Revisiting an old friend ... the canoe
Hiking, mountain biking, and camping have been the mainstays of my outdoor activities for years, but a couple of years ago I bought a canoe, and that marked a return to arguably my favorite outdoor activity.
As much as I enjoy canoeing, I never seem to get on the water enough. This spring I decided that needed to change.
I called my brother, Farr, a month or so ago, and asked if he was interested in taking a trip down the Indian River in Schoolcraft County. He said he was game, and mentioned that he would like to bring my nephew, Uncle Sam, along too. Since we would be taking two canoes anyway, having Unc along was fine with me.
We planned our trip for the third Saturday in May. It was our thinking that the air would still be cool, and the bugs shouldn’t give us much trouble.
When Saturday morning rolled around, the forecast was calling for the temperatures to be in the 80’s in the area where we would start our trip – Fish Lake, just off of Highway 13 in the Hiawatha National Forest. So much for cool weather and no bugs, but it was still going to be a great trip.
Our intention was to paddle to Indian Lake, some 40 miles downstream, spending one night along the way. There is a camping shelter on the river, located near Thunder Lake Road. It is roughly twelve miles downstream from Fish Lake. Our plan was to spend the night there. We did get a late start, but we were sure that we had plenty of time to get to the shelter and set up camp before sundown.
We met at the boat launch on Indian Lake. There we left Unc’s van, and rode in my car to Fish Lake, where Farr and Unc had dropped their gear on the way down from Marquette.
As we pushed off the shore and onto the waters of Fish Lake, the sun was shining, the air was warm and, to our surprise, there was an absence of bugs. Everything was perfect.
But perfect moments are rarely anything more than that – moments.
I had purchased my canoe from some folks who apparently spent a lot of time using it as a wheelless trailer, dragging it down gravel roads. I say this because it has a number of holes worn through the bottom that simply could not have happened if the canoe were used on water the way it was intended. I have tried my best to patch these holes, but my canoe is made of polyethylene, and polyethylene is almost impossible to patch. I use epoxy to patch the leaks, but eventually it falls off.
Needless to say, I was taking on water—not enough to stop the trip, but enough that I would have to spend time bailing at some point along the way. Fine, I can live with a little bailing. This was still going to be a great trip.
Once on the river, the canoeing became a little more like work. Most of my time in a canoe has been spent on lakes, and on deep, wide, lazy rivers. The Indian River is narrow and shallow. This fact meant that we would be spending our time in full navigation mode, looking for ways around rocks, sand bars, and fallen trees. Always navigating was something I was not used to. It made the canoeing a little less enjoyable, but even so, it was still going to be a great trip.
I would try to bail out some of my accumulating water during what seemed to be less involved stretches of the river, but whenever I did, I invariably found myself beached on a sandbar, or bouncing off of a submerged log or rock.
At times I would end up sideways against a tree that was in the river, with the current pushing hard at the side of the canoe, doing its best to keep me pinned there. A series of downed trees had me a bit tied up, and going backwards through some of them was easier than trying to go forward. Actually, the river kind of made the decision whether I would be going forward or backward. At one spot, with the help of the trees, it had me spinning like a floating merry-go-round.
Farr and Unc were coming up behind me, and got caught up in the same mess. It was about this time that I looked up the high banks of the shore and noticed a man and a woman watching our river ballet. I thought “great, the one time that we look like a pack of floating idiots, we have an audience.”
Farr and Unc made it through the mess before I did, and I lost sight of them around the bends ahead. As I made my way along, I assumed that I would overtake them again, as I could hear a great deal of cursing coming from some unseen location downstream. As I rounded a bend, I could see Farr and Unc caught up in fallen trees. I did my best to avoid the trees that had grabbed them, and was successful, but the next group sent me spinning again. As I proceeded downstream in rotary fashion, I noticed the same couple standing on the bank looking at us again. I started to suspect that they had cut down the trees just to provide weekend entertainment for themselves watching canoeists fight their way through. Why else would they be in the middle of nowhere, at two different tree filled spots on the river?
It was starting to get late, the trip was taking longer than planned, and I was becoming concerned that the shelter may not be available to us, as we had noticed that other campsites along the river already had people camping at them. I did bring a tent along, but it was our preference to stay at the shelter. We were getting tired and the prospect of canoeing further down the river to another campsite was not appealing.
Six-and-half hours after we hit the water we arrived at the shelter. Thankfully, it was vacant.
We pulled out of the river and made camp.
After our gourmet dinner of MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat—soldier food) and trail mix, I broke out the extra tube of epoxy I had brought along, and put another patch on the bottom of my canoe.
It was time for bed. Morning would come early, and with it an even longer day on the river.
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