A Day on the River

Coursing through Grayling and Mio into Lake Huron at Oscoda, the storied Au Sable winds beneath bald eagles’ wings past Wild and Scenic sights and sites where legends were born.
Ausable River
Towering sand dunes and a picturesque setting make Cooke — as seen from the Largo Springs overlook — the most scenic pond along the Au Sable system. Downtown Oscoda and Lake Huron are just 20 minutes away.

The soft schlop-schlop of water against the hull is hypnotizing. As thoughts drift with the passing scenery, the dull thud of wood-on-wood resounds as the paddle bumps the gunwale and jolts the mind back to reality. Meanwhile, along the bank, a startled heron flaps awkwardly into the air like a displaced pterodactyl.

A few hours earlier, a new day was breaking over Foote Dam as the canoe glided quietly through the Au Sable River. A wide-eyed doe watched while sunlight glinted off the paddle feathering subtly in the flow. Overhead, the sky had morphed from deep navy to pink-streaked purple as the canoe drifted toward Lake Huron.

 anglers try their luck off the Oscoda pier at sunrise
Drawn by spawning salmon, anglers try their luck off the Oscoda pier at sunrise.

Years ago, the town of Oscoda was a bustling place — first during the lumber boom, and later when Wurtsmith Air Force Base moved in. But after the trees were logged off and Uncle Sam split town, Oscoda had to reinvent itself. Today, there are plenty of reasons to visit, and the scenic Au Sable tops the list.

Miles of river behind now, the shadowy screen of evergreens along the bank is reminiscent of a barrier to some magical land. Places like this are full of mystery, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Paul Bunyan himself stepped from the treeline…

Paul Bunyan
Paul Bunyan impersonator Ed Glotfelty strikes a rugged pose during Paul Bunyan Days, an Oscoda festival held in late September. The tale of Paul Bunyon first emerged in an article entitled “Round River Drive,” published by the Oscoda Press in 1906.

Although several towns claim rights to the tall tale, the story of Paul Bunyan was penned in 1906 by Oscoda’s own James MacGillivray. It was written on the heels of Michigan’s lumbering era, when plaid-shirted ruffians legitimately roamed the surrounding forests. Oscoda is recognized as the official home of the legendary lumberjack, so it makes sense that a festival is held here in his honor. This September celebration includes ax throwing and chainsaw carving competitions, a classic car show, food booths and children’s activities.

Passing a landmark known locally as “The Whirlpool” (aptly named for a counter-rotating eddy pool), it’s two hours from here to Oscoda, where the Au Sable meets Lake Huron. Drawing hard on the paddle, a current of yesterday’s river days come to mind.

Ausable River River Queen
Laurie and Roger Rice pose in front of the Au Sable River Queen. Operating on Foote Pond, the River Queen is an authentic paddlewheel boat. Regular tours begin Memorial Day, with special color excursions starting the last week of September.

The annual Au Sable Canoe Marathon is a serious competition where contestants paddle 120 grueling miles from Grayling to Oscoda. The race, beginning at 9 p.m., runs through the night: This July marks its 67th year.

From the town’s beginning in 1848, the iconic river was at the center of this community. In an effort to preserve its unique character, a 23-mile stretch between Mio and Alcona ponds was designated “Wild and Scenic” in 1986. These pristine waters continue to beckon outdoor enthusiasts from near and far, just as they did a century ago.

The Garden View Coffee Mill
The Garden View Coffee Mill in downtown Oscoda, which offers an eclectic mix of fine coffee and homemade baked goods amid its inviting grounds, is open Monday through Saturday.

In addition to fun and folklore, Oscoda claims a proud link to Michigan’s past. Native Indian tribes, loggers and fishing guides knew boats were among the best ways to navigate this region. While most people are familiar with the ubiquitous canoe, a highly specialized craft known as an Au Sable Riverboat isn’t as commonly known. These slender vessels originated during the logging era when lumbermen threaded them among the cut logs floating downstream.  The wooden boats evolved with time to accommodate guides and fishermen in search of trout.

It seems fitting that Trout Unlimited began nearby as well. Back in 1959, a group of conservation-minded anglers banded together to conserve cold-water fisheries. Their motto: “Take care of the fish, and the fishing will take care of itself.”

Kayakers paddle the clear waters of Alcona Pond
With cobalt blue skies overhead, kayakers paddle the clear waters of Alcona Pond, the second of six ponds created by hydroelectric dams along the 120-mile stretch from Mio to Oscoda.

As Oscoda rises into view over the bow and Lake Huron sparkles in the distance, feelings of satisfaction and serenity merge with the conviction that this is a journey worth repeating.

Learn more about this Michigan travel destination onshore and off by visiting oscoda.com; rivers.gov/rivers/ausable.php; ausablecanoemarathon.org and michigantu.org.

Au Sable River MapGet There

There are many access points along the Au Sable River. A good place to begin is the River Road National Scenic Byway. From Oscoda, drive west along River Road as it follows the river to M-65 and the Loud Dam Pond. Many of the Forest Service River Access Areas require a Huron-Manistee vehicle pass to park at the sites. Contact the U.S. Forest Service to inquire about a vehicle pass and for excellent maps of the river.

Ownership: U.S. Forest Service, Huron National Forest, Mio Ranger District, (989) 826-3252, Huron Shores Ranger District, Oscoda, (989) 739-0728; Consumers Energy

Size: Nearly 120 river miles, from Grayling in the west to Lake Huron.

Closest Towns: Grayling, Mio, McKinley, Glennie, Oscoda.

— Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Joe Roman of Royal Oak bounds down a massive sand dune at Cooke Pond
Joe Roman of Royal Oak bounds down a massive sand dune at Cooke Pond. Going down is fun; getting back up is
another story.
Kayakers conclude a float from Mio Dam
With Mckinley Bridge in the background, kayakers conclude a float from Mio Dam, a designated Wild and Scenic stretch dotted by primitive campsites along the way.
Alcona Pond
Amanda Haydens of Saginaw gives her dachshund, Bella, a dip in Alcona Pond. Many area campgrounds are pet-friendly.
A motorhome idles downhill outside Glennie, Mich.
A motorhome idles downhill outside Glennie, Mich. Sweeping views are common from atop the region’s rolling hills.
The sun sets over the Au Sable River
The sun sets over the Au Sable River near the Whirlpool, a landing and launch area between Foote Dam and Oscoda. From here it’s a three-hour float to Oscoda.
bald eagle, beaver, and smallmouth bass
A Bald Eagle surveys the scenery near Foote Pond. Eagles are among the various wildlife that can be
seen by attentive (and quiet) paddlers; An industrious beaver with a mouthful of twigs along the river’s edge is can be spotted by alert Au Sable guests; A smallmouth bass forages for food in the shallows; Snorkeling is a great way to observe bass, pike, trout and other fish in their surroundings.
Alcona Pond Campsite
A wall of fragrant evergreens reflects a campfire’s glow, top. Crisp night air spiced with the aroma of wood smoke is a regional trademark; Lantern light illuminates a rustic cabin on the bank of Alcona Pond as a fire dies down nearby. Aside from an occasional fish splashing offshore, all is quiet as midnight passes.
Alcona Dam
With Alcona Dam in the foreground, a spectacular sunrise reflects off Alcona Pond.

Author and freelance writer Jon Osborn lives in Holland. Photographer Mark Bialek is an Oscoda native.

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