The Water Guides: See the Boardman River, Cedar Lake, and Power Island from a New Perspective
Locals businesses offer guided kayak tours around the region
By Jillian Manning | July 15, 2023
Skip the magic carpet ride: Local kayak guides can show you the world…or at least the watery part of it. From the urban landscape of downtown Traverse City to quiet inland lakes to an island wilderness, these guided tours show you a slice of northern Michigan you haven’t seen before, even if you’ve lived here your whole life.
Paddle TC, the sister company of TC Watersports, has been renting kayaks and offering guided tours since 2015.
“I was born and raised in northern Michigan … and I’ve always liked anything that has to do with water, jet skis, boats, kayaking, [or] paddleboarding,” says owner Jeff Bensley. He worked for a jet ski rental in high school and college and went on to be a teacher, but eventually the water drew him back. “I always had this passion,” he adds.
Paddle TC offers two guided water tours: one that takes you down the Boardman River (aka “A Hull of a Ride”) and another that explores the quiet beauty of Cedar Lake (“A Loon-E Escape”). Both tours are a kayak-bike combo and usually last two or three hours.
Bensley says the Boardman River tour is the most popular, giving folks the ability to see the sights around town, grab lunch, and enjoy an afternoon on the water. But it’s the Cedar Lake tour he waxes poetic about.
“No one really knows about [the lake], and it’s actually the closest lake to downtown,” Bensley says. “It’s gorgeous—that emerald green color is really cool.”
Much of Cedar Lake falls within the bounds of nature preserves protected by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy and the Leelanau Conservancy, including Cedar Run Creek Natural Area and DeYoung Natural Area. (According to the Leelanau Conservancy, Cedar Lake has the greatest amount of shoreline protected of any inland lake in Leelanau County.)
The Loon-E Escape offers a chance to see plenty of wildlife, according to Bensley, including the loons the tour was named for. The Boardman tour, meanwhile, is known for birds and fish—the latter especially during the salmon run in August and September.
It’s the wildlife and beauty of our waterways that Bensley says makes the trip worth it, whether you’re a visitor or a local.
“Just get outside and explore something that [you] haven’t seen before,” he advises. “My cousin had a bachelorette party for family … it was all the cousins and all the aunts and uncles, and they all did the Boardman River trip. … And at the end, my aunt was like, ‘You know, I grew up here, and I don’t think I’ve ever been down on the Boardman.’”
Bensley says that having a guide, even if you’re familiar with the area, offers a variety of benefits, from getting better instruction on kayaking techniques to keeping you on the right track to providing local knowledge about our waterways.
“I think the more people that we get using the resource and the more people that see the resource, the more people that want to take care of the resource,” Bensley says of his approach to inspiring guests to connect with northern Michigan’s rivers and lakes.
He says a kayak trip helps people be “a little more mindful of how they’re treating it and how they’re dealing with their trash and how they’re dealing with the environment and their impact. … I feel like we get a ton of people that might not be as mindful about how to treat the river until they go down the river and think, ‘Wow, that was really awesome. We definitely need to preserve these resources.’”
Paddle TC also offers a kayaking and brewery tour, stand-up paddle board yoga, and several biking tours. Learn more at paddletc.com.
Like Bensley, Ian Ruddy of Explore TC couldn’t stay away from the water. He’s been into kayaking for over a decade—specifically sea kayaking—and wanted to find a way to build a career around his favorite activity.
“I was working in an office environment prior to starting this business, and it was kind of getting to me—I gained a bunch of weight and was generally not not the most satisfied with life,” Ruddy says. “When I was working in my office job, I was thinking about the things that had made me the happiest over the past while, and one of the activities that I had picked up was sea kayaking.”
Explore TC opened in late 2020, and the business makes use of those sea kayaks—which are longer and narrower and better at navigating open water—for its Power Island guided tour. The tour starts at the Bowers Harbor boat launch, hugs the coast of West Bay along to Neahtawanta, and then cuts across the water to Power Island. Round trip, the tour is about seven miles and takes six hours, including lunch on the island.
Why Power Island? “There’s the trail system out here, and there’s tons of little lookouts all over where you can get great scenery,” Ruddy says. “There’s a beach all the way around it on the south side; there’s a lot of sand. The north side is a little bit rockier, but it’s actually really great for kayaks because a lot of the powerboats don’t go there.”
Ruddy says Explore TC also offers custom tours on nearby lakes like Torch and Skegemog, as well as Lake Michigan. (Ruddy especially recommends paddling around Arcadia Bluffs and Sleeping Bear Dunes.) Another favorite spot is around Mission Point Lighthouse, especially in the fall, which Ruddy says is the perfect time for a color tour by water.
Explore TC starts all trips out with some safety protocol, though Ruddy says most folks who go on the tours have some experience kayaking. He also emphasizes proper instruction, and says that he sees folks learning better technique on the way out to the island and having a “night and day difference” on the way back for better speed, control, and confidence.
As for who should be out on the water, Ruddy says anyone who wants to appreciate the beauty of northern Michigan.
“I would encourage people to reflect on why they live here,” he says when discussing why locals should consider picking up a paddle. “This is a huge tourist destination for a reason—it’s because we have so many local natural wonders, and if you’re not participating in it and taking advantage of the place that you live, why are you living here?”
Learn more about Explore TC’s tours at explore-tc.com.