I enjoy paddling across lakes and down peaceful rivers, but only for a time. Then boredom settles in.
Additionally, I take delight in a good afternoon beer. But a few too many make me feel like a ne’er-do-well.
In Michigan’s Traverse City — the diamond at the tip of the state’s mittened ring finger — I discovered two things: a means to paddle for an extended period of time without the tedium, and a way to tipple midday without the guilt. The phenomenon of which I speak is paddling for beer.
Traverse City is known for a vibrant downtown that abuts Lake Michigan, and its proximity to Michigan’s best wineries and famous sand dunes. It’s also one of the few places where you can hop in a kayak or on a paddleboard and row to a dozen or so breweries.
For my odyssey, I joined a tour with Kayak, Bike & Brew. First I enjoyed cycling along Lake Michigan, then heading south for a 20-minute ride through the quieter sections of downtown and along the inland Boardman Lake, until the bike path delivered me to Right Brain Brewery.
At Right Brain, creativity oozes out of everything brewed and all things collected in the warehouse tasting room. While I didn’t grab a haircut in the affiliate salon, I did opt for a stool at the bar. The taps featured sour beers heavy with rhubarb and a brown ale infused with peanut butter and Thai chilis (“Pad Thai in a glass”). The brewers sneaked some deliciously normal styles onto the menu, too. But little else is usual: Homer Simpson dangles from the rafters, homemade trophies stand above the line of taps, and a collection of vintage arcade games includes four versions of “Star Wars” pinball.
After my quarters disappeared into Street Fighter II and my first pint disappeared into me, I set off for brewery No. 2. (This might be the right place for a public service announcement: Stick to one or fewer pints per brewery. The beers on this trail are strong.)
From Right Brain, I biked to the northern edge of Lake Boardman, where a row of kayaks awaited at Hull Park. But first, a hundred paces from Hull Park is the Filling Station Microbrewery, an old rail platform now filled with picnic benches and patrons. Some visitors fueled up on flatbreads; I selected from 20 beers and ciders on tap. Nearly a third of the drinks are made with mostly Michigan ingredients, including malts and hops grown across the state.
River of beer
Finally, the river called. It’s a quick paddle on Boardman Lake to the mouth of the Boardman River. On the map, the river looks like an arm akimbo, running from the hip of Boardman Lake to the shoulder of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. Even on a day when winds whipped hard on the bay, the riverbanks and downtown buildings protected me from the elements. All of the beers from here on out would spill from taps within a block or three of the gentle river.
I cruised beneath overpasses, past condos and anglers. Eventually, I reached the dam. While portaging is necessary here, I first set my vessel down on dry land and walked the two blocks to Rare Bird Brewpub.
On tap were chocolate wheats and strawberry-infused IPAs. But Rare Bird’s less peculiar IPAs tasted best. Dam Paddlers, a lime cream IPA, is made in collaboration with tour company Paddle for Pints and might have been my best bet: low-ish in ABV, and “formulated for paddling around TC.” While the decor featured a few oddities, such as a buck head in the restroom and a menagerie of stuffed and silhouetted rare birds, the dark interior offered a peaceful, less zany vibe.
The next part of the tributary is all about timing. When the salmon make their fall run, it’s impossible to paddle through the city’s fish weir because the gates are up. If traveling during the spawning season, one must portage around the weir. Or better yet, schedule your paddle for spring or summer.
Even if the moribund salmon have commandeered the river, on the opposite bank from Rare Bird sits Traverse City’s newest brewery, Silver Spruce Brewing Co. There are no silly beer names or curious wall art here; just crisp, quality brews in modern, clean surroundings.
Past the weir are even more great breweries, from North Peak Brewing Co. to the Workshop Brewing Co. The most obvious spot from the river is Mackinaw Brewing Co. Find a bank to climb up on and sip from a limited menu on a small back patio that looks back out onto your watercourse.
Better, and less obvious, are a few other beermakers in this bustling section of downtown. A few blocks from Mackinaw is the Little Fleet. Technically not a brewery, it crafts its own beer recipes and contracts one of Michigan’s best breweries, the Jolly Pumpkin, to surreptitiously brew under the Old Mission Beer Co. label. The Little Fleet, thus, has an incredible IPA and a pilsner, too. In the warmer months, there’s a little fleet of food trucks on the patio, serving tacos, barbecue, burgers, sushi and dessert.
I walked one more block to Monkey Fist Brewing, which has since been renamed MiddleCoast Brewing Co. and is attempting to replicate the Little Fleet model. Soon, it’ll share its space with a coffee roaster, creperie and burger joint. At the time of my visit, it was mostly a construction site, with a few couches and some more of that fine Traverse City beer.
Kayak, Bike & Brew, aka KaBrew, offers a four-hour pedal-and-paddle tour that includes several Traverse City breweries (from $69 per person; kayakbikebrew.com).
KaBrew’s sister company Paddle for Pints has a six-hour, all-paddle tour from mid-June to mid-August, in waves of 50 paddlers at a time. Purchase tickets months in advance, as trips fill up quickly ($89 per person, includes kayak; paddleforpints.com).
If you prefer to navigate this watery beer trail on your own, Paddle TC will deliver a sturdy craft and a life jacket to your launch point (single kayak $50 for four hours; paddletc.com).
Traverse City, Mich., is about an 11-hour drive east of the Twin Cities. Delta Air Lines flies nonstop to Traverse City’s Cherry Capital Airport in the summer (traversecity.com).
Noah Lederman (@SomewhereOrBust) is the author of a memoir, “A World Erased: A Grandson’s Search for His Family’s Holocaust Secrets.” He has been featured in the Economist, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post.