From his base near Beulah in northwest Lower Michigan, Michael Gray has made a living by leading kayak tours to destinations from the coral shores of Central America to glaciered Greenland. But in summer, it’s Michigan where Gray points his paddle, on the Betsie River, which gently snakes through the hills near his home, to wineries along Grand Traverse Bay, and to Lake Superior’s Isle Royale National Park.
One excursion has an ulterior motive: to take folks who may have never been in a kayak on what he calls a “farm to river” experience, while he sneakily serves up a cure for what could be the galloping sensory affliction of the 21st century, NatureDeficit Disorder. It’s the fast-spreading ailment that results from sitting in front of computers, tablets and virtual reality video games instead of getting outside and enjoying the real thing. It’s something that is bound to worsen in this century of increasing artificial intelligence, and Gray’s on a mission to treat it.
His quest actually has roots a few decades earlier. “I went to school to be a park naturalist and thought I wanted to work for the National Park Service,” he says. Reality, in the form of job shortages, derailed that plan. But, nature has a way of whispering in one’s ear, and finally, he answered with the germ of an idea. He likes to say the profession chose him.
After shirt-and-tie gigs, Gray began taking people on paddle trips north. He eventually launched Uncommon Adventures, in the region where urban Traverse City fades into woods and water—the perfect mix of what people come north to experience. The “Taste of the Betsie Day Tour” is one of several adult-oriented, small-group outings that combine locally sourced food and drink on one-day trips offered from June to mid-September. Depending on the season, you might see eagles aloft or salmon under your keel.
On a typical Betsie trip, you’ll meet up in Beulah at St. Ambrose Cellars, where honeybased meads and wines are on tap and in bottles. “When St. Ambrose came on line, it put all the core pieces in place for this trip,” says Gray. The meadery is a great place to begin, with a warm interior and gardens humming with honeybees that offer a glimpse of its parent operation, Sleeping Bear Farms, one of Michigan’s largest honey producers. Head through the large wooden door and sidle up to the bar for a taste of St. Ambrose’s meads, both carbonated and still. Enjoy a sampler while Gray prepares a light lunch that may include a fresh-dressed salad with grilled veggies, cheese, home-smoked baby back ribs and a charcuterie platter. Then it’s a short drive to the river launch.
The preface to this or any trip, Gray suggests, is to remember to just have fun, especially for never-ever paddlers. “You just need to be calm and trust that the equipment is going to perform, and then open your mind to where the river wants to take you. The Betsie’s an unsung hero here,” he says, as he readies our boats and life vests at the riverbank. “It’s a beautiful little river with all sorts of classic northern Michigan things going on. In summer, you might see a steelhead but you’re more likely to see critters like eagles, osprey, songbirds and of course, lots of deer. On the banks, you might see footprints of lynx or even an occasional black bear.”
We began by gently easing into the Betsie’s clear, cool water, settling our very stable Dagger kayaks into the current. We had the river to ourselves. The only sound came from branches dipping here and there into the current, water dripping from our paddles and bees visiting the bank wildflowers.
Gray led, knowing the sand and gravel bars to avoid. I initially scraped over one or two before getting used to watching him and the Betsie’s hints. Eventually, we found a pebbly bar where we could pause to stretch our legs and cool our toes in the mid-August heat. A few minutes later we scrunched off the golden gravel and were on our way, Gray pulling forward to point out dark darting shadows in the river’s holes. They were the first salmon that had run up from Lake Michigan to herald fall spawning season’s start.
The river was low and gentle. Gray says there are other stretches a tad more challenging, but for this event, he likes to keep things simple. You’d never know it, he points out, but Crystal Mountain, one of Michigan’s premier all-season resorts, was just over the tree ridge.
“You can get disoriented, and half the fun is feeling like you’re in the middle of nowhere,” he says. Several bends later, there was our takeout spot, near a small country bridge. Only then did we see other kayakers behind us. After cinching the boats onto his roof rack, it was on to the last leg, a visit to Iron Fish Distillery a few minutes’ drive away.
Iron Fish is one of the nation’s few “farm distilleries.” It grows the grains on-site to make its vodka, gin and whiskies, especially bourbon aged in maple syrup barrels. Gray’s link with Iron Fish is serendipitous—he and co-owner Sarah Anderson went to Michigan State University together. Sarah and husband, Richard, and Sarah’s sister Heidi Bolger and her husband, David Wallace, run the farm. Distiller Daniel Krolczyk is the magician amongst the tanks and tubes.
“They’re all about the river and them being part of the Betsie watershed made it even more relevant,” says Gray. It’s a natural fit with his excursions, which follow his “uncommon philosophy” of positive outdoor experiences that are “fun, self-propelled, and offer various degrees of physical challenge, from mild to wild.”
“My focus is more reawakening people’s sense of wonder in being outdoors and remembering what it was like when they were kids, gleefully looking at a dragonfly in the sun along the river, for instance. If we don’t remember what that’s like, we’re going to totally lose touch with it.”
This article originally appeared in the 2018 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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