They’re not words you expect to hear straightaway about a marathon solo crossing by kayak of a Great Lake.
Yet Mike Stout of Prior Lake insists solitude and serenity propelled him more than any wind across Lake Michigan from west to east.
Stout launched his 17-foot Quest sea kayak just before 8:30 a.m. July 24 within view of the historic Rawley Point Lighthouse near Two Rivers, Wis., that warned mariners a century and more ago. About 56 miles and 16½ hours later — several hours more than planned — he landed on the sandy Michigan shore, north of Ludington.
If the word “fear” entered his mind that long day and night as his shoulders ached and shifting winds and endless waves threw him off course, he’d learned by then to push back the dark. It was his second time crossing Lake Michigan (and third of a Great Lake).
“If you can’t compartmentalize the risk and block out the fears, you’re vulnerable,” said Stout, 59. “You’re likely to fail.”
Another kayaker, Haris Subacius, was one of a group of four who crossed the lake in 2010 when they were members of the Chicago Area Sea Kayakers Association. Like the water, all sorts of expected challenges well up, he said. It’s the unknowns that are part of the adventure’s psychic hold.
“There are so many reasons not to do it, and no one can quite name the reason to do it. It’s long, it’s tedious, it’s hard work and uncomfortable, it’s monotonous, it’s risky,” Subacius said. “I did it because the opportunity was there and I was curious about what it would be like. … Doing it solo is a whole different level.”
Connected to water
The seed of Stout’s current outdoors life sprouted when he was young, growing up in the Grand Rapids, Mich., suburb of Comstock Park, where he first put a paddle to water on the Grand River. Lake Michigan and its beaches and dunes were close, and there was a family place on Lake Huron, too. “I had a respectful fear of the big lakes,” he said.
All these years later, kayaking became the means to return. By chance, Stout said, he gave it a try in 2016. Already in good physical condition, he considered kayaking a weekend escape, with local outings on Prior Lake. Then he was challenged by a client of his business development firm to think bigger, grander. What about the Minnesota River, the Mississippi, the St. Croix? Upper Michigan?
Stout did go big — quickly. He honed his technique and his endurance. Weekend kayak trips were 40, 50 and 60 miles over the next few months. He was smitten with the scenery and the personal challenge. “Almost immediately, I said, ‘You know what? My goal this year is to cross Lake Michigan.’ ”
His girlfriend at the time discouraged him, but Stout kept telling friends of his plans if moderate weather and low winds allowed an attempt. He was enthusiastically committed and prepared. “The fresh air. The outdoors. The adventure. It really had everything going for it that you otherwise couldn’t experience,” he said.
On Aug. 3, 2016, Stout completed his first crossing (52 miles) of Lake Michigan in 15½ hours. He’d felt prepared for the demands; he’d accumulated more than 500 miles on the water in the run-up.
Since that period, he’s crossed Lake Superior (2017, with 27 hours over two days, from Grand Portage to Houghton, Mich.); raced 75 miles across Puget Sound in Washington state (2018); and racked up countless long-distance trips on Minnesota rivers and lakes in 2019. A return to Lake Michigan this summer was the puzzle piece to complete his goal of 5,000 miles in the seat of his Quest in the five years since he took up the sport.
In heading back to Lake Michigan, Stout wasn’t as interested in repeating history as making it. He thought he could become the first kayaker to make a solo round-trip crossing of the Great Lake. He felt capable. He’d put in 800 miles since March 1 — when ice still was on the Minnesota River.
Stout watched lake forecasts. He wanted three consecutive days with manageable winds. He’d launch if winds were less than 8 mph, and he’d go “with caution” if they were between 8 and 12 mph, he said.
Possibilities rose, only to deteriorate, the lake showing its mercurial temperament. Stout realized a single crossing was his best hope. With local police and the U.S. Coast Guard alerted to his plans and safety gear and nourishment aboard, Stout launched. His plan was to land on the Michigan shore 12½ hours later.
The lake thought otherwise. Winds shifted out of the south and eventually blew out of the east. The waves were working against him, too, he said, and he knew he was off course and making little progress based on GPS readings he took hourly.
Still, he was resolute. Fourteen hours into the trip and weary, he made a sharp corrective maneuver to the southeast that involved “sprinting” for the next two hours. Soon he could hear waves crashing on shore.
“Never did I have a sense of doubt or fear or worry,” Stout said. “Those thoughts would try to creep in, but you block it. Nope, I can’t spend any kind of energy on that. How lucky am I to be able to do this?”
Despite the constant, forceful wind, he said the crossing was easier than his others because of his experience. But no less meaningful. The canopy of stars, the chance to speak to the heavens, the hope that his adventure would inspire others — all were fuel to finish. “It’s really special,” he said.
Among the Great Lakes, he said, Michigan has been the most inviting. Even encouraging. He senses it beckoning him to return for a possible round trip.
“If I do pick it up, it’ll be intense.”