In what has become a semi-annual ritual, a group of my close friends and I decided to tackle a Michigan river. We set out on Friday, July 11th, from the Metro Detroit area and made our way to our rendezvous point in Grayling. After an overnight stay and cataloging all our gear, eliminating any un-needed equipment, we set our sights north.
We reached Northland Outfitters, who were very accommodating to our needs and concerns and a general pleasure to deal with, in the Upper Peninsula city of Germfask around 5:00pm. From there we were shuttled to our first nights camp, Fox River State Campground, located just outside of Seney, MI. After arriving here we quickly made camp and began to rig our two 17 foot Old Town Canoes. We briefly debated our pairings and settled on Mike with Chris and Rick with me. After settling all the details for the first day, we made a dinner of canned beef stew and discussed our upcoming adventure. Despite being a State Campsite we were able to easily gather enough wood to have a pleasant camp fire before heading off to the shelter of our tent for the night. The only drawback to this site was a nonworking well from which to access potable water.
We set the pace of this trip to be more relaxed and with that in mind only planned about 6 hours of paddling time. The Fox River at this point is somewhat narrow and tends to meander quite a bit. The current and the prior attributes make this river more of a "steering" adventure than a straight paddle. We stopped several times to try our hand at the local trout, which were not willing to indulge us. However, we did see several wading fishers who had some success, one of them well within our view. Despite the less than stellar angling, the canopy and shores offered a very calming trip downstream. The weather seemed as though it may turn sour at some point but only managed a brief summers shower before opening up to sun soaked skies.
We reached the Seney Township Park, where we were able to replenish what water we had used; thankfully with the weather being cool we hadnt needed to use a large portion of our resources. Shortly after this brief stop we reached M-28, which offers access to a store within walking distance for any overlooked needs. We positioned our canoes beneath a rail bridge and fished while part of the crew walked into town. After roughly an hour we moved on further into the woods.
At this point the Fox starts to become more secluded with deadfall completely covering portions of the waterway. This leads to the obvious need for portaging, all of which can be accomplished without emptying gear from the canoes as they are usually at the water level or only a foot or two above. We generally made quick work of these obstacles and moved forwarded into what is probably the trickiest part of the river. It is here that the river veers itself around small islands of marsh. Our group having some knowledge of the river stayed to the right on all these splits to make our way to that nights camp site, Boot Hill. This would be much easier with a GPS as the maps supplied to us have the coordinates on them. Despite not having that advantage, we made our destination and immediately began to set up camp. I would caution to not be overly aggressive through this stretch as the current picks up in some areas where the river funnels around small islands of bush.
The site at Boot Hill is completely rustic, no facilities of any kind, as is most of the river. An elevated section of land pushing out into the rivers path with views of the northern sky made for a great night. Gathering dry fire wood from the forest floor was refreshingly quick and easy. Preparing that nights meal of noodles and baked potatoes was the next challenge as the ground offers little in the way of flat surfaces to rest a camp stove on. We managed to make our meal and have a roaring fire as the sun set down in a wonderful show of reds, oranges, and yellows. Here we made our first mistake, camping in this environment means you are at the mercy of the local animals and must get your food stocks out of their reach. In our excitement, we did not hang our food until after dark, which made getting a rope into the tree limbs, most of which are either cut or broken off to short stubs, much more difficult. After a brief incident which required a makeshift climbing sling and some brute force, we managed to get our food hung and continued a very relaxing evening in the woods.
Shortly before setting out for the day, we enjoyed a mornings meal including fresh blueberries harvested at our site. Rejuvenated from a good nights sleep and a hearty breakfast we forged back into the Fox. Launching from Boot Hill offers a brief challenge as immediately below the best spot to load and unload our vessels is a stand of deadfall nearly blocking the entire river. With the current pushing towards that stand we paddled back upstream before turning and heading towards the opposite side where the only opening lies. After navigating through this, we pushed on into what is probably the hardest section to paddle as the river continues to weave its way through the marshes at some points so narrow paddling is nearly impossible. The awning of the shoreline begins to lie over the water to the point of being in a virtual tunnel.
On this morning we started to encounter the only nemesis we would have on this trip: the dreaded Black Fly. Despite an abundant supply of repellant they continuously harassed us. We pressed on further into the woodland soaking in all that was there for us to see. Stopping frequently to wade in the sandy banks, we came upon more wildlife than people. Included in these sightings where Whitetail Deer, Eagles, Beaver, raccoon, and several species who we only heard as they fled the shores.
This stretch offers more of the overhangs and log jams than the first day. At several points we were forced to float the canoes below them as we perched atop waiting patiently for our rides to appear. After several stops for these obstructions we became more adept and increased our speeds through them. These moments have become some of our most talked about memories already. As the day wore on the flies lessened and gave way to a much less irritated group.
Our pace was not hurried as we knew we had plenty of time and camping locations to suit our needs. As we moved along we decided to start watching for a campsite around 5:30pm so as not to push too far into the evening. As luck would have it we came upon a perfect site at 4:30 and all of us agreed instantly to call the days paddle off after only 5 hours, we had planned to do around 6 or 7. The site was first spotted from an angle that offered no access but rounding a bend 10 minutes later we found ourselves doubling back to it. This was another high point along the banks offering a panoramic view of where we came from and where we were heading. Landing our boats was easy as the banks sloped gradually upwards at one point. We crested and the banks to see a very shaded wood area with plenty of open ground on which to stake our tent.
By this point we had become quick to make camp and were cooking our dinner of canned spaghetti in less than one hour. Once again fire wood was easy to come by. It was however disheartening to see where previous campers had laid waste to otherwise strong trees. Chopping them down and leaving them when an abundance of naturally fallen timbres were easily gathered. This and the trash piles left about the area caused us to do some cleaning of the area, as we had the whole way down the river. Again we sat and watched the sun slowly settle into the horizon discussing the days adventure and those upcoming. We decided at this time to cut the distance of our trip so that we could better enjoy the more secluded sections.
We estimated our paddle time for the day to be around 4 hours, we intended to camp at the livery overnight. This was for several reasons. First, to allow us to shower as none of us had really been able to properly bathe in several days. More importantly, so we could avoid having to paddle an 8-9 hour day to make a campsite.
The day started off with the by now common overhangs and black flies. Knowing we had time to spend enjoying the many shallow areas and fishing holes along the river we intentionally stopped as often as we could. The Trout would still not comply with our desires but that did little to discourage us. The black flies were a different story as at some points there menacing dive bombing and bites drove us all to the brink of screaming. When finally they did subside we were able to completely relax and take in what was around us, natures unblemished state.
This would be our last day on the Fox as it meets up with the Manistique. As we moved towards this junction the river began to widen and become more navigable. Watching the shorelines again yielded numerous animal sightings, ducks, humming birds, among others. Working our way down stream the landscape began to change, the banks grew more upright, the woods less dense. We began to see cottages mixed within the natural forests. Shortly before joining the Manistique, the Fox crosses below a trail bridge where an ample beach area allows for a quick dip. Being well ahead of schedule, we took full advantage of the opportunity.
Moving into the Manistique we fished much more frequently to the same results as before. Here we saw our only dour weather of the trip; a half-hour stretch of cold hard rain. Still our spirits remained high as we steadily moved towards our daily end. We arrived at Northland Outfitters around 6pm having spent about 7 hours on the river. The night was uneventful, a quick meal of stew followed by a brief campfire, we all decided to retire early so as to give us an early start the next day.
Our last day on the river, we decided to do this portion mainly because it heads through the Seney Wildlife Refuge. With our gear safely stowed in the vehicle, our canoes where virtually empty. Fishing gear and a cooler full of beverages was all we took with us. Making our way into the refuge very quickly we encountered our first group of canoeist beyond ourselves. We quietly waited for an opportunity to move around them as they weaved forward.
After making the pass, we found an area protected by deadfall where we could fish for awhile, with the same results as every other attempt. We slowly meandered down the river, having given ourselves 5 hours to make a 4 hour paddle to Mead Creak Campground. This section of the river offers great wildlife viewing and ample opportunity to stop along the sandy beaches. When stopping the flies and mosquitoes will swarm and make it mildly uncomfortable. The re was only one section requiring a portage on this leg of our trip, which was cleared out immediately after we passed over it. This whole section is very easy paddling and very serene, no houses after the Township limits.
Reaching Mead Creek was bitter sweet. Our pickup wasn't for another hour so we decided to wet our lines for one more attempt. Three casts in I hooked and landed a 23 inch Northern Pike and Chris followed shortly after with a 20" of his own. We released both back into the wilderness to see another day and continued to cast with no further success. Shortly after the van arrived and shuttled us back to our car.
With a great trip behind us we packed our gear and headed back home. We each have memories that will last a lifetime and are already planning another trip for next year. I can say with certainty that we have a group that melds perfectly.
Northland Outfitters, canoe rental
$15.00 at Fox River State Campground
From Mackinac Bridge, US-2 west (67 miles) to M-77 north (8 miles) to Germfask, MI