It's been said, that the difference between a fairy tale and a war story, is that the fairy tale is begun with "Once upon a time, ....", whereas the war story begins with "Now, this is no bull!" Well, this isn't a fairy tale.
In the Sierra Nevadas, I learned that a trail partner is someone with whom I'd trust my Life. It applies on the water too. In the Fall of '97 I started thinking about Spring, and paddling. My old trail partner, Kevin and I used to train Boy Scouts together. The reward for us and test for them was a 50 to 70 mile canoe trip on the Au Sable. Kevin stands about 5 foot seventeen inches tall, and next to him I don't need a hat or raincoat. Anyway, I got to thinking about Spring and paddling. I wrote to five other guys who, in my judgement, qualified as trail partners. One couldn't make it; two new ones asked to join. They qualified. Now we had Kevin King, Charlie Parmelee, Doug McDougall, Gordie Martin, Greg Shannon, Bill Breckenfeld, and me. As Yul Brynner once said, "Now, we are seven." So, we took the name of "The Magnificent Seven". You see, we're humble as well as great.
Kevin taught me to put into the Au Sable on Sunday afternoon, as the crazies are taking off downstream. And, to take off the river on Friday afternoon, as the crazies are putting in upstream. We were camping from Grayling to Alcona Park, self contained all the way. Well, mostly self contained. Greg actually ended up generously hauling just a teensy-weensy bit of my excess gear. I could tell he was glad to do it by the way he set his jaw. Solid determination, that guy. And he was solo in a big canoe and needed ballast anyway. He didn't thank me for the favor of letting him haul my stuff, but I understood.
DAY 1: We stopped at Au Sable River Canoe Camp all by ourselves. As it turned out, we never had neighbors in any camp. Timing, is everything. Charlie, Gordie, and Kev brought their guitars. "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and "Riding on the City of New Orleans" always sound better with wood smoke in your eyes. I'm surprised that medical science or Hollywood hasn't figured that out. Hitting the hay, now; gonna be a long day tomorrow. Kev and I want to reach Mio on Tuesday, so we should be at Parmalee Bridge tomorrow night. I can't believe no one else brought a squirt gun! Huh! grown ups are a pain.
DAY 2: Up at the crack of 8am. Breakfast of real bacon and eggs. A couple guys are eating military MRE's - Meals Ready to Eat - and other kinds of dehydrated stuff identifiable only with a label on. They offered me some, but I could see in their eyes they couldn't afford to give away such large portions. So I graciously declined to save their pride. Rain and mist today. I LIKE Gore-Tex! Breck packed his rain gear deep, so it wouldn't get wet, I guess. Lunch at Wakeley Bridge. We saw beaver on the river today. Currier and Ives scenery all day. Trees like you see on calendars; water like on post cards. One of the guys up front saw deer. We reached Parmalee Bridge late, anyway I did - about 7pm. Just so the other guys wouldn't feel bad, I feigned fatigue and tiredness. Wouldn't do for them to get demoralized being shown up by a 60 year old. I even faked a sore back and snoring for them.
Debbie and I refer to this as "Turkey Camp", because she called a couple of flocks of turkeys to our dinner table one evening a few years ago. They strutted right by while I drank tea, and then they roosted in pines about 150 feet away. That night, in a thunderstorm, we heard first thunder, then turkey gobbles echoing the thunder. But, no turkeys for the Magnificent Seven.
DAY 3: Up at 0'early thirty. I knew this bugle would come in handy. As we approached the Mio Pond the river drowned and widened. I took some side trips. "No I didn't have to push my boat out of the mud. I got out to look for clams! So there." Lunch at Camp 10 Bridge. This was the place, a few years ago, that made me decide to get a kayak. Deb and I were in our canoe, and Mio Pond had white caps on it. The pucker-factor was running two notches above tense. We stopped at Camp 10 Bridge for lunch that day too. As the good Lord would have it, the wind died while we were eating lunch. We got back aboard and smoked that boat on into Mio before He changed His mind again. But, I remembered.
On this day, when the Seven stopped for their mid-day repast, several of the guys had sandwiches using pita bread. What a great idea! Tastes good, lasts without refrigeration, and almost as strong as duct tape. I like that. Two or three of these voyagers took naps after lunch. Not real naps, just practice naps. Time spent in a practice nap doesn't count off your Lifetime.
Crossing the dog-legged Mio Pond, we got cross winds. The bow of Greg's partly filled canoe stuck up in the wind. Even though I knew he would have liked to ask me for more ballast, to his credit he was too proud. You could tell by the way he gritted his teeth when he looked at me. So I rigged a tow line. I supplied some forward thrust, but mainly helped maintain his directional stability. In this manner we arrived in camp about 3:30pm. MUCH better than 7pm!
A bath and we were ready for town. I washed from my head down as far as possible; Doug washed from his feet up as far as possible; Charlie washed possible. Breck was the one to pretend to be fatigued tonight; he did a good job too. He stayed in camp to guard the gear, and the rest of us lit out for town to resupply and get a real store bought meal. We brought Breck a doggie bag. He was still trying to fool us that he was tired. Charlie thought a bear was snorting in the brush nearby, but I knew better.
DAY 4: Oh, Lord! We've got a portage about mile out of camp. The Mio Damn (oops) is a real pain. But, we got over it, rendezvoused at the park on the other side of M-32, resupplied with water, and took off. More beautiful scenery. Sometimes I forget what a treasure we have here in Michigan. The Au Sable is known all over the continental U.S. If you've never stopped at Cathedral Pines campground, you have a treat in store. No facilities, just scenery. Charlie and Gordie took a bath in the river. Later, I sold them some photos. Doug and Breck went fishing. In the gloaming, the three troubadours broke out the guitars again. Gordie's version of "Piano Man" brought a lump to my throat.
Deb and I nicknamed this place "Bear Camp" after we heard a large, cavernous growl one evening. "What's that!!?" she poked me in the ribs. "Oh, just a logging truck down-shifting on a grade over yonder, I reckon." "Boy! Are you dumb! That's a bear! Where's the .22?" "Uh, Darling. Don't shoot that at him. If you hit him he might find out about it and get real mad." A large fire kept the poor thing at bay, and saved my reputation. Later, coyotes yipping on a far away ridge almost wrested it from me again. No worries about bears wanting MRE's. (grin) No bear in his right mind would do that.
DAY 5: Another short day. We're going only to Gabions campground just above 4001 Bridge. Early on, I sighted a really touching display. On the right bank a grieving family had put up a small memorial to Husband and Daddy, who had died there in May of '95. Sad. Later, Charlie, Gordie, Doug, and I stopped at McKinley Tavern for a real store bought hamburger and a cold beer. TASTY! We got to camp about 3pm. Immature black flies made my arm look like I'd been hit with shrapnel. While two guys ate their MRE's, I cooked up corned beef and cabbage. Around the fire, Doug made blueberry muffins in his reflector oven. This is our last night on the river. I'm ready to get back home, and I'd like to stay here forever. Paddling gives me the melancholies.
DAY 6: Our last day on the river. It's a really short paddle. I've awakened to deer and turkey right outside the tent here, on different occasions. On the river today I saw two trumpeter swans. I didn't realize they were trumpeters until a couple of Canadian geese went over. I was about 100 feet downstream when the trumpeters alerted and cut loose. I thought a semi-truck was blasting an air horn on the river! I haven't heard a noise that loud since I tried to help a little bit by washing Charlie's hair with river water, but that's another story.
It's noon, and I'm pulling into Alcona County Park, where we left the cars parked back on day 1. Oh, God. Is it over? Yeah, the other guys are pulling their boats out. It's over. We load up and gather around, looking at each other. We congratulate ourselves, wish each other safe trips, and go our separate ways home. I hate driving that first 40 or 50 miles. Then it's ok, then I'm really anxious to get home to Debbie, a real shower with soft water, and a bed I don't have to inflate.
Next year can't come too soon. Whenever you look at the moon on the clouds, or into a fire, or see geese riding high in the sky, I'm with you. We are one...... or maybe we're seven.