sled on their huge hilly driveway and otherwise goof off. Nowadays the weather would never deliver such a break and I would still be expected to log in remotely and do a day’s work via the Internet and cell phone. Have we lost some of the civility with climate change and technology?


Related Climate Change Articles


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The Critical Lessons of the Flint Water Crisis

As far back as 2015 ThumbWind started ringing the warning bell as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s Financial Manager Darnell Earley authorizes the utilization of the Flint River as a point water source for the city. Needless-to-say the rest is history. The Flint Water Crisis resulted in 1000’s of people becoming poisoned with lead and $100’s of millions spend to remediate the debacle.  I was recently approached by some folks in Ireland from the Water Filter Men who provided this awesome infographic to update us on this modern crisis. 

Infographic on the Flint Water Crisis

Infographic provided by The Water Filter Men is an online stockist of water filtration products based in the town of Dundalk in Ireland. It is known as a well-respected stockist of products such as reverse osmosis water filter systems, UV sterilizer systems, and water softeners. 1000’s of individuals from all over the United States converged into Flint Michigan to donate their time and skills to alleviate the disaster of lead contamination with the Flint water system. Here are a couple of things to know that may help you hit the ground running during a major disaster.

The Great Lakes Oasis Threatened

Great Lakes Water Levels

The Great Lakes Region hosts the largest supply of freshwater on the planet. The entire region enjoys mild seasons due to the mitigation by the lakes of extreme weather. Indeed the entire area surrounding the Great Lakes area may be considered an oasis as the extreme effects of global warming start to take hold. 

The net effects of Climate Change are contributing to wild swings in Great Lakes Water Levels. In 2013 all the lakes were at their lowest levels since 1963. In 2019-2020 four out of the five Great Lakes Water Levels are hitting record highs. High lake levels erode shorelines and damage property and shoreline roads. Some communities are asking for a state of emergency to deal with high water levels.

Yet there are threats to this resource. Foreign companies are pumping millions of gallons of fresh clean water everyday from the Aquifers that are fed and supported by the Great Lakes. They don’t pay for the resource and profit handsomely.  Read about the reaction Michigan citizens are having against the Michigan DEQ and Nestle. 


End of the Road in Michigan

Ora Labora’s Growing Pains

Ora Labora – A Lost Colony in Michigan’s North – Part III

Part III of the Ora Labora story takes place in 1864. The costly building to accommodate the  colonies 140 residents was costly and the community needs cash to grow. It was time for drastic measures. News of the raging war in the south was looking like the demand for more soldiers was looming. Leaders of the colony knew it would be months or weeks before conscription would take their finest young men.

Ora Labora
Wild Fowl Bay – Site of the Colony.

The Michigan land office had refused to do further business with Emil and the society’s leadership board. Any future land acquired would have to be done though individual settlers. To compound his troubles a former member of the colony knew the financial problems. Trouble was coming for Ora Labora. Read more about the third part of the Ora Labora story.

Alexis de Tocqueville on the Saginaw Trail

In 1831, 26 year old Alexis de Tocqueville and his friend Gustave de Beaumont, took the ultimate road trip. The pair of French aristocrats journey from Buffalo New York to the Straights of Detroit with the intent of going to the last overland outpost of civilization; Saginaw.

Their travels predate Michigan’s statehood, the lumber industry and homestead settlement, the story weaves a tale of what early Northwest territory life was like in the early 1800s. We travel with them along the famous Saginaw trail meeting unique individuals hacking their way into virgin forests and the meeting it’s native inhabitants. It’s also a commentary of the environment and how supposedly civilised society will forever impact nature.

This small short story takes place 180 years before today’s concept of climate change. It’s a fascinating short story that is an excerpt of the book A Fortnight in the Wilderness and is now freely available for the first time anywhere as a podcast on Google Podcast and Apple Podcast