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It’s 5 p.m. Holly and I dig in and paddle. Hard. The next morning, I stand on the House on the Hill’s porch, overlooking the broad, grassy hillside that sweeps down to Lake St. Clair, where our overturned kayaks lie spread like fingers on the beach’s sandy palm. The last 24 hours have been as delicious as the House’s breakfast this morning—strawberry bread and cherry muffins; coffee-, lemon- and peach-blended butters; a triangle of watermelon stacked with slices of plum, apple, banana and garnished with a sprig of thyme; a flaky pie filled with fresh eggs, cheese, corn and tomatoes.
I sip my coffee and savor the memory of yesterday’s idle five-mile paddle, the Tomalkas’ free-flowing fine wines and happy-hour banter, our gourmet dinner
of duck magret with sweet cherry port inside the elegantly cozy, French country–style Rowe Inn, and the words Holly murmured from her bed just before we drifted off to sleep: “We lived like queens today.”
Now, eyeing the dark sky and the wind-chopped waters below, I raise the hood on my windbreaker. On this day, the longest and most demanding of our journey, it looks like we’ll be toiling like a queen’s subjects. We’ll paddle 12 miles, through the end of St. Clair Lake and on through Ellsworth, Wilson and Benway Lakes, Green River and Hanley Lake—all before lunch—then Intermediate Lake and Intermediate River.
It’s a lot, and there’s a headwind. When we climb into our boats and re-ignite our practiced rhythm—lift, circle, dip—it’s instantly apparent our yapping days are over. For the next hour, Holly and I stroke silently, heads bowed and eyes focused on the gunmetal gray water around us. About halfway across Ellsworth Lake, I glance up. Mike and Lily have already reached the lake’s south end and disappeared around the bend. A blue heron stares at us from a patch of shore weeds. He looks as though he feels sorry for us.
We paddle, paddle, paddle, and I don’t look up again until we pass under a low bridge where a plump lady in overalls sits dangling a fishing line for bass and pike. I gasp in hope. Was that the third bridge we’d been waiting for? There are no houses here, no powerboats, no current—just glistening pockets of lily pads, bowing reeds and the slow drip of water falling from our paddles when we pause to take it all in.
When the water narrows past a bank of dense reeds that quakes with grackles, the cacophony of their cries sounds like a crescendo to our success: Mike and Lily are waiting.
“We made it!” Holly yells.
“One more lake till lunch!” I cheer.
“No,” Lily says slowly, her pale green eyes looking at us as pitifully as the heron’s. “Three more.”
If asked to pick the best part of the Paddle the Chain Kayak Voyage, we easily could point to yesterday’s languid float through the St. Clair Natural Area, the wild jungle shrieks of grackles this morning, or the two dozen geese lifting off into the ashen sky, their wings thundering directly over our heads. We might mention the quaint boathouse and sleepy cottages along the Clam River, the unbelievable turquoise hue of Torch Lake, the fun of riding Elk Lake’s big rollers or floating above the strikingly pretty skeletal remains of trees scattered pell-mell across the bottom of Lake Skegemog—home to osprey, eagles and swans.
And, with stronger shoulders or luck of weaker winds, any of these would be it. But today, after a very hungry Mike finally unfurls a red rope from his fanny pack, lashes both my kayak and Holly’s to his and pulls us through the remaining three lakes—both of us paddling like hamsters in a wheel to keep from being dead weight—I would say the absolute best part of the Paddle the Chain Kayak Voyage is this: the moment our quaking arms toss our paddles on the shore of Intermediate Lake, dig out the cell phone and press speed dial No. 1.
After Weeks drops us at lunch, he deposits Holly and me at the curb of the Grand Victorian B&B, our evening’s lodging. While Mike and Lily opt to press on and brave the headwinds of Intermediate Lake, Holly and I grab fresh-baked cookies from the B&B’s stash, pour ourselves some tea, then spend the afternoon in porch rocking chairs.
That night we toast Mike and Lily over a to-die-for dinner of ahi tuna with wasabi and plenty of wine at Lulu’s swank bistro in Bellaire. We come back to our room at the inn, slather clay masks on our faces and drift off to sleep, our shoulders sore but eager to pick up the paddles again tomorrow.
The forecast calls for clear skies with light winds, and we’ll paddle easily until the end, but we don’t know that yet. Nestled there under our covers as the wind whistles outside, we don’t much care. So long as the cell phone is charged, we know this voyage will demand no more of us than we want to give. We’ll
continue, for a few days more at least, to live like queens. It is a beautiful thing.
COST: $2,000 per couple June 22 through September 9; $1,750 inspring or fall (usually mid-May to late October), taxes included. Take $300 off the price if you provide your own kayaks.