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