Lake Huron is known for unique rock formations, amazing shipwrecks, and topography that makes it an incredible destination for a water adventure. Writer Megan Frye and her mother explore The Thumb by kayak, learning about the area and each other. This piece was created in partnership with Pure Michigan.
The wind was blowing lightly as I paddled at my normal speed through the marina of Port Austin, Michigan, toward mighty Lake Huron. Behind me, my mom was doing circles and bumping into docks in the kayak drop-in area.
I’m not a professional, but I have spent most of my 36 summers exploring Michigan’s lakes and rivers on a kayak, though never with my mom. I grew up in Michigan, but since moving to Mexico City four years ago for a teaching job, a challenge my mom encouraged me to meet, I have even fewer opportunities to spend time with her. So when I suggested a seven-mile, out-and-back paddle to Turnip Rock—a rock formation just off the tip of a peninsula that we Michiganders affectionately call “The Thumb”—she was all in, especially because we had never been to this part of the state together before. Her gumption, the same brand as my own, often overrides any apprehension toward the unknown.
Realizing that my mom needed a little extra time to get into the kayaking groove, I glided back to her. We practiced paddling back and forth, stopping and gaining balance. My mom bit her lip in concentration. “This is challenging,” she said. “It’s kind of amazing to have nothing but this small, plastic watercraft between me and an open lake, with nothing but my body to propel it.”
“You have to make peace with the water, Mom,” I said, remembering my own experience with learning to surf. “Work with it and you’ll win.”
With a surface area of more than 23,000 square miles and a maximum depth of 750 feet, Lake Huron is the third largest lake in the world. The word “lake” doesn’t seem to cut it—it’s really a freshwater sea (bigger than the state of West Virginia!). And on Lake Huron, the weather makes the rules. The chance of getting out on the water was about 50/50, as Port Austin Kayak & Bike won’t rent kayaks if winds are higher than 10 mph (the shop encourages people to call at 8 a.m. to ask what the hours for kayak rentals will be that day), so when we found out the weather was perfect, we embarked on the last kayak trip of the day without hesitation.
Turnip Rock Kayaker - A kayaker admires the sandstone rings of Turnip Rock.
The wind eased as we paddled out of the marina onto the lake. The glassy surface and puffy white clouds in the sky offered their assurance, and we laughed about my mom’s initial fumbling as she began to glide effortlessly. “I see why you love doing this so much,” she said, scanning the water below for fish.
Somewhere past the first forested bend, we caught up with more kayakers. A group of shirtless men and bikini-clad women passed us, splayed out across their kayaks exerting seemingly zero force. “They make it look easy,” my mom laughed, though by now she had gotten so good at paddling that she picked up the pace. "Where is that darn rock?" she asked, zooming ahead of me.
We floated around another bend and Turnip Rock emerged. An island separated from the shore by millennia of crashing waves, its layers of sandstone bedrock have been undercut, giving it a wider top than bottom (hence the turnip association). Because it's surrounded by private property and only access by water is permitted, there’s no way to see it without a boat.
The lake levels are high this year, so less of the formation was visible than is typical, but this striking island, with its grassy, pine-tree-dappled top was no less imposing. Swallows dove over our heads and into their nests along its sides. We kayaked along the shoreline, beautiful tan and rust-colored rock on one side, clear water as far as you could see on the other.
“The glassy surface of the lake
and the puffy white clouds in the
sky offered their assurance.”
Any mild concern I might’ve had for my mom vanished as she paddled around Turnip Rock with ease. She is a Finn, after all the granddaughter of immigrant copper miners who settled far north in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, she has an abundance of sisu, a Finnish word describing the type of stoic perseverance associated with the Finns. She was hooked, and I was proud of her. But if pride in each other were a competition, she’d still definitely win.
“This is my daughter, she lives in Mexico City,” she said to a couple who pulled up next to us as we took a break. Midwestern moms are a chatty bunch, especially with strangers. Boasting like this might’ve made me cringe when I was younger, but as I’ve grown older her support has become a lifeline. When I call her during the moments of loneliness and self-doubt that come with living abroad, she reminds me that I am a “born adventurer.”
We watched the shifting blues and greens in the water for a little longer in silence, and then floated into the neighboring bay, where large summer homes perch high up on the rocks. Water echoed through the chambers of rocky caves. “Kayaking is so tranquil,” my mom said as a young fisherman in the distance jumped off his boat for a swim. We paddled on, close to the Port Austin lighthouse, and then back into the marina just in time to return the kayaks before the shop closed.
In the evening, we went to Pak’s Backyard, a splendid establishment with sunny picnic tables, a healthy selection of craft beers, and exactly the kind of food you want after a warm day of working out on the water (think: giant burgers and beer-battered fries). My mom changed seats on the patio, looking for shade, lemonade in hand. “We can do this again tomorrow, right?” she asked. I assured her we would.
Port Austin Harbor - Port Austin’s marina approaching sunset
Harbor Beach, a small community on the western shore of Lake Huron on the other side of The Thumb, is about a 45-minute drive from Port Austin, and was our destination for the following day’s kayaking adventure. On the drive over, we phoned Justin Schnettler, who runs Harbor Beach Kayak with his wife, Samantha. A storm was moving east and he wasn’t sure if we’d be able to get out on the lake.
“Let’s talk in a couple hours,” he said. So on his recommendation, Mom and I went to Smalley’s for “upscale bar food,” as he put it. Inside, a few smiling locals gave us a welcoming nod from the narrow bar. We ordered the specials, pecan chicken salad with raspberry vinaigrette and beef vegetable soup, and talked about her childhood. “When we were kids, my mom used to lock us out of the house every morning in the summer, invite us back for lunch, and then kick us out again,” she said. Our shared love of the outdoors, it seems, is equal parts nature and nurture—a family feature passed down through the generations.
My phone vibrated. Schnettler was ready for us.
For about a year, Harbor Beach Kayak has offered kayak and paddleboard tours of the small bay right from the beach. The big attraction: Two shipwrecks within 300 yards of the drop-in point on the beach at Judge James H. Lincoln Memorial Park. Both the George H. Waud (wrecked in 1878) and the Dorcas Pendell (wrecked in 1914) went aground while seeking shelter from storms on the open lake. As a former science and history teacher, my mom marveled at the idea of visiting Great Lakes shipwrecks, a privilege usually reserved for experienced scuba divers. Schnettler rents kayaks for $15 per hour, which is enough time to see both wrecks.
You can see the Dorcas Pendell from shore when water levels are low, but even beneath two or three feet of water, the view of the 148 by 31 foot schooner is impressive. We floated above it, the bolts that held the massive wooden beams together visible from our vantage point. Mom was all smiles.
“We found the Dorcas Pendell wreck by accident one day,” Schnettler said when we were back on the beach. He, along with his wife, was drawn to The Thumb after college in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in search of affordable living near the water. “Many people who’ve lived here their whole lives don’t know it’s there. Samantha let out all the expletives when she found herself on top of it in a kayak. We thought that would be a cool thing for people to come and see.”
That night, we sat in Port Crescent State Park, which occupies three miles of shoreline between the vacation towns of Port Austin and Caseville. It represents two of Michigan's most iconic and important ecosystems: dunes and wetlands. The fresh scent of the grasses reminded me of childhood summers. It reminded me of home.
Port Crescent River - The Pinnebog River flows through Port Crescent State Park.
Port Crescent is a unique site because it's not far from Detroit but still feels remote. This is partly due to its dark sky preserve, one of seven in Michigan, six of which are in state parks. These designated areas of very little light pollution are primarily visited for viewing the northern lights, though they’re also great for stargazing. The farther north you go in Michigan, the greater the chance that you’ll see the northern lights.
“Our shared love of the outdoors, it seems, is equal parts nature and nurture—a family feature passed down through the generations.”
“I’m glad we came here,” my mom said as the sun set.
“What do you like about The Thumb?” I asked.
She paused. “Well, I’d go just about anywhere with you,” she said with a wink. “But I like how clear and inviting the water is,” she went on. “How comfortable and unpretentious it is here.” Only a few families with children were at the park with us. Not for the first time, I thought about how The Thumb doesn't get as much love as it should.
A few weeks later and a few days before my flight back to Mexico, I sent my mom a photo of the Au Sable River where I was kayaking with friends. “We’ll come here next summer,” I texted. A little heart emoji appeared in response.
Start planning your Michigan vacation here.