Safe Harbor

Author: Stephen



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…


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6 Responses to “Safe Harbor”

  1. Linda Bedwell Says:

    What an incredible adventure. Hope all this gets published to bring notoriety to your stops and friends made along the way! Safe travels! Linda

  2. Judith Bridger Says:


  3. Dave Minden Says:

    You have hit your stride on the writing. Nice!
    See you soon.
    Bro D

  4. Dan Pahman Says:

    Steve, Glad the trip is going well for you. Can’t wait to hear the stories.

  5. kat. Says:

    Great post!! It is so exciting to follow your progression!!!

  6. Rose Says:

    I totally agree with the priveous answers and would like to add to the mix. Trunorth mentioned the Pakboat kayaks which are actually folding boats with collapsible aircraft aluminum frames for rigidity (they fold up like tent poles with bungee elastic inside) and inflatable tubes along the hull to tighten the rubber and nylon frames. Other brands of folding kayaks are Feathercraft (I’ve owned 3 models of these), Klepper and Folbot. There are some others, but those 4 are the most common and most highly regarded. Most people aren’t even aware that folding kayaks exist because, set up, they look like a regular hard boat until you get up close. Actually, they have been around much longer than plastic, wood or fiberglass yaks and are quite similar to the original boats built by the ancient peoples of the Arctic regions of the world like the Greenland Eskimos.Most of the inflatables that you see commonly on inland or near coast waterways are not safe craft to take out in open water. They are slow and susceptible to wind and currents there has been a serious increase in shore patrols having to rescue novice boaters in these oversized pool toys who get swept out beyond where they are able to paddle back in to shore. There are full inflatables that are seaworthy, like the Feathercraft Java sit-on-top, but these will cost you over $4000. Any completely inflatable kayak that costs less than $2000 is probably not a safe enough and fast enough boat for open sea.Advantages that a good quality folding kayak has over a solid boat are comparably lighter weight (the 15 Pakboat XT-15 we have weighs 15 pounds less than most plastic boats of that length and volume) and much easier storage and transport since they pack down into a duffel bag. And personally, I prefer the feel of them in the water they ride over rough sea quite well and you get a real feel for being in the water. My Feathercraft Wisper and my boyfriend’s Pakboat XT-15 can keep up with most hard-shell boats for speed and handling. They are tough, too. I have even taken them in Class II whitewater. And all the models I’ve owned can be Eskimo rolled.Advantages of a plastic or fiberglass hard-shell boat? Can be cheaper, there are more models to choose from (though there are pretty much every style you could imagine in folders now). Some people find them to be faster. There is a bit less remorse if you bang them around on rocks which is the only reason I use my plastic kayak. For everything else, I prefer the folders. You can get a Pakboat kayak for as little as $750US right now since they are phasing out the old model of their 10 boat, the Puffin Sport. That’s what you’d pay for a mid-grade plastic hard-shell and the Puffin weighs only 18 pounds (8 kg)! (one of my cats weighs that much). You can also paddle this sweet little boat with the deck off, like an open canoe. Check their website: You can also search on YouTube for videos of people paddling folders. Most are quite easy to assemble, taking 30 minutes or so, as little as 20 once you get the hang of it. And you don’t need to take them apart all the time I leave mine set up all summer unless I am traveling with it a long distance.

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