Paddling with Dave Foley
A back country paddling experience not to be missed
Why did I wait so long to visit Sylvania Wilderness Area?
Living in the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, it’s Pictured Rocks, Isle Royale and the Porcupine Mountains that grab the attention. When our destination is the UP, that’s where we ‘d end up. If the plan was to paddle and portage, we’d head for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) or Quetico Provincial Park. We’d bypass the Upper Peninsula camping opportunities. What finally piqued our interest was a friend’s invitation to visit them at their cabin on the edge of the Sylvania Wilderness Area last fall.
Snugged up along the Wisconsin border about 60 miles east of Ironwood, Michigan, and 260 miles west of the Mackinac Bridge, Sylvania’s 18,327 acres is just a few hours drive from Green Bay, Madison and Duluth. As you might expect, a majority of visitors are Wisconsinites and Minnesotans. During the summer and especially weekends, Sylvania’s 50 backcountry sites may be filled. For those who want to try without reservations, there are about a dozen sites saved for drop-in traffic.
There’s solid footing at the landings in the Sylvania Wilderness Area. Most are sand or gravel. Photo by Cyndy Foley
Dropping three packs with provisions for four days into our canoe, Cyndy and I paddle away from the north end of Crooked Lake. We pass a motorboat. A smattering of cottages on the shore of the northernmost bay of Crooked Lake mark the only private land. The rest of that lake and the other 34 lakes in the Recreation Area are protected wilderness.
After pushing through a bay filled with wild rice, we arrive at the first portage. The landing is sand bottom and the path leading into the woods is as wide as a driveway. Such a contrast to the rocky landings and rugged portage trails in the Canadian Shield parks. No rock cliffs or boulder-strewn shorelines here, just unbroken forest.
Walking from Crooked to Clark Lake, the ground underfoot is packed dirt and clay. And nearly level. Although we’d make 19 portages during our trip, we’d never climb a hill of any significance nor encounter rocky sections or mud.
It is the first week of September, when vegetation should be at its peak – the time of year when plant life often crowds the portage trails. Not here. The canopy of foliage shades the ground, reducing the understory, for the most part, to grasses and ferns. Looking out across the forest, I can see for several hundred yards. Only the trees block my view and they are giants.
Logging never happened here. The original buyer purchased the land with the intent of reaping lumber profits, but upon seeing it, couldn’t bring himself to harvest the forest. With a group of other investors, they used the area as an exclusive hunting and fishing preserve. Records show that Bing Crosby, Lawrence Welk and Dwight Eisenhower (both during and after his presidency) came here to fish and hunt. While the lodges and cabins were razed in the 1960s when the U.S. Forest Service purchased the land, the old growth timber remains. Some of the largest white pine, yellow birch, sugar maple and eastern hemlock in North America tower over visitors.
In the afternoon we complete two more portages, one being 158 rods which computes to just under a half mile. That’s the longest carry between lakes in the park. With most portages being less than half of that one, travelers actually are able to spend much of their trip in the canoe rather than under it.
Sylvania’s canopy of leaves shades the forest floor so there is little underbrush, and the dirt surface make for easy walking on portage trails. Photo by Cyndy Foley
Whitefish Lake, our destination, has five campsites on it. Our reservation is for the “Bass” site. Although you pick your sites when you register, you are expected to follow your planned route. Each has a fire ring and small open air latrine.
With a goal of maintaining a strong fishery, anglers must follow special regulations that prevent them from keeping any bass, and all but the largest pike and walleye must be returned. Only artificial lures and no scented baits are permitted. Hooks are required to be barbless. The regulations must be succeeding, as I catch bass every night that I fish.
While fish are plentiful, animals are not. Other than squirrels, we see no mammals; not even tracks or scat appear on the trails. Birds are much less elusive. Merganser ducks, crows, bluejays, gulls, we’d see them most days. As we paddle along the shoreline, osprey, blue herons and eagles would take flight. One evening while fishing a cove, an eagle perches on a limb watching intently as I cast a plastic worm for bass.
Without doubt, the highlight of our nature encounters are the owls that call in the night. Lying in our tent, we listen to their emphatic hoots and screeches, as they seek to claim their territory or perhaps attract a mate. Although we hear both gray and great horned owls, the fiercest sound comes from the barred owl. In addition to emitting its easily recognized, “Who cooks for you” call, occasionally it produces a bone-chilling shriek. Each night we look forward to the articulations of these nocturnal callers.
Grates are available for those not cooking with a stove. Photo by Dave Foley
The second day we pass through three lakes, ending up on Loon Lake where we set up our tent among towering yellow birch and sugar maples. As we are preparing dinner, we hear a whoosh sound, followed immediately by a crash. The ground shakes. Looking up, we see splinters flying and a cloud of dust as a huge sugar maple settles to the ground.
In a climax forest with no loggers to drop the trees, old trees finally must fall on their own. That can be a disconcerting realization when you are camping among this massive timber.
In the next two days, we visit eight more lakes before finally returning to our starting point in Crooked Lake. As we load our canoe back on the our car, I wonder why it took us so long to discover that we didn’t have to travel to Ontario or Minnesota to find a quality paddle and portage experience.
It was right here waiting for us in Michigan.