On September 28th eight hardy souls departed for a paddling/camping trip to complete our journey of the AuSable River in the northern portion of the lower peninsula of Michigan. A similar group paddled the first 60 miles of the river in June of 2013. The crew was ably headed up by Captain Bernie Weitekamp, and co-led by Doug Sherow. Jim and Bette Hanna were the only couple, and the balance of the crew was comprised of John Bredenkamp, Dan Harrell, Donald Weitekamp, and Donald Nelson.
While last year’s trip was on the first half of the river which is narrow, shallow and has a five mile current, the second half is quite different, with five ponds (lakes) and five portages, so the paddling was similar to that experienced in the Boundary Waters. As a result, the paddling was more challenging, but the crew was up to the task, following orders barked out by Captain Bernie. We stayed the first and last nights at the Mai Tiki Resort in two cabins on a large beach overlooking Lake Huron, which came complete with palm trees and a bonfire on the beach each night.
Our first campsite on the first day of paddling was hampered by the fact that one couple left their tent in the van, so we were forced to improvise. Fortunately, the Alcona Park campground took mercy on us and offered a cabin at half-price, which turned into a palace and card game location for the crew.
Card Shark Bette and Captain Bernie gave Jim and John an exhibition of Masters Euchre by soundly drubbing them repeatedly throughout the night. The following nights the couple improvised their accommodations by the effective use of rainflys as ground cloth and overhead protection from wind and rain. Two tents placed nearby afforded additional windbreak for protection.
Beginning Tuesday our challenge of the river increased as we were not aided by a flowing current. That situation prevailed every time we paddled through the five ponds and portages for the balance of the trip. Additionally, we were thoroughly tested by lower than predicted temperatures, rain and even fog one day of the trip. We were also tested by Ricky Raccoon one night while camping, and Captain Bernie engaged Ricky at 3:00 AM in a discussion of why he should choose another campsite instead of ours.
One bizarre twist to our paddle occurred on the last portage of our trek, as the hydroelectric plant went off-line for repairs just as we arrived at the portage location. The siren blasted and the flood gate was opened with a rush of water. We were unable to launch at the normal location. When we learned that the flood gate would remain open until the following Sunday night, we realized we needed an alternate plan for our launch. Once again, Captain Bernie’s great leadership shone as a beacon. He barked out orders to the crew and we carefully walked the canoes downstream to a safe location far from the turbulence and rush of the water flowing over the dam spillway. We all survived without incident thanks to Bernie’s quick thinking and great leadership.
Several miles from the terminus of the river, John and Doug observed a family of eagles. The male was spotted high in a tree on one side. Around the bend the larger female was on the other side with a three year old juvenile on a lower branch. We had invaded the family fishing area as they were watching for potential prey. (A family that preys together—stays together, according to John).
After finishing the paddle we all returned to the Mai Tiki Resort for showers and adult beverages,followed by a great dinner at Wiltse’s Brew Pub in Oscoda, Michigan. After dinner, it was determined that Don Nelson should be given a trail name, similar to the trail names given to Appalachian Trail hikers. He shall henceforth be known by the trail name of MIKEY—because Mikey eats everything! Nothing goes to waste when he is present. He was a great asset to the trip and was there to help whenever it was needed. All in all we were glad to have completed this river trek successfully and carry many memories of the challenges we overcame in mastering the AuSable.