The Great Lakes Bay Region is a great playground for a day on the water

“It’s just so tranquil: different seasons, the river changes, all the time. It’s just a wonderful experience to be out in nature — a feeling you can’t express until you get in a kayak and float down the river.” Those are the words of Glenn Isenhart, the owner/operator of Ike’s Mobile Kayak Rentals in Midland.

This year will be Isenhart’s ninth year in business. He rents kayaks to individuals and groups of up to 28 persons. What sets his business apart? “I will meet the customer where they’re going to end up and transport them to the launch location.” His main hub is the Chippewa River.

Ike's Mobile Kayak Rentals rents kayaks to individuals and groups of up to 28 persons.Isenhart is one of several kayak rental vendors in the Great Lakes Bay Region in a state known for its waters. According to Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources, you’re never more than six miles away from a body of water in Michigan. The state also has more than 1,300 public boat launching sites. 

The COVID-19 crisis over the last year fueled a desire to get outdoors, leading to increased sales of outdoor gear. At Northwoods Wholesale Outlet in Pinconning, they’ve already sold over 7,000 kayaks this year, after selling about 15,000 last year. Michael Wiess, a director/buyer for Northwoods, says, “We can’t even keep them in stock. As soon as we unload them, 108-120 on a truck, they’re gone in 2-3 hours.” Why? With COVID-19, Wiess says, “People actually found the wild. They’re enjoying the outdoors.” 

He reports that Northwoods is the largest single retail store in the world for selling kayaks — they built a 30,000-square-foot building so they could stock up on kayaks. Northwoods has also seen a boom in the sale of tubes for floating. Northwoods carries canoes too, but there’s not as much demand for them.  

Midland County

Ike’s Mobile Kayak Rentals offers different rental options. Isenhart says, “I can do a three-hour trip (on the Chippewa) from M-30 down to the Tridge (in downtown Midland), a two-hour from M-30 to the Chippewa Nature Center, and a one-hour from the nature center to the Tridge.” Isenhart also offers guided tours. A unique program is the “Yoga + Kayaking at the Tridge” event. Isenhart says, “We go out first and kayak for 40 minutes, and then we come back and Sarah Nelson leads yoga instruction for 20 minutes, using the paddles for yoga poses.”

A unique program offered by Ike's is the “Yoga + Kayaking at the Tridge” event.Ike’s books group outings for private parties and nonprofit organizations. Ike’s has a website and a Facebook page but Isenhart says the best way to contact him is by calling 989-750-5251. The business is named after Isenhart’s dad, Lee Isenhart. His nickname was Ike. Glenn was living and working in California when he went kayaking at Dana Point, south of Los Angeles. It reminded him of canoeing with his dad when he was a kid. He moved back to Midland to care for his parents and then started this business.

Bay County

Just two miles east of Northwoods Wholesale Outlet, on Pinconning Road, you’ll find Cattail Kayak Rental in Pinconning County Park, on the Saginaw Bay. The owners/operators are Bob and Ellen Charlebois. Bob’s nickname is  “Kayak Bob.” They contract with the Bay County Recreation and Facilities Department to provide the service. The park has a beach and campground. 

Just two miles east of Northwoods Wholesale Outlet, on Pinconning Road, you’ll find Cattail Kayak Rental in Pinconning County Park, on the Saginaw Bay.Bob is a retired commercial and industrial roofer. He and Ellen got inspired to start kayaking after a trip out west. They were in Grand Teton National Park on Jenny Lake when they saw some people come in who had been kayaking. Charlebois says, “They had seen a baby moose. They were excited and happy, so we bought a kayak when we got back home.” That purchase led to the couple later starting the business, now in its tenth season. 

"Kayak" Bob rents nine kayaks, two of which are doubles, meaning they can seat two persons. He rents in one and four-hour increments.He rents nine kayaks, two of which are doubles, meaning they can seat two persons. He rents in one- and four-hour increments. Cattail has a Facebook page, but it’s best to call Bob at 989-529-9839. There is a fee to enter the park.

Kayak Bob is proud of his location, “It’s a shallow launch and it’s protected by the point; we call it Snake Island. It’s a bay within the bay, the green-ness, you’re not just looking at the water. It’s in the middle of a beautiful wetlands.”

Bob is passionate about kayaking, “It’s nature — you get so close to birds and animals. They don’t seem to be threatened. You can see the fish in the water. And, the exercise. I’m staying active, just hit 64. It’s something I can do with Ellen. We can make it exercise, paddling,  or we can just kick back, like sitting in a rocking chair.”

Isabella County

Drive about ten minutes west of Mount Pleasant on M-20 to Buckley’s Mountainside Canoes on the Chippewa River. Liz Busch calls herself the “canoe maven.” She and her husband Bob have owned Buckley’s for 11 years. It was started 48 years ago by Don and Donna Buckley. 

Liz and Bob Busch have owned Buckley's Mountainside Canoes in Isabella County for 11 years.Liz says, “My husband and I have been real avid outdoors people. We met as backpacking guides for the Boy Scouts. We like to help people enjoy the outdoors.”

Buckley’s has a fleet of 60 kayaks and 40 canoes. Choosing between canoes or kayaks, Busch says, “It’s personal preference. Canoes are nice for carrying more gear; you’re more upright and they’re great to put little kids in the middle. In a kayak, you have more maneuverability. We also have tandem or double kayaks … When the business first started, kayaks were hardly here, but now, kayaks are more predominant.”

Buckley’s has a fleet of 60 kayaks and 40 canoes.Busch says their most popular trip is a 2-3 hour float. She says, “We drop you off and you float back to Buckley’s. People like to do that in our long, summer evenings.”  Busch is also proud of their weekday large group rentals for nonprofits, business retreats, and other organizations, “We love working with groups like that.”

Buckley’s has a new online system on their website to make a reservation and complete the liability waiver. You need to book at least four hours in advance of your start time. For updates, check out their Facebook page.

More options across the GLBR

In Bay County, check out the Float and Paddle Center, listed as the only kayak rental outfitter on the Saginaw River. In Isabella County, Chippewa River Outfitters offers kayaks and tube rentals. Another option is Floaters Tubing Rentals. In Midland County, the Chippewa Nature Center schedules guided kayak tours. You can also check in with Nor'East Outdoors about their kayaking and paddle boarding trips and rentals.

Glenn Isenhart of Ike’s Mobile Kayak Rentals sums up his thoughts on getting out on the water in a kayak, “I love the fact that you go out in our backyard and see all the nature. We saw little baby beavers playing on the edge of the river. I see eagles, hawks, mink, and heron. It’s family-friendly, a wonderful experience.”
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Read more articles by Ron Beacom.

Ron Beacom has served as the managing editor of Catalyst Midland since October 2020. He's also a freelance writer for the Midland Daily News and the producer/host of "Second Act: Life at 50 Plus" for WDCQ-Delta College Public Media (PBS). He's the co-producer of two WDCQ documentaries about the Tittabawassee River Disaster in 2020, "Breached! and Breached!2-The Recovery."