A very short and peaceful paddle through one of the most pristine freshwater estuaries in the country, the Mink River is a unique diversion to seek out in Door County.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: August 16, 2012
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Lake Paddling + Flatwater
Considering the estuary is connected to Lake Michigan, levels should always allow for access into Mink River. Lake Michigan levels at the time of this paddle were low (they’ve been dropping for years). It makes for a rocky and shallow entrance/exit to the Mink but hopefully, that’s just temporary.
Put-In + Take-Out:
Rowley’s Bay Resort Dock, Ellison Bay, Wisconsin
GPS: 45.21938, -87.03407
Time: Put in at 3:45p. Out at 5:15p.
Total Time: 1h 30m
Miles Paddled: 4.5
Cranes, birds, fish and unidentified vermin.
I (and it seems like everyone else in Southern Wisconsin) have been itching to paddle since recent trips have been bogged down by low water levels. I was headed to Door County for a week and figured surely there must be some water left in the Great Lakes. Traditionally, I’ve been luke-warm to the idea of lake paddling but I had heard about the Mink River Estuary from a few sources. Most notably, a family member who authored the book Exploring Door County which coincidentally happened to be sitting on the bookshelf in our lake house. It was a clear sign that I needed to check it out.
According to The Nature Conservancy, an estuary is an area in which river water mixes with water from a large lake or an ocean and what makes this one so special is the condition it’s been kept in. “Waters from the Mink River and Lake Michigan combine to form this freshwater estuary. The visitor will enjoy a habitat almost identical to that witnessed by the Potawatomi Indians, who lived here more than 100 years ago.”
This intrigued me enough to put the Mink on my to-do list while in the area since it seemed like a such unique place to paddle. From what I could find online, their wasn’t a clear start and end point so this was going to be a back-and-forth paddle.
What we liked:
Before beginning my journey, I had to wait out a storm. The great part of Door County is that there is a lot to see, explore and everything is seemingly 15 minutes away. While tracking the weather, I made my way around the peninsula. I first headed to Peninsula State Park to take in the beautiful view from Eagle Tower (a lookout 250′ above Green Bay) and then to Newport State Park (just because I’m always curious as to what sets our parks apart from each other) and then for the fun of it I traveled to the Washington Ferry port only because I love traveling what I believe is the windiest road I’ve ever been on (and I still contend that it’s the perfect place to film a car commercial).
The rain finally subsided early afternoon so I headed to the put-in at Rowley’s Bay Resort. It’s a nice little place on the bay with a great little retro bar serving up Fat Tire. I had read that they no longer charge a fee to put-in but there was a sign posted requiring a $5.00 fee. Near the dock is a place called Gravity Trails that rents boats and offers zip line tours as well as other activities. I went in to inquire about the fee and was greeted by a girl with a great scandinavian accent. She told me it was only a suggested donation (I chose to donate $5.00 to the bar for a post-paddle Ranger IPA). She was also very helpful in informing me of the suggested route to the river opening from the dock. The water is quite low (it’s been that way for over a year so it’s kind of a “new-normal”). She told me that I could expect a 5-10 minute walk in the shallows between the lake and the entry of the river so she double-checked that I had some good water shoes with me. Once inside the estuary, she said it was beautiful.
So I set out on the lake. There was very little wind but I did enjoy the rolling of the mild waves pushing Southwest. Once I got to the shallows I was able to navigate without portaging (Although, I think I spotted some doubters who were relaxing in the shade at a nearby cabin). Once in the estuary, it’s very peaceful. It’s the kind of place that if you’re into birds and plants, it’s the perfect place to paddle. Unlike the blue hue of Lake Michigan’s shallows, the water is clear and shallow in some places and deep and darker in others. You’re sure to encounter other paddlers enjoying this unique body of water (I came across three) as well as all sorts of creatures popping there heads (or bodies) out of the water as you make your way.
This is a short there-and-back paddle but great for an afternoon. About half-way through, there is a place to stop on the shore which is the official hike-in opening leading from the Mink River Estuary State Natural Area. It’s offers a nice opportunity to take a break, picnic or explore the trails to extend this trip. There was a specific and obvious end to this paddle where the water fell to only a couple inches deep and there was no clear path to the upstream branches that are suggested on the map.
Heading back I wasn’t able to retrace my route and ended up taking that 10 minute walk over the stones that seemingly separate the river from the lake. Heading back into Lake Michigan was spectacular. The sky, the birds, a fishing kayak on the horizon and the force of the waves beneath my boat made for a fun and stunning return entrance to the lake.
What we didn’t like:
Let it be known that when you’re walking (or stuck) on the rocks in the shallows of Lake Michigan, it looks pretty and clear but when you start kicking up the sediment, it smells… real bad.
If we did this trip again:
While lake paddling isn’t my thing, I’m glad I explored the Mink River. There is nothing overly spectacular about it, just pretty and quiet and I can see it appealing to many paddlers. If I’m in the area, I’d definitely consider doing it again especially if the water is higher. I had originally considered it to be a nice diversion from the lake paddling options in Door County but it turns out that the lake portion was one of the best parts of the trip.
Miles Paddled Video: