It was sunny and breezy as I paddled east toward the Ontonagon breakwall. Three-foot waves were breaking over the left rear quarter of my canoe, and I had to pay close attention and correct my stroke for each one. About a half mile from the channel entrance, I noticed a large crowd on the beach. Most were looking in the direction of the lake, but a line of men in dark suits had their backs to me. I saw a white dress. A wedding. Now I really didn’t want to dump. Fifteen minutes later I was relieved to make it to the channel entrance and out of sight of the wedding without mishap, but it was very choppy between the channel’s rip-rap walls, and it was another quarter mile before things calmed down.
The wide Ontonagon River was chocolate brown. On the left was a massive light brown steel building I’d seen for miles as I made my way along the white sand and green dune grass coast. It didn’t look real old, but did look abandoned. On my right was an old, cream-colored brick lighthouse, in front of which a man fished from an open aluminum boat. We waved. Downtown was on the left.
My map indicated a marina ahead on the right. That’s where I headed.
I paddled between the red and green buoys marking the marina entrance. The rock-lined yacht basin had room for about 40 boats at its docks. I paddled toward the brick office set back about 30 feet from the water’s edge. A small wood ramp angled over the rocks into the water. I climbed out and dragged the canoe onto the ramp.
The office sign said “OPEN,” but no one was there. I was in my knee-high boots, and tromped over to the fish cleaning station, where a bunch of smiling guys were deftly cutting their catches, sipping beers, and laughing about the ones that got away. I asked if the harbormaster was around, and one said, “Yeah, his scooter’s there. Try calling the cell phone number that’s posted on the window.”
I went back, found the number with the harbormaster’s name – Tom Lee – and dialed it. A cell phone on the desk rang. I was in no rush, and was happy to drop into one of the white plastic chairs and wait.
It wasn’t long before a trim, white-mustached man in suspendered blue jeans, heavy green shirt and cap embroidered with “Ontonagon Harbormaster” pushed through the storm door. “Mr. Lee?” I asked. I’m always a bit trepidatious about the reception I’ll receive, but, as usual, I was greeted warmly.
“Yep. How can I help you?”
I explained I was attempting to paddle my canoe around the south shore of the lake, and wondered if I might be able to park my boat and pitch a tent for a couple of days.
“I’m sure we can figure something out,” he said, striding over to take a look at “Seaweed.”
“She’s a decked canoe,” I explained. “Made by Verlen Kruger. Ever heard of him?” He nodded. “It’s number 114,” I said. “The only all-green one he made.”
“I like that you know those details,” he said. “Means you’re a boat person.”
That he knew of Kruger told me he was a boat person, too. Even though Kruger was from Michigan, and has the Guinness Record for most miles paddled – more than 100,000 – I’ve encountered few people on these trips of mine who’ve heard of him.
“You can put your boat anywhere it’s convenient for you,” Tom said. I asked about tying it up at a dock, and he suggested next to his sailboat. He led me down the dock, and introduced me to “Viking,” a 30-foot Allied Seawind ketch, appropriately adorned with a figurehead of a Viking. As we walked back to the office, he pointed to a grassy area with picnic tables, and suggested I put my tent there.
“Well, I’ve got to charge you something, to put you in the books,” he said. “How’s five bucks sound?”
“Sounds steep,” I said, happily. At the office, he signed me in, gave me a key to the washroom, and we proceeded to become friends. I told him that over the past five years I’ve managed to circumnavigate lakes Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario, and that I started my current voyage in early July at Silver Bay, Minn. I’m hoping to make it to the St. Marys River by September. If that works out, I’d like to paddle between those two points along the north shore next summer.
It turns out Tom and I have visited a lot of the same Great Lakes ports, as he sailed another of his sailboats, “Windsong II,” a 27-foot C&C sloop, from Ontonagon to Ft. Pierce, Fla. Windsong is now the winter home of he and his wife, Margaret.
“Hey,” he said. “You don’t need to sleep in a tent tonight. You can sleep on Viking. How about that?”
How about that, indeed.
He walked me back to his boat, gave me a tour, and I as far as I was concerned, I was checked into the best room in Ontonagon.
I’m being especially cautious on Superior, and thanks to Tom and the marina, I was able to comfortably take shelter from 3 days of wind and rain. Throughout my stay, I occasionally stopped into his office, and one of many things we discussed was the value of a marina to sailors, and to the host community.
Marinas have been a major help to me as I’ve made my way around the lakes. In addition to the sanctuary they’ve provided from the roiling lakes, they’ve been a place to fill my water bottles, take a shower, and obtain information about the coastline. Most have been a short walk into downtown, where I restock groceries and any supplies I might need, and enjoy a meal of something other than dehydrated beans.
During my time in Ontonagon, friends Nancy and Joe Kowalski caught up with me while they were on a long weekend road trip. They parked their trailer at the township park, and in the morning we joined Tom and another sailor, Dale, for breakfast at Syl’s Cafe. Then Nancy, Joe and I spent the afternoon exploring Porcupine Mountains State Park. We finished the day hitting a couple of bars in town.
Ontonagon’s economy, like many around the Great Lakes, has gone through a series of booms and busts over the past couple of hundred years. So-called “growth” industries extracted the copper, and cut down the trees for lumber and pulp. A shifting global economy, and unwillingness to mitigate their environmental impacts, brought those industries to a halt. The once-thriving commercial fishery was decimated by the introduction of the sea lamprey. A government subsidized shipbuilding business – the shuttered building I passed on my way in – folded due to corrupt management.
This area hasn’t lost it’s awesome beauty, though, and tourism keeps a variety of businesses going.
I said to Tom that marinas like Ontonagon’s could be a valuable link of the proposed Great Lakes Water Trail. The goal is to create a paddling and cycling trail route around the 7,000 miles of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River shoreline that stretches across eight U.S. states and the provinces of Quebec and Ontario. Tom agreed.
There’s a lot to see and do here, and if every visitor receives a welcome like the one I got, they’ll return. I’m hoping to. Maybe I’ll ride my bike next time…