The word ‘ninja’ brings to mind silent assassins running through the forests of medieval Japan and cheesy B action movies with terrible plots and even worse special effects. The word itself has become heavily overused in modern society. People are obsessed with ninjas. Movies, cartoons, anime, and even paddling equipment makers like NRS have used the name ‘Ninja’ as a hook to draw people in, but for me the name brings to mind a special activity, something I like to call “Ninja Paddling.”
Once a month at Woods & Water Ecotours we guide a moonlight kayak trip where we take clients out to watch the sunset and then to watch the full moon and we get off the water at about midnight roughly. Paddling at night is a magical experience. Tiny noises travel miles across still water and tiny pinpricks of light become all you need to navigate by. The recreational boat traffic all but vanishes, and you become the only vessel on the water. It may be intimidating but night really is a great time to be out paddling.
The Origins of Ninja Paddling
The name ‘Ninja Paddling’ came about as a bit of a joke. My buddy Jay and I would occasionally take a late night kayak trip around the waters of the Les Cheneaux Islands both to practice our navigation skills and also just for the hell of it. We would bring lights and all the necessary safety equipment along but would try our hardest to not use our lights unless we absolutely had to. To add to the stealth quotient we also used our Greenland paddles so that we could paddle absolutely silently if we so pleased. Moving absolutely silently on the water without any light it was a pretty easy jump to make to ninjas. I said to Jay on one of our maiden trips that “We’re like ninjas on the water.”After that the name stuck. After that a ninja-paddling trip came to have the simple following criteria:
- Must be done between sunset and sunrise.
- Lights may be carried but are to only to be used if absolutely necessary.
- Every attempt must be made to be unnoticed on the water while not compromising personal or group safety.
Ninja Paddling on Summer’s Shortest Night
So with the groundwork set, let me share my longest ninja paddle yet. The day of June 21st 2011 was an ordinary day. I showed up to work and set about my tasks of organizing logistics for trips and talking to clients and preparing for guiding a trip to Isle Royale that was fast approaching. Around 2 PM, I realized that it was the summer solstice. This meant that it was the longest day of the year and accordingly the shortest night of the year. By about 2:10 PM I had conjured up the idea of ninja paddling that night since it was a special night. By about 2:11 I remembered that I had the next day off and then the gears really got turning. The idea that ensnared me was “Why not paddle all night?”
I departed a few minutes after sunset with threatening weather on the horizon, but I was undaunted. I was hoping for a clear and warm summer night but that never materialized. I was greeted by a ceiling of low, rain-filled clouds. I headed east out of Hessel, MI, and took the first few hours of paddling easy since I was bundled up in my dry suit and didn’t want to overheat. But I had to pick up my pace when I was making a short island hop in the middle of the island chain and wicked heat lightning began to flash to the west. I paddled through a narrow passage between two islands and made it out to the outside of the islands. Lake Huron was agitated. The wind was fluky and gusty and the clouds were dark and menacing. I took a break to stand on the shore for a while and watch the weather. Heat lightning flashed regularly over the Straits of Mackinac and occasionally a big flash would light up the whole of my view and for that snapshot of time every tiny detail of the shoreline was illuminated. The eerie part of watching the weather was that there was no thunder.
Seeing the approaching storm I decided to make a break for it. I was at a relatively remote part of the islands, and if I tarried about and didn’t get back to the mainland I may have had to spend part of the night huddled in the trees for shelter. I had my sleeping bag and bivy just in case I did get stranded but I thought I had enough time to make it to civilization. I left the outer shore and headed into the islands again. I made it into Cedarville at about 1 AM in a gusty wind and spitting rain. I pulled up at the municipal boat launch and had a short wander through Cedarville. A stormy Tuesday night in a remote town in the UP of Michigan isn’t exactly an exciting place to be, so I returned to the boat launch and had a snack instead of wandering.
I was prepping to head back out when the thunder cell that had given me the light show over the straits came rumbling overhead. I was landlocked for the foreseeable future. Luckily, there is a little gazebo at the launch that gave me a bit of protection from the rain but not the wind. So when the storm finally passed to the east I left Cedarville a bit past 2 AM in a heavy rain with temperatures dropping.
The water around Cedarville is a shallow vegetated bay with a narrow boat channel that links the east and west areas of the island chain. I had thought about camping near the east entrance of the islands and watching the sunrise from my bivy but as I pointed my bow into the inky darkness of several miles of water with a strong headwind I reconsidered my plan. So I headed back west skirting the edge of a marshy patch of thick reeds with a strong beam wind trying to blow me into the marsh. I navigated lightless for a while using only the direction of the wind and the sound of the tall water plants brushing against my boat for bearing, but after a few minutes I decided I needed to break my rule and turn on my lights. As my headlamp flashed on I saw, to my horror, a massive swan only a boat length away. Since mute swans are about as vicious as velociraptors I nearly wet myself at the sight and frantically back paddled as the sleepy swan snuck into the marshy grasses. I sped past the swan and eventually left the marshy shores of Cedarville.
In the middle of the Les Cheneaux Islands is Snow’s Channel. The channel is a historic area of old houses, cottages, and boat houses full of antique mahogany Chris Craft speed boats. I had passed through on my way toward Cedarville a few hours before and now I had the cool wind at my back. I paddled along but for the most part just coasted and let the wind blow me down the channel. It was at this point that I used my lights again. It wasn’t for navigation at this point since many boathouses had lights on that I could see easily through the rain. It was to see if there were boats in the boat houses. With the tail wind and constant rain I was starting to get chilled. Every now and then I would float into an empty boat house and just sit in my boat in the darkness — ninja camping so to speak. My weary brain ran through the scenarios of how some homeowner would walk into their boat house in the night to stumble upon a kayaker taking a rest and the awkward conversation that would follow. This never happened though. All that happened is my day started to catch up with me as the novelty of a summer solstice ninja paddle faded. I yawned profusely as I warmed up in the shelter of the boathouses, and I dreaded heading back into the rain. I thought about the stories of how people, including one of my instructor trainers Greg, had outfitted their boat so they could sleep in them. I wished I had been paying more attention to the details because I was starting to consider it. But now that I think of it, a homeowner finding a kayaker sleeping in their kayak in their boathouse would probably be a really awkward conversation by comparison.
The rain stopped about an hour and a half before sunrise and a while later the cloudy sky started to brighten. I paddled back into Hessel after my leisurely but cold paddle from Cedarville and dragged my boat out of the water at the public beach. It was about 5:15 AM when I had loaded my boat and gear into my car and headed home. I didn’t watch the sunrise like I had planned but seeing that I wouldn’t be able to see it I was okay with that. I was more excited about seeing a dry bed than a soggy sunrise.
I had completed my goal of ninja paddling from sunset to sunrise on the shortest night of the year, mostly. The rain, wind and thunderstorm had made it a very unique experience. It’s what ninja paddling is all about really. It’s about taking a normal route and turning it on its head by going out when the earth is turned on its head. It’s cathartic and meditative yet exciting and tense all at the same time. This is the path of the Ninja Paddler.