Featured Tour Guide: Leland Brenholt

Paddle and learn with Island Adventure Company’s ecological, historical kayak tours

What’s there to do on Washington Island? If you ask kayak and outdoor excursion guide Leland Brenholt, the more appropriate question might be, what isn’t there to do? 

At Island Adventure Company, guests can choose from a host of self-guided excursions and a variety of transportation-rental options. How about exploring the backroads by utility terrain vehicle or e-bike? Or maybe a day on the water in a kayak or on a stand-up paddleboard is more to your liking? 

But for those looking for a guided adventure with the bonus of some ecological and historical education, Brenholt’s kayak tours are not to be missed. 

Sara Rae Lancaster (SRL): How long have you been with Island Adventure Company?
Leland Brenholt (LB):
I started there midseason. Prior to here, I was working for Lakeshore Adventures in Baileys Harbor. I worked all last season for Lakeshore. 

SRL: What led you to becoming a tour guide?
LB: I’ve been paddling for 30 years. About 20 years ago, I did my first three tours around the Apostle Islands, and that is when I got hooked on big-water kayaking. 

But as far as making this a career, I was skiing up in Denali National Park, and I asked someone what he did. He told me he was a wilderness therapy guide. I didn’t even know that was a thing. I was already an acupuncturist and herbalist, so when I talked to him, I immediately thought, “That is the direction I want to go.” 

It so happened that the pandemic crushed my acupuncture practice, so I got my EMR [emergency medical responder] certificate and tried to connect with people. Then I heard that the Door County area was looking for kayak tour guides. It all seemed to fall into place. 

SRL: What do you love most about the specific tours you guide?
LB: It’s the change I witness in the people I take out on the tours. They arrive looking worn and tired, and within an hour of the tour, I’m watching what the elements of the water and wind and being outdoors do to people. To watch the expressions of my guests as they discover things, it’s like magic. This is just another form of medicine.

SRL: Island Adventure Company offers three kayak tours: a Rock Island tour, Detroit Harbor tour and Washington Harbor tour. But these tours are more than just sightseeing tours. Tell me a little about what people might expect when they go out on one of the kayak tours with you.
LB: The Rock Island tour is about a three- to four-hour tour. What’s interesting is I have a lot of people who don’t even want to see the lighthouse. Instead, they want to see the trails and learn about the plants. So we’ll hike the trails, and I’ll point out some of the plants and their medicinal uses. Or maybe we’ll do some basic tracking. 

I am also an amateur historian and archaeologist, so I also do a lot of talking about the history of Rock Island, from Chester Thordarson back to the Potawatomi.
Most other companies offer what I call a two-hour “good time” paddle, and those are great tours and programs to get people out on the water. But here, it’s totally unique, and I can take people a little bit deeper and draw upon my other skills and experience. I’ve done plant walks for a number of years. Now all the elements are coming together into one package.

SRL: Tell me about the Detroit Harbor Tour.
LB: Detroit Island has a series of coves and inlets that I would imagine prior to European settlement would have been a prime spot for wild rice and cattails. The ecosystem has changed over years, but it still provides an interesting backdrop to talk about the history of the area as well as the ecosystem and environmental changes. 

Secondly, we consistently see a diverse mix of wildlife on this paddle, from egrets to herons to turtles and water snakes. Every time it’s a little bit different. 

SRL: What do you love most about what you do?
LB: It is multifaceted. Bottom line for me is, water is life. I am in love with this lake. I have much more experience on Lake Superior, but this lake, every single time I’m on the water, I am learning something from her. To be able to invite other people to be a part of that is just short of magic. The way I view my role is, I’m just setting the stage and facilitating. From there, you just let the experience happen for each guest.

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