I went canoeing this last weekend, and for the first time in my life, less than a month after my 55th birthday, I dumped my canoe. Details to follow. We went on the Little Muskegon River above the town of Morley, an easy river to kayak or canoe, I always thought that it would happen on an easy river, that’s the way things go. It had to happen sooner or later. Before I get into the details, a little background.
I grew up in canoes, some of my earliest childhood memories are of riding as a passenger as my dad and his friend John paddled the rivers and lakes in the UP. I don’t even remember the first time I actually got to help paddle, it was that long ago. Since then, I have logged thousands of miles in canoes, rafts, rowboats, and kayaks. Sure, there were times when we got some water in the craft, especially when rafting real whitewater like the Bow in Canada, the Snake in Idaho, or the Green in Utah, but I had never gone over.
For those of you who have never been in a canoe, when two people are good and know each other’s habits well, the teamwork is a thing of beauty. You don’t even have to speak, you just know what your paddling partner is going to do and why. I have had a few very good paddling partners over the years, who for one reason or another I have lost touch with. My high school buddy Dave was good once I got him trained, Spud was very good, as were several of my girlfriends over the years. The best of those was Diane, who had been canoeing most of her life too. But then she weighed less than 100 pounds and could have tap danced on the gunwales as I paddled and we wouldn’t have flipped. The last few girlfriends who went with me told me flat-out that they didn’t intend on paddling at all, they were just along for the ride. Of course they did paddle a little when needed, but for the most part, they left most of the work to me. That was OK by me, as it doesn’t really take a lot of paddling to control a canoe when you know what you are doing. As much as I love kayaking, I still love canoeing with a good partner even more because of the teamwork aspect.
That brings us to Sunday when we paddled the Little Muskegon. Mike couldn’t find a rental kayak for the weekend, so I offered to bring my canoe, and he could go with me. Mike, if you are reading this, I don’t blame you at all! Mike is a great guy, one in a million! I feel fortunate to count him as a friend. But some of the things that make him such a great guy actually worked against us on Sunday. He was worried that I wouldn’t think he was pulling his weight and he tried too hard, paddled too hard, and never quite got the feel for canoeing as he was fighting the canoe rather than working with it. That’s my fault, I should have given him more instruction, but I was kind of enjoying not having to do all the paddling on this trip, and I found that most people learn better when they figure things out on their own, rather than being told what to do. I did suggest to him a couple of times that he not try so hard, but suggest to Mike that he shouldn’t try is like suggesting that he not breath. In this day in age, when most people try to skate by doing the minimum or less, it is good to have a friend who tries too hard. I never fault anyone for trying too hard. It didn’t help that I had told every one when we started that I was used having girlfriends along who were along as passengers and didn’t paddle. Jen was harassing Mike by telling him he should just get out his parasol, kick back, and look pretty.
To tell you the truth, I don’t even know if he played any part in us sinking or not, I don’t know why we sank. Here’s what happened. The river branched around a small island, the left channel looked very shallow, the right channel had a low tree across it, as it turned out, a very low tree across it. I guess taking the channel with the tree wasn’t such a good idea after all. Mike was in the front, and he made it through under the tree OK, although he scraped his back on the tree as he went under. I let the canoe get a little more sideways than I wanted it to be when I went under, so I put down my paddle and caught the tree with my hands. I worked the stern of the canoe over to where there was the most clearance under the tree, gave us a shove backwards to give me a little time to get out of the way, then dove down into the bottom of the canoe. As I was going under the tree, I could feel it rubbing my back, and then I noticed water coming up at me from in the canoe, never a good thing. By now I had cleared the tree, so I straightened up and saw we were taking a lot of water over the left side of the canoe. I did all I could to try to right us, but by then there was too much water in the canoe, and we sank straight down to the bottom. So I’m sitting there in a canoe resting on the bottom, with my legs trying to float up to the surface, I decided that it was time to exit the canoe before I ruined my camera which was in my vest pocket. I did save the camera!
I don’t know why we started taking water between the time I dove into the bottom of the canoe and when I cleared the tree. Maybe I went to far left, I don’t think so. I think the stern of the canoe got caught on the tree before we cleared, and that the angle of the tree across the water forced left side of the canoe down. It is the only thing I can think of. Anyway, no harm, no foul. Nothing was damaged but my ego, and now the pressure is off, I no longer have to live up to the claim of never having gone over. All in all, it was a great day, the weather was just right, despite what they had predicted, every one had a good time, and we saw tons of wildlife along the way.
As with most things, I find the more I learn about the Pigeon River Country, the more I find I really know nothing about it at all. I think when you love some one or someplace, that you have a desire to learn all that you can about the object of your affection, and so it is with me and the Pigeon River Country. Recent history of the area I know well, like the court battles over oil drilling and so on. But the area has a past, just like every one and every place else.
As I wander around the area, I come across old railroad grades, building foundations, and other signs of the people who once lived and worked in the area. The more of these things I find, the more my mind is set to thinking about the past, and how little I know about the history of the area. It is hard to imagine that there were little villages scattered through the area, as wild as the area has become once again. That in itself raises all kinds of philosophical points to ponder. The area has returned to a seemingly unspoiled wilderness, despite man’s attempts to destroy it through ignorance and over indulgence. Nature has a power beyond what we can comprehend, the ability to heal itself.
I remember as a kid seeing that parts of the forest had been logged off recently and wondered how could any one do that to such a beautiful woods. Being a young, idealistic type, I was vehemently opposed to logging, it left huge, ugly scars on the land I loved. My progression in thought on the subject over the years parallels the forest regrowth. With in just a few short years, regrowth was taking hold. By the time ten years had passed, the areas logged were alive with a stunning amount of new life, and not just trees. Old growth forests are beautiful places, but they really don’t support much in the way of animal life, mostly squirrels and a few other animals like martens that feed on the squirrels. A new forest in the first stages of growth on the other hand supports a huge number of animals and plants. The growth is within reach of deer, elk, and other herbivorous animals to feed on, and the predators return to feed on them. Eventually the trees grow tall and thick enough to block out the sunlight needed for new plants to take root, and the animals move off to better feeding grounds. Now that I am as old as the average lifespan of most trees, I see the same places that were logged off when I was a kid being logged off once again, and the cycle will repeat itself. I have to say though, a freshly logged area is butt ugly, I hate seeing it, but I know that it is a good thing in the long run.
We as humans base our measurements of nature on a day-to-day basis, when nature goes on forever. We see a tree, and that tree doesn’t change in a day, a month, or even a year, so we think that the tree has always been like it is, and always will be as it is today. We see a forest that seems to go on forever, and we start cutting, and it isn’t until the last tree has been cut down that we take a look around and say “oops, we may have cut too many!”. We see millions of passenger pigeons or bison, and we start killing, and it isn’t until the last one falls that we consider what we are doing. Show mankind an abundance of anything, and we will find a way to waste it and/or destroy it, and then complain that no one stopped us.
I don’t blame the loggers for cutting down all the trees, they were supplying a demand. I don’t blame the hunters for killing off the passenger pigeons, they were supplying a demand. They were just trying to earn a living. The smart ones got rich, the dumb ones got killed, and the majority in the middle made enough money to support their families. So it goes today, there are those who blame Nestle for making millions of us buy bottled water. Nestle is just supplying a demand, the true bad guys are the consumers who create the demand, not those who try to make a living supplying that demand. Blame the oil companies for the gas crisis, not those who drive gas guzzlers and think they have to drive 80 or 85 MPH all the time. Blame the tobacco companies, not those who smoke, and on it goes. Playing the blame game never solves a problem, often it makes things worse. The truth usually is to be found somewhere in the middle. Uncontrolled logging is bad, but trying to duplicate nature by burning forests instead, as many in the environmental movement today suggest, is in my opinion, just as bad or worse. Forests are a renewable resource, and we need the lumber to build our homes and furniture. I see it as a waste of the resource to do the prescribed burnings that often happen today, along with releasing tons of pollutants into the atmosphere. For all the evils committed by the lumber companies in the past, most have become good stewards of the lands and forests they still own today. Many of the large tracts of land they once owned have been donated or sold at reduced price to the state to be preserved.
But I have gotten way off track here. In an effort not to repeat the mistakes of those who came before me, learning what they did and why will help me choose a better path, which gets me back to the history of the Pigeon River Country.
At one time, there were many little communities where now there are none. It was common back in the lumbering days for the loggers to build new mills close to where they were logging, rather than try to move the huge trees to the mills that already existed. They would pull up the rails from the railroads, and reuse them over and over, probably where the saying “pulling up stakes” came from, not sure on that, but it would make sense. Everytime they built a new mill closer to the trees they were cutting, a new little community would spring up around the mill. Homes for the loggers and those who worked in the sawmills, a blacksmith’s shop, a store, a church, etc. Most of the structures were burned in the fires that raged through the area after the logging was done, fueled by the dried brush and branches left over from the logging. All that are left is a few foundations here and there. A few were rebuilt, but not many, with the trees gone, so were the loggers. A few people tried farming, but the soil is so poor that most of the farms failed in just a few years. Many of the people who had built up small fortunes in the logging business lost all their money selling the land they had bought to log for a lot less than they paid for it.
They sold mostly to hunt clubs. By now the forest was beginning to regrow, and wealthy people from places like Detroit and Chicago joined together to form hunting clubs, which bought up huge tracts of land for their members to hunt and fish on. The towns of Vanderbilt and Wolverine had dozens of hunt clubs around them. The members were not exactly saints, there were many abuses against nature committed, but they weren’t the sinners they are often portrayed as today either. It is hard to say what would have become of the area if it weren’t for the hunt clubs, this I know for sure. They kept large parcels of land together under one owner, and no matter what people may say, they played a large role in the return of the forests and wildlife to where they are today. The hunt clubs only survived if there was game there for the members to hunt. Most of the clubs were very well-managed as far as the forests and wildlife were concerned. The DNR played a large role by setting aside areas like the Pigeon River Country, but it started off small and wasn’t enough on its own. The members of hunt clubs are often portrayed in the media as a bunch of rich snobs going through the woods shooting anything that moved. There was some of that, but mostly, the members were sportsmen who loved the area and wished to preserve it. Much of what is now the Pigeon River Country was once owned by those hunt clubs, and when the clubs disbanded or decided to sell, either sold or donated it to the state to be absorbed into the Pigeon River Country.
The Green Timbers section of the Pigeon River Country is a perfect example of that. Green Timbers, so named in 1942 by Don McLouth of McLouth Steel, was developed and used as a hunting and fishing resort. Prior to the McLouth ownership, the southeastern portion was used as a recreational retreat by Titus Glen Phillips, while the north portion was owned by Cornwall Lumber Company. That’s another 6,300 acres added to the Pigeon River Country that probably wouldn’t have been if had been broken up and sold as smaller parcels.
And so it goes. As I wander around in the Pigeon River Country learning about the animals and plants in the area, I am also learning the history of the area, and the story of man’s ignorance leading to the destruction of a wilderness, and the rebirth of that wilderness in less than 100 years. I only hope that the story isn’t lost, and that we don’t repeat our past mistakes.
To start with, I absolutely love three-day weekends! From some one who was an over the road trucker for five years, I can’t tell you how much it means to me to actually have a full three days off. I took advantage of the long weekend to visit what I think of as my second home, the Pigeon River Country, just to the east off Vanderbilt, Michigan. My family started going up there back in the late 60’s, and I try to go back as often as I can.
First, a little about the Pigeon River Country. I am not sure how large it is, and I guess no one else is sure either, as I find different areas listed on different web sites, even the Michigan DNR lists different sizes for it. But that doesn’t matter so much, it is the largest “wilderness” area in the lower peninsula of Michigan. It is over 100 square miles, easy enough to get lost in, more on that later. It is an area that was left in shambles by early logging and the fires that followed. Going there now, it is hard to believe that this ever happened, but there are still scars there if you look close enough, from blackened stumps to the huge old logs left behind, and even an occasional grave where some unfortunate logger died on the job. Thanks to people like pioneer conservationist P.S. Lovejoy, the area was set aside for future generations, and allowed to recover nicely. There are still some of the old growth pines left there that were spared from the saw and survived the fires that devastated the area later. It is home to the largest herd of wild elk east of the Mississippi and forms a major part of the watershed of three of Michigan’s premier trout streams, the Sturgeon, the Pigeon River, and the Cheboygan Black.
Ernest Hemingway called the area “the great pine barrens east of Vanderbilt” and P.S. Lovejoy liked to call it “The Big Wild”, I call it The “High Lonesome”. It has always reminded me of the sub-alpine terrain of the foothill areas of the Rockies I have visited. No rocky, snow covered peaks, but it seems like there should be some in the distance. It is in the highest area of the lower peninsula, and it is lonesome there, if that’s what you are looking for. You’ll see a few cars on the roads, a few campers in the woods, but when you are out and about, you never see another human most of the time. There are no sweeping panoramic views, just lots of little cool places to find and explore, and miles and miles of trees. If you love forests, then this is the place for you. The area is home to nearly every species of animal native to Michigan, except for moose as far as I know. There are elk, deer, bear, martens, fishers, otters, beavers, and this spring, the DNR confirmed wolves in the area. They won’t say where, but having seen wolves twice in the Pigeon River Country, I have a pretty good idea. The numbers of songbirds has to be seen to be believed. Maybe that’s why I spend so much time up there in the spring when the woods and fields are filled with singing birds, no, it is the hungry trout that brings me back every spring!
Now, about my weekend. It was rainy, cold, and windy on the way up there, my kind of weather! Well, except for the wind, hard to flyfish in the wind. I stopped at the other campgrounds in the PRC on the way in to Round Lake, the one I was going to stay at, just to see how many people were there, and to confirm some things for a friend who wants to go there. As usual, even on a holiday weekend, none of the campgrounds were even close to being full. I made it to Round Lake around 1 PM, and at least the rain let up for a while. It is no fun putting up a tent in a gale, but I managed.
One of my goals for the weekend was to get pictures of bull elk and deer with antlers. I have pictures taken from out west of elk with racks, but none from Michigan. In my research, I learned that an area around the upper Black River was where my best chance for sighting a bull elk was, so off I went. I decided to take a shortcut from the campground, and promptly got lost. Now I have stayed at Round Lake dozens of times, and taken the shortcut to the Black a few times, so getting lost was something I didn’t expect, yet. The good thing was that almost as soon as I figured out I was lost, I started finding new places to explore. I found a couple of really good access sites to the Black River that I didn’t know were there, that’s one of the reason I have never fished the Black very often, I am not that familiar with it. When you have to cross to fantastic trout streams like the Sturgeon and the Pigeon to get to the Black, its little wonder I seldom make it that far.
I noted the new spots on my GPS, took the long way around to get back to the campground, then took the right turn this time on my way to try to find some elk. Along the way, I kept finding new things I never had seen before, like a pretty little beaver pond just off the road. There are few real roads up there, mostly they are 2 tracks, and the DNR opens and closes them at will. No map shows the roads as they really are, not even the maps from the DNR. I am finding the GPS unit I bought a year ago to be invaluable up there. It doesn’t show the roads correctly either, but I can record my tracks and add waypoints so I can return to those spots later.
So as I drive along, I am always on the look out for new things, like an opening in the trees that maybe a lake, a beaver pond, or a field that elk may feed in. Then I park, and walk back in to check it out. Often it seems like I am the first one there, I know that isn’t the case, but it is fun to pretend, even at my age. Once you get past checking the spot out, then you see the trash left by people who were there before, pigs! I also saw about a dozen deer on the way, no bucks, but all big does. It seemed like as soon as I stepped out of the explorer, the rain would start, then let up when I was driving again.
I made it to the area I planned to check out, I had never been to that section of the PRC before. Lots of things to check out, lakes, streams, hills, and woods. I did take lots of pictures, but because of the rain, they aren’t the greatest, but I’ll save them for future reference. All the time I was looking for elk sign, I saw some, but not a lot. If I had, I would have parked and waited for some to make an appearance. That was the purpose of this first night, I know driving around isn’t the way to sneak up on an elk, I was looking for a good “hunting” spot to walk to and wait for them.
By now it was getting late, I hadn’t found a good place to hunt yet, but I thought I should head back to the campground for the night. Of course, that’s when I saw elk, with the help of people who were already parked watching them. There was a herd of a bull and about 20 cows, the people there told me the bull had just run off a smaller one. That’s when I heard it, the bull bugled! It is a strange sound, almost a whistle at some points, and I had heard it out west, but never before in Michigan. So cool, like being transported back in time before man tried to destroy the environment. I tried to get some pictures, but it was too dark, and they were too far away. They were on some of what little private property there is in the PRC, or that’s where I would have gone on Sunday evening.
Back at the campground, I fixed a sandwich and was eating when the coyotes in the area began to howl for their evening hunt, along with an owl in the distance hooting away. All in all, a great day! I had found lots of places to explore another time, found some elk, and what better way to drift off to sleep than with coyotes and owls serenading me to sleep! Oh, and I almost forgot, even though it had been cloudy and rainy all day, the clouds cleared long enough for me to get that incredible view of the night stars that you can only get when you are out in the wilds with no man-made lights.
Day two was more of the same. I started by visiting the PRC headquarters and found that they now have maps available outside. I picked up a set, and headed to the Black River area again, this time a little farther north from the night before. Since I also do a lot of kayaking, I wanted to check out the Crockett Rapids section of the Black. The upper Sturgeon is way too choked with downed trees to be fun to kayak, as is the Pigeon with in the PRC. I used to float the Pigeon a lot, but not anymore, no one keeps it open, and the logjams are nasty, along with the work the beavers have done on a stretch of it. I fished for about an hour there near Crockett Rapids, never even got a hit. That didn’t surprise me with the cold snap of going from the upper 80’s to the 50’s, along with a howling northwest wind. My day consisted of driving the open 2 tracks until I saw something in the distance to explore, or something on either my GPS or the DNR maps to check out. Then I would park and walk back in. Sometimes it was because the road ended, like Duby Lake Road. It is on the DNR maps as open, but part of it doesn’t show up on my GPS. I wanted to get back in to Dorsy Lake to check that out, but the road was flooded before I got close. The beavers must have dammed a stream there, I saw evidence of their work on the trees when I was checking to see if the road was good enough to drive. Sounds funny, but that’s the way it is up there in places, you walk a road first to see if you can drive through it. I dread the thought of getting stuck someplace back there, it could be a while before you could hike to find some one or get cell phone service to get a tow, and I’ll bet it would cost an arm and a leg. I drive an explorer, not a submarine, so Duby Lake Road was out. When the wildlife in the road are frogs, it is time to turn around.
I did find an abundance of wildflowers and various toadstools that caught my interest, along with a couple new to me lakes in the area. One thing I found left me kicking myself later, a large open field that as I was walking through it, I found an elk scrape. A scrape is where a male deer or elk paws the ground and then urinates in it. It is his “calling card” to females in the area. I’ll tell you, elk urine is not pleasant to the male human nose! A female will urinate in it if she is interested in mating. The males stop by repeatedly to see if any of the females are in the mood. The reason I am still kicking myself is that I didn’t go back there that evening, but went to another spot instead. The spot I went to is supposed to be a spot where you are almost guaranteed to see elk. So I parked, grabbed my camera, and walked to the back of the field, and waited, and waited, and waited. I sat there against a tree until it was almost dark, way to dark to take a picture if anything had appeared. I did get some good sunset pictures, so it wasn’t a total loss. I had a bad feeling walking in there, no elk sign at all, not even a track. I should have gone back to the field I found earlier, but by then, it was too late. Even driving, you can’t cover very much ground because the 2 tracks are so bad.
So it was back to the campground for supper, and another serenade by the coyotes and owls. I hadn’t been asleep too long before I was awakened by the sound of rain on the tent. It was till raining lightly off and on in the morning when I got up, perfect fishing weather! After coffee and food, I headed to my favorite trout stream, the Pigeon. The Pigeon is an in-between river, not too big, not too small. Not too clear, not too stained. Not too slow, not too fast. It is mostly gravel and rock bottom, and except for the deep holes, easy to wade. I had only made a few casts before I landed a very small rainbow, so things were looking good. I knew I wasn’t going to catch any trophies, as there is a yoga club just upstream that has been responsible for three major fish kills in the last 15 years. They bought the old Lansing Hunting Club property when the club disbanded. There is a dam on the Pigeon River that the yoga club controls, and they don’t seem to know how to operate it. They open the flood gates and release tons of sediment trapped behind the dam downstream. Then they realize their mistake, and close the flood gates, almost shutting off the flow of water to the river. This causes the trout to suffocate in the sediment in the river. Trout need fresh, cool, clean, highly oxygenated water to survive. The good news is that the dam is now scheduled for removal. Trout Unlimited, of which I am a life member, and the Pigeon River Country Association filed a lawsuit, and as terms of the settlement, those two organizations and the Michigan DNR are going to assist in the removal of the dam.
Back to the fishing, it was good, I caught a number of 6 to 10 inch rainbows, lost a similar sized brown, it was good to see how well the trout have been recovering, which is why I chose to fish there. Then the rain came with a vengeance. It was hard to fish because of the rain. I was hoping it would let up, but it didn’t. I fished my way to a good place to get out of the river and back to the road to my car, and did just that. Of course about the time I got back to the explorer the rain stopped, but by then it was 1 PM, and I still had to pack up. The sun came out and the wind started howling again, so it helped to dry out the tent. I had lunch while I was waiting, then packed up for the trip home.
The weekend went by way too quickly, as it always does up there. I have been going to the Pigeon River Country for over 40 years, and there are still parts of it I have never been to yet, though not as many as before this weekend.