Four days. Four days since anyone’s seen their shadow. And it was now interfering with our original plans. We left the comfort of the Lakeview cabin and continued east on Mi-134 to De Tour Village. There, Mi-134 vanishes beneath the De Tour Passage, a mile-wide channel separating the mainland from our first prize: the Potagannissing River on Drummond Island. We get in line behind a row of cars and trucks waiting for the clock to strike 40 minutes past the hour and the departure of the ferry that connects the island to the outside world. On deck, a $7 toll is collected per motorcycle (passenger included) for the round trip fare.
Fairly large in area, Drummond Island contains a sparse network of well maintained roads and supports a small year-round population. Tourist numbers really pop after Memorial Day when the skies brighten and the temperatures climb. Most land area is managed by Michigan under a portion of the Lake Superior State Forest. The northeast section of the island drains into Lake Huron by way of the Potagannissing River, a shallow meandering flow connecting four lakes like pearls along a string. The four lakes, simply named First, Second, Third, and Fourth are only accessible via the river or by rough ATV track. Fin and fur abound but the true draw is feather. Surrounding thickets of tall marsh grasses and brush provide the perfect habitat for waterfowl and each spring thousands of ducks come to mate and nest here. We had specifically chosen mid-May for this trip based on the annual migration and the relatively high water of early spring. The Potagannissing is shallow: waiting until the dry heat of summer would make transport by sea improbable if not impossible. We had prearranged kayak rentals and planned to camp in the state forest for two nights but already sacrificed one to rain.
We arrived at the Islander Shoppe on Tuesday at 10:00 am and saw a trailer with four kayaks hitched to a tow vehicle. Ron Ogden, the owner, stepped out the front door to greet us as soon as we rolled into his lot. We checked weather on a tablet and more of the same – cloudy with rain and a low of 34. Man, this was getting depressing. It’s one thing to be flexible with plans; after all, you never want to turn a trip into a forced march. There’s no fun in that. But at the same time you can’t forgo trip highlights based on a little discomfort or unforeseen obstacles. Luckily the forecast for Wednesday was clear with highs in the mid-sixties. So we once again got a room at a motel.
We finally got our break Wednesday with a brilliant blue sky. And plenty of shadows. We divided our gear into all the camping essentials and locked the rest in one of Ron’s enclosed trailers. We all piled into his tow vehicle and drove five miles northeast to the boat launch, tucked our bags into the bows of the kayaks and shoved off. To the right (west), the river dumps over a spillway for its final run to Lake Huron. To the east was our string of pearls. Paddling upstream against a gentle current, an osprey is seen soaring overhead, scanning the waters for a meal. Navigation along the river is a breeze but once over the expanse of lakes, reference points become obscure. Without GPS, a compass and topographical map are essential for navigation and even then expect false attempts exiting lakes to rejoin the river. The shallow draft of the kayak was not enough to keep me from getting tangled when I took the wrong track exiting First Lake. The river bottom is thick mud several feet deep. Any attempt to get out in a beached situation would most likely have you up to your thighs in muck. Lifting and pushing with the paddle, I eventually freed myself. Best advice is to read the river bottom and look for tumbling debris and the lean of bent weeds.
Besides the osprey, there were sightings of geese, sandhill cranes, and dozens of ducks. In this wild environment all were shy, and even the silky silence of the kayaks couldn’t get us closer than 50 yards before they would take flight. During our six mile paddle to Third Lake, distant trees signaling high ground hovered above impenetrable marsh foliage. Nowhere along the entire stretch was there a clear venue past the choking mass of bush and grass separating water from shore. If you need a bathroom break, better learn how to accomplish that task from a kayak.
Entering Third Lake two hours and forty-five minutes since launch, we spotted a pier jutting from the north shore. Closer examination revealed a seasonal cabin most likely used during duck hunting season. A seldom used two-track led to the cabin and the surrounding grounds were cleared, providing space to pitch our four tents. A fire ring and outhouse were icing on the cake so we decided to spend the night here. With the kayaks secure a tent city was soon standing. A search for firewood proved laughably easy as there were countless deadfalls all around. Good thing too as it was going down to 35 degrees tonight. After dinner we sat around the fire, our conversation occasionally interrupted by distant trumpet calls of sandhill cranes.
Another beautiful day awaited Thursday morning as we emerged from our tents. A veiled fog loomed over Third Lake but the rising sun soon brought clarity and warmth. A pair of cranes took flight and flew past the pier, their long sleek frames suggesting a direct descendent from dinosaurs. Departing atop glass smooth water, our efforts today would be assisted by the current. Shaving 40 minutes from yesterday’s time, we arrived at the boat launch about ten minutes before our prearranged pickup time of 11:00. Ron was early, with his truck and trailer parked near the river’s edge. After packing our gear on the bikes, we did some laundry before catching the ferry back to the mainland. Our destination tonight is Leland, where we’ll spend the night at the Falling Waters Lodge before catching a passenger ferry to our second prize: North Manitou Island for a two day backpacking hike.