Posts Tagged ‘Verlen Kruger’

Big Bay Getaway

Author: Stephen



It’s Monday, and I’ve been sitting all day on a wood framed green plaid couch, looking out a sliding glass door at Superior roiling into wavy whitecaps. As the wind has shifted from northwest to north to northeast, the waves have slowly grown larger and larger. The weather report last night predicted that today had a pretty good chance of rain, with waves to two feet. Which is why I’m on a couch instead of in the canoe. It said the chance of rain would increase tonight, and that tomorrow winds would rise to 25 mph, with waves building to eight feet. Which will mean more couch time, and reciting my mantra, “It’s better to be on land wishing you were at sea than on the sea wishing you were on land.”


Kristi and Bill

I’m in a cozy little cabin overlooking Big Bay. It’s the home of Bill Kinjorski and Kristi Mills, and their son Thomas. I met them through my friend Timmo Skallerup, whose family owns the cabin. Bill and Kristi own Big Bay Outfitters, a wonderful shop in what used to be the village firehouse, township hall and jail. The village’s colorful history includes being the site of the shooting that inspired the book and movie “Anatomy of a Murder.”




I paddled into Big Bay on a sunny, calm Friday afternoon, passing on the way the tree covered red sandstone cliffs and white beaches of the Huron Mountain Club. As I rounded Salmon Trout Point into Big Bay, four peregrine falcons started kack-kacking, and swooped over me. They zoomed far out over the lake, chased each other a bit, then zoomed back to their perches atop trees high on the cliff. The fastest bird on record when diving, peregrines have been clocked at 175 mph.






Once in the bay I called Bill, and he directed me to a spot on the beach with a couple of kayaks and an aluminum canoe. The cabin, “Dunwerken,” was set back about 50 from water’s edge. Bill welcomed me at the beach, we talked a bit about my canoe and a place for me pitch my tent, and then he had to leave to shuttle some paddlers who had rented some of his kayaks.
I unloaded my gear, and was walking the mile or so into town when Bill and Kristi met me a short distance from their cabin. Bill was giving Kristi a lift home, and after he dropped her off on his way back he picked me up. I hung around the shop while I waited for my sister Pamela and my brother-in-law Dave to arrive from Madison, Wisc.

Big Bay comprises just a couple of churches, an inn, gas station/convenience store, bar, K-8 school, and Big Bay Outfitters. Bill stopped at the convenience store to buy us a couple of pasties, just out of the oven and about the size of the size of footballs. People were waiting at the shop when we arrived, and Bill was suddenly busy packaging worms, showing knives, and telling the “Anatomy” story about the visiting soldier who shot the local tavern owner. I retreated to the back of the shop, next to the old jail cell, and chewed into my pastie. A few minutes later, Bill came back with a tall, talkative guy, who was carrying a 60-inch bent shaft canoe paddle with a massive blade. “Paul, I want you to meet Stephen,” Bill said. “He’s paddling a Kruger canoe around the south shore.” Paul, retired military, knew all about Kruger, and his paddle was one designed by Kruger and made in Oscoda. Paul wanted to trade it for one in the shop. He knew Bill likes having unusual stuff in the shop, especially if it has an interesting history. Paul asked me all about my trip, my canoe, and the gear I’ve been using. He asked me what I had for a horn, and I told him a whistle. I said I’d used it recently to warn off a motorboat, and it wasn’t as loud as I would have liked. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I’ve got a small canister fog horn I don’t need. You can have it. I’ll drop it off here and Bill can bring it to you.”



Ruth and the Kruger paddle in Big Bay Outfitters.

Pamela and Dave arrived after a bit. The short cut they took from L’Anse turned into rutted gravel road, and the last 30 miles had taken them an hour and a half, which is lightening speed to me, but pretty slow by their standards.
As we were discussing camping possibilities, Kristi came forward and offered to let us use the cabin at their camp. “It’s for sale, but no one’s
using it,” she said. “There’s no water or electricity, but there’s an outhouse. It’s on a pretty little lake about a mile and a half from here. You’re welcome to stay there.”
We said it sounded perfect and, after following her directions, discovered it was. Set up on a birch tree and fern filled hill, the small wood cabin overlooked a sparkling little lake, which the three of us scrambled down to for a swim. Pam and Dave jumped in naked, but I was the shy one, and left my pants on, as there were some other cabins across the lake. Dave said they’d never notice, as “lots of people have flesh colored bathing suits.”


Black rocks, turquoise water.

Black rocks, turquoise water.


The next day the three of us took a hike to an outcrop on the bay known as “Black Rock.” We drove a mile or so out of town, and walked a half mile under a leafy canopy of tall birch, white pine and hardwoods. The woods suddenly ended at a steep cliff, from which descended a narrow trail. There were small trees and rocks to grab on the way down. Soon we were on the Black Rock, an upheaval of basalt, the original kind of rock on the planet, brought to the surface by an ancient volcano. The rocks were warm from the sun, and were perfect launch sites for jumping into the turquoise water. All three of us wore our flesh colored suits this time, which caught the attention of some people in a motor boat, who swerved near and tooted their horn.




Ruth arrived later that day, and we spent another night at the cabin. In the morning, we drove to Marquette. We found a funky motel, and then drove about four miles north of town to Sugar Loaf Mountain. It’s about a 20 minute, steep climb to the top, where it opens up to stunning views of the lake and surrounding hills and forests. I looked down at the islands and peninsulas off of Marquette. There were a couple of kayaks off in the distance, and seeing how small they were made me queasy.



Ruth, Dave and Pamela on Sugar Loaf Mountain


Back in town, we gawked at the massive old sandstone buildings downtown, then ate dinner at The Vierling, an historic saloon for men, with adjacent “sipping room” for ladies.




My family left me on Sunday, and I set up my tent in the woods behind Dunwerken. The wind off the lake was building, and I wanted some distance and trees between me and the shore. The weather report was predicting waves as high as eight feet, though I don’t believe they got that big. They did get big enough to wash away a big section of the beach in front of the cottage, transforming a gentle slope to the beach into a four foot drop off. I had no desire to venture into the water, but Bill and Thomas couldn’t resist the pull, and spent a half hour diving into the surf. The lake quieted down a bit overnight, but by mid morning the waves had picked up steam again.

Bill and Kristi and Thomas have been so kind to me, feeding me, and letting me hang around the house reading from their library of great fiction and huge selection of books about canoeing. Today Kristi and Thomas took me on a hike up to the top of Pine Mountain, a 40-acre parcel her father bought the minute he saw it. On the way up we picked thimble berries and raspberries and blackberries. From the summit were amazing views of the Huron Mountains to the west, Superior to the north, and my water route to the east. A pair of juvenile red-tailed hawks hovered on an updraft about 30 feet above us.
The lake is finally calming down tonight, and it looks like I’ll be able to return to my water voyage tomorrow. The only delay I foresee now is waiting for a thimble berry scone to come out of the oven.

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…