★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Lake Michigan: Ellison Bay

Sister Bay to Garret Bay:
An absolute gem of a sea kayaking experience on crystal-clear jade green waters, enormous bluffs with excellent rock formations, beautiful vistas and even a visible shipwreck right at the takeout, this trip will be enjoyed by beginner or experienced paddler alike.

Lake Michigan Ellison Bay

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 29, 2013

Skill Level: Expert
Class Difficulty: Great Lakes Paddling

Waters End Road, Sister Bay, Wisconsin
GPS: 45.20743, -87.12052
Garrett Bay Road, Gills Rock, Wisconsin
GPS: 45.28584, -87.0511

Time: Put in at 10:30a. Out at 1:15p.
Total Time: 2h 45m
Miles Paddled: 9.5

One green heron, a huge sturgeon and a gazillion gulls and cormorants apiece.


Autumn was just beginning to peep, the morning was sunny and warm, brilliantly imbued with that sky blue sky (to borrow from Wilco) and the wind was gently out of the southwest – perfect for my northeasterly direction. The water was mostly calm, with just enough wave rollick to keep your senses sharp and alert. Behind me, to the south, lay the long finger of peninsular land, which with just enough squinty glint one could discern the other horseshoe-shaped inlet towns nestled in the bay between bluffs – Ephraim, Fish Creek, Egg Harbor – or the many tiny islands dotting the horizon. In short, a gorgeous day for an exquisite trip!

What we liked:
The water quality/clarity is just incredible. Really. Ranging from deep aquamarine, jewel-like jade green and window glass clear, the full effect was far more tropical and Caribbean than Midwest rustbelt with the city of Green Bay not far away. Whether sand, rocks, shelves or fish, you can see everything below you. It’s magnificent.

There are essentially three highlights on this trip; Ellison Bluff, Deathdoor Bluff and the ruins of the Fleetwing shipwreck. The first comes into view after about 3.5 miles of paddling, the second about 4 miles after that and the last right by the takeout.

The bluffs are outstanding, Ellison in particular. It’s huge, a good 200’ high, with craggy, irregularly gnarled concave indents (and maybe actual caves) halfway between boulder-strewn shore and its crown of trees; giant-sized flinty shards of fissured rock like scrolls of birch peeled from its bark. What shoreline there is at the foot of the bluff is a thin jagged playground of dolomite rock fallen from the sheer face of the bluff edifice above, slivered off by wind and wave. There’s not too much room to get out and explore but it’s worth making the effort.

The second bluff, the gravely named Deathdoor, marking the beginning inlet of unbroken wind and thus waves, from the west that squeezes through the tip of the Door peninsula and Washington Island (also quite visible even from this distance), a passage dubbed by the French “La Porte des Morts,” or Death’s Door is in a way, less striking but also less developed, which in Door County means more accessible (i.e., not private property). What it lacks in picturesque fissures is more than made up for in its beach shoreline, which is wider than that of Ellison Bluff. Here you will find a veritable reliquary of cairns and balanced rock sculptures, all seemingly improved, impromptu and in situ. And tourists too but not the usual glut that marks much of the county. (First of all, I too am a tourist. Secondly, the crowd here was walking along the rocky shore and either admiring the sculptures or making their own. One fellow had an easel and was painting the seascape en plein air, as they say. No, I was not an Art History major but I like to play one on paddling websites.)

Finally, there is the shipwreck site. I had known about this beforehand so I was keeping an eye out for it. That said, I had no idea where exactly the site lied – just somewhere in the Garrett Bay area, which is where the takeout is located. I was just about to give up, likening it to finding a needle in a haystack (actually, reasoning that finding a needle in a haystack would have been much easier than a random shipwreck in all of Lake Michigan) when I noticed a couple white plastic bottles bobbing on the water. Hmm… I wondered. Sure enough, each bottle (laundry detergent if I remember right) served as a buoy/landmark indicating the head of each remains. What is quite shocking about this is just how low the water level is in the bay, 10’ maybe 15’ deep, and that however large or small a ship the Fleetwing was, it was so close to shore before running aground and sinking.

Seeing the remains (they’re perfectly visible) is weird indeed and a little spooky. I’m not used to seeing anything that size below me in a body of water (I have a lot to learn about real sea kayaking, when such sizable bodies are not inanimate objects but belong to whales and other living creatures). You can even touch some of the hull with your paddle, it’s that close to the surface. Now, to put this in context, it’s not like you’ll see the wheel or a treasure chest or bulkheads ajar with obscure sundries. But it is an honest to goodness shipwreck right there below you, a hidden piece of the county’s more maritime past lying silently in the bay, a lonely debacle for time immemorial. The juxtaposition of an actual wreck, including whatever violence, confusion or chaos it stirred up, with the beauty of the bay and the landscape, the overall touristy cuteness of Door County, is quite evocative.

What we didn’t like:
Not much but there is a fair amount of private property with lots of big houses that you must paddle past before getting to the good stuff. The takeout is a designated launch site for non-motorized watercraft, which is awesome and quite rare in those parts (or anywhere, really), but a $5 donation is suggested or required.

Also, the “Corcoran Camera Curse” rears its ugly head again! Once more, I had technical issues with a camera on a paddling trip. I was wearing it around my neck, since I had my sprayskirt on. While I managed to take a few pictures before and after launching in Sister Bay, right around the time I was approaching Ellison Bluff, (when I really wanted to take some good shots) I noticed that the latch door housing the memory card and battery was wide open (all by itself). And somehow the latch keeping the battery in place had sprung open launching the battery into the water. All of this was entirely incidental; I have no idea how not just one but two separate latches could have opened simply by wearing the camera around my neck and gently bouncing off my chest from time to time while paddling. No battery, no working camera. So that was that. Lesson learned, don’t blow $400 on a new Nikon Coolpix P500. But the issue has been easily resolved in roughly 10 seconds and zero cents thanks to one piece of duct tape.

If we did this trip again:
I would absolutely, next time going farther beyond the takeout, truly into the belly of the “Door of Death” to the town of Northport or so.

Related Information:
Camp: Newport State Park
Camp: Peninsula State Park
Wikipedia: Ellison Bay
Wikipedia: Gills Rock

Miles Paddled/Driftless Kayaker Video:

Photo Gallery:

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