Wilderness Tripping: Canoeing
A 4-day, 63-klick,
October 6-9, 2006
By Mary Powell
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I've been doing at least one wilderness trip a month for some years now--yet as I started up I-75 for this early fall canoe trip on the Fox, my thoughts were occupied with whether I had everything that would be needed....paddles? PFD? tarp? fire pan?
Somewhere north of Saginaw though, I began to relax and enjoy the fall colors which were nearing their peak. It was a perfect day for travel, partly sunny and cool. The vista beyond the windshield was awesome: yellows seemed to predominate the treeline, but there were oranges, rusts and reds in the understory.
At ground level crumpled brown ferns and lighter grasses were punctuated by purple and white asters and fading goldenrod. There were hawks stationed as usual every few miles along the highway--on fence posts, in old snags or soaring above the fields.
The Big Mac & a bison burger
I reached the Mackinaw bridge just in time to see the sunset over the lake as I crossed--it was an intense panorama of mauves and oranges deepening to crimson and purple, all reflected in the silver of the water. Absolutely stunning! As I dropped my commuter coin in the basket, it seemed a small price to pay for such a show.
As the dusk began to deepen I headed out US 2. By 7:30 there were only traces of light in the sky ahead. I stopped at the Whitetail Inn for a bison burger which was excellent. The service was great too, likely due in part to the fact that I was the only customer in the restaurant. The waitress commented that this was one of the "between" seasons--between color tours and hunting.
The Jolly Roger Inn
The remaining drive, out US 2 and north on M 77 to Germfask was peaceful. I arrived at the Jolly Roger Inn around 9:30. Having been up since early morning, I was tired and stretched out on one of the beds to wait for Cathy, another tripper who was sharing the room for the night. Around 10PM she arrived and was quite chipper for someone who had worked all day and driven all evening. She arranged her things with the efficiency of someone accustomed to traveling and we chatted awhile before falling asleep.
The next morning I awoke just as dark was giving way to daylight. I luxuriated briefly under the warm covers while Cathy showered, then got up and donned my polypro. We went out to move my canoe to her car to facilitate the pretrip shuttle and found it covered with a heavy layer of frost. Brrr! the sky was partly cloudy, but it looked like it might be a nice day.
Michael and Gail arrived a few minutes past the appointed time, having been snuggled too far down in their sleeping bags to hear his alarm. We adjourned to the Jolly Inn across the parking lot for breakfast.
After breakfast we shuttled Michael's van to the takeout at Meade Creek on the Manistique River and my car to the roadside park on M-77 for Chris who would be joining us that evening and leaving the trip a day early due to having limited vacation time. Work is a good thing, but sometimes it interferes with fun... Next we drove to the put in, a small side road just south of Wagner Dam on the Fox River.
Belaying our loaded canoes carefully down a weedy slope, we launched them on the dark ribbon of swiftly flowing water. The Fox is mostly springfed, making the water level adequate for paddling even at this time of year.
Waiting for the others to launch I soaked up the beautiful autumn scene: bright yellow trees outlining the black water, blue sky with fast moving banks of gray clouds... the weathered gray sculptures of fallen trees along the river...ever changing patterns of sunlight between the clouds... This was going to be a great trip!
The Fox: narrow and twisty
The Fox is narrow and twisty where we put in. Tunnels of tag alders alternate with gauntlets of fallen trees. The paddling is technical--maneuvering the canoe from one opening to another is pretty much a full time job and an interesting challenge. Cathy and I in our small solos had to work at it; Michael and Gail in the tandem worked even harder.
There were quite a few logs to pull over or around at first, but they became more widely spaced as we moved down river. We spotted some deer early on, as well as the usual ducks, a heron or two and some kingfishers.
By late afternoon we had made it to our planned campsite which was under some big pines on an elevated bank overlooking a bend in the river. It was not far upstream from the Fox River campground where Chris was planning to put in and paddle up to join us.
Plans for the evening included celebrating the October birthdays in the group. Soon we had assembled the makings of ham sandwiches, assorted cheeses and crackers and fresh fruit on a festive tablecloth spread on the ground.
We had tiki torches for atmosphere, but they steadfastly refused to burn well. When we had eaten our fill of the meal, we lit candles on a pan of frosted brownies and sang Happy Birthday to Michael and Cathy. We then consumed as much of the chocolate goodies as we could comfortably surround.
Though chilly, it was a beautiful evening. The first stars had just appeared when the full moon rose, peach-pink above the silhouettes of the pines. Its bright light faded the sky from indigo to silver blue, made the stars pale, created dancing shadows through the campsite and was reflected by the dark water of the river. We leaned back against tree trunks or lounged on the ground and enjoyed the night.
Chris arrived safely around 10PM so the group was complete. He spread his sleeping bag under the stars and after chatting briefly we all retired.
The moon shone brightly all night, setting just as we arose after dawn. My colleagues reported that it was serenaded loudly by coyotes from somewhere nearby, but I heard none of that chorus, having been over-sedated by exercise, fresh air and chocolate.
The sun rose just before 7AM and the sky was filled with puffy pink clouds. After breakfast Chris soon had his canoe packed and was ready to be off. Paddling his Old Town Pack canoe with a kayak paddle, he led us past where he'd put in, on past the campground where a few RV campers were just beginning to stir, and into Seney where we paused briefly at the M-28 bridge.
A family of otters
There were still many logs in the river but it was significantly less obstructed than the stretch we'd paddled the day before. We paddled to the outskirts of town beyond which the shores of the river were lined with cedar swamp. Under the cedars ferns, already frost killed, stood bent and brown. We came upon a family of otters who craned their heads inquisitively toward us until we crossed some invisible border and they disappeared beneath the water.
The dreaded spreads
A little farther along, after some patches of tag alder, the trees thinned out and the banks were covered with grasses, rushes and sedges many of which were four feet tall. We came to a log at a fork in the river which marked the beginning of the spreads, an area of wetland in which the river divides into many braids.
The water runs rapidly through these narrow channels and maneuvering must be done quickly to avoid getting hung up. Michael admonished us not to follow each other too closely but not to lose sight of one another either as there would be no way then to know which way to go... If we got stuck at any point we were to use our whistles to signal those ahead to wait.
The spreads is a beautiful area, a sea of waving grass in shades of tan. There are a few low bushes with leaves of crimson and purple. There were some small ponds with the remnants of water lilies still afloat, but mostly the dark water flowed swiftly between walls of vegetation.
We negotiated the many braids successfully and enjoyed that section immensely. Near the end of the spreads we took a break on an island in the marsh. We ate our snacks on a sunny somewhat elevated bank that gave us a good overview of the vast expanse of marshy grassland we had just come through. In the distance other islands were visible as stands of trees in the midst of the grass.
After the break we paddled on and the river braided itself back together. The sunshine, interrupted at times by the shadows of clouds racing across the sky, felt good on our faces. I began to stop here and there to gather seeds of sedges, swamp milkweed and other flowers. My yard has a naturally soggy corner which I hope to deepen into a pond and surround it with native plants.
Exploring a swamp-locked island
In the early afternoon we stopped for lunch at another of the islands in the swamp along the river--this one a bit bigger than the last. After eating we paddled to another of these and Michael took us out to explore a bit. Sometimes doing short azimuths, sometimes following the contour of the land, we partially circumnavigated the island. We saw a deer stand high in a tree that Michael had found years before. We followed a ridge to its end and looked across the sea of grass to the next island. Then we cut back toward our canoes.
The forest we walked in was of mixed hardwoods--mostly beech, oak and maple. The ground was covered with a carpet of bright yellow and golden brown leaves, more of which fell from the branches in little flurries with each gust of wind. It was good to stretch our legs and explore.
When we got back to our canoes we paddled down the river to a campsite we'd used and found comfortable the year before. It was under a stand of cedars on a relatively flat point where the river turned back on itself. We set up our shelters and gathered some firewood.
Fire by friction: the bow drill
Michael planned to try starting a fire with a bow and drill made from materials found around the site. For motivation, Chris declared there'd be no fire unless we succeeded with that plan. A number of variations in bow design, string tautness, spindle size and hearth configuration were tried with Michael doing much of the work.
There was a good deal of smoke, and finally a coal, but flame eluded us. Chris pitched in for a while with his bow and got the smoke going again which brought Michael back to the project with renewed energy.
Finally the charred dust coalesced into a glowing spark and gentle breaths coaxed it into flame. At last we had a fire atop the fire pan! We fixed our dinners and afterward warmed on the fire a decadent dessert of berry crisp with chocolate, nuts, and vanilla sauce. Mmmm... Chris had brought another project too--tiny pumpkins to carve in celebration of the season. They looked great with their eyes glowing by the fire.
The moon rose later that evening but we got to see it before turning in. Next morning I got a nice picture of it hanging over the treetops across the river against the peaches and pinks of the sunrise.
We awoke to another beautiful day. After a leisurely breakfast and careful cleanup of the campsite we headed downriver again. The river wound back and forth through forest and grasslands.
On the Manistique River
The Manistique River joined in from the left and that became the name on the map. We continued on the "new" river for a while before taking a break for lunch. The average height of the bank seemed to be increasing: the forest floor was 10-15 feet above our heads as we paddled now.
We slid under the old cement bridge at Ten Curves Road and the buildings of Germfask appeared. We glided past the canoe livery, homes and cabins seeing few people. Chris would be leaving us soon as he had to return to work on Monday. When we came to the roadside park near the M-77 bridge we pulled our canoes in to shore. We took a break while Chris shuttled up to Seney to get his car. When he returned and was packed up we said our farewells...his company would be missed.
It was now late afternoon. The beautiful weather had held and there were only a few scattered clouds in the sky. The trees in their late autumn colors almost glowed in the low angle sunlight.
The current carried us under the highway bridge and we paddled southwest toward the mouth of Gray's Creek. That area looked interesting on the map and we planned to take a short side trip upstream to explore. It ended up being a very short trip as there were multiple obstructions in the first hundred yards and Cathy, who did a short recon on foot farther up, said things didn't get any better. Maybe with the high water in the spring we'd get up that way...
Headed back down the Manistique, we began to look for a place to camp. Gravelly ridges formed the banks, opening at intervals into wetlands. Nothing looked very hospitable. Finally we came to a point of land around which the river made a hairpin turn. There were some trees for shelter and a bit of open ground with a view of the marshy field on the other shore. We decided that would be home for the night.
We each chose our real estate and set up a shelter. A swale behind the campsite was filled with tag alders and other scruffy vegetation. It had several trails running into it and I followed one over to where the river circled around. On that side of the point there was a whole system of trails in the hummocky grass.
My presence on the river bank elicited several tail slaps from the resident beavers. After watching one a while I headed back to camp and dinner. More tail slaps punctuated the meal--the beavers were not happy with our choice of site. Our last evening in the bush was peaceful. I tried to wait up for the moonrise but it was only a promising glow on the horizon when I fell asleep.
There'd been a definite change in the weather when we awoke next morning. A chill was in the air and the sky was heavily overcast with gray clouds. An intermittent gusty breeze signaled some kind of front was passing through.
We ate a leisurely breakfast again and loaded our boats. The paddle down to Meade Creek campground was very enjoyable despite the change in weather. The river was steadily moving and mostly unobstructed so we were relaxed. There was a sense of autumn's ending in the muted colors remaining in the trees, the flurries of falling leaves and the cooler air.
Gail spotted something moving on the shore and, pulling over, we were treated to several glimpses of a mink--dark gray fur, supple body gliding over logs, anxious but inquisitive black eyes following our moves. Later we traded boats for awhile so Gail could try out my smaller Mohawk and Cathy's Sandpiper.
When the boat ramp at the State Forest campground appeared on the left, we were a little more ready to get off the river than we would have been had it still been sunny, but the end of a trip is always a little sad. Our morning conversations though, had included discussions of other rivers to paddle and we knew we'd be out again in the spring.
View Gail Staisil's photo album from this trip
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