I first came to the Mason Tract near Roscommon with a long-ago and now recently gone friend.
Sleeping in a VW Beetle, my pal Dale in the front seats, me in the back, was something we did happily. We drove through the empty streets of Roscommon and arrived beside the river after midnight, and quickly walked through the Canoe Harbor State Forest campground.
We could only see a little way through a mist. Owls called in the woods. The South Branch of the Au Sable River flowed out of the inky darkness. We approached it, not yet friends. It would become a lifelong friendship from that moment on.
A few years later, I was in the midst of a frustrating search for a secluded fishing spot. I found it at High Banks, and it’s now as familiar as my hand. In a few more years, five friends — Dale included — bought land bordering the tract, a few false casts from the South Branch’s bank. It became our camping rendezvous.
All that and more is why the state preserved 4,400-plus acres encapsulating this stretch of one of America’s most famous trout streams.
Auto magnate George Mason, one-time chairman of the defunct Nash-Kelvinator and American Motors Corp., was among several people who owned land along this 11-mile stretch in the early 20th century. Others, such as the Durants, one of the founding families of General Motors, built a riverside palace so opulent — the foundation is all that’s left after a fire — that the remains are still called Durant’s Castle.
Eventually, Mason acquired 1,500 riverside acres. He died in 1954 and left it to the State of Michigan. The state added other nearby amenities, including Canoe Harbor at the tract’s north end.
With a house nearby on the same fabled South Branch of the Au Sable River, just outside the tiny community of Roscommon, I now can enjoy it every season. And throughout the year, it’s a different impressionist painting.
The South Branch usually runs high with snowmelt until mid-May, but on good days, it’s a beautiful canoe or kayak float. Check Roscommon liveries for information. The Mason Tract Pathway provides hiking, plus river glimpses. Fly fishing, catch-release, is the rule for half of it. The water is perfect, the bottom is gravel, and it’s reached by angler accesses and footpaths. Elsewhere, the valley blooms with spring wildflowers and wildlife.
Kayaking/canoeing down the 11-plus miles of river, especially on weekends and holidays, peaks now. Weekdays you’re more likely to see wildlife. Here a great blue heron, there a bald eagle on a white pine, or a cedar “sweeper” — so named because they sweep upward over the water, and sometimes sweep less-skilled paddlers into the river. Trips usually end at the M-72 bridge, but you can connect with the river’s main stream for a longer journey.
Because of conservation efforts, Mason Tract trout can grow to outsized proportions, and they fatten up during the fabled giant Michigan mayfly hatch on June nights. The river can get crowded with anglers from across the world and roads in can be tricky at this time of year, so it’s best to first go with someone familiar, or stick to known accesses. Fly fishing here is great throughout the season. One reach is open all year.
The Mason Tract Pathway is also open for out-and-back hikes. No bikes are allowed, but the two-track road system nearby is open to riders and ORVs. A bonus for golfers are the two nationally rated courses at the Forest Dunes Golf Club, which borders the tract in spots.
The area is a favorite of grouse- and woodcock-hunters. Among those who walk the woods during hunting season is the Department of Natural Resources’ Thomas Barnes, Grayling Forest Management Unit manager, which includes the Mason Tract. It’s a special place to him, as well.
“Being a bird hunter, I was drawn to the area because of really good grouse and woodcock habitat. I have bird dogs and enjoy watching them work,” Barnes says. “(I’m also drawn to it) because of the lore of George Mason, and his generosity to provide this to the state and to all who enjoy it.”
The Mason Tract Pathway is voluntarily groomed for cross-country skiing by Friends of the Mason Tract. One classic track is set from M-72 to Chase Bridge Road, about 10 miles. After a storm, it can be breathtaking — like entering Narnia through the wardrobe. Snow hangs off the spruce and white pines that brush your face. Deer may scamper across your path. Trails lead to the river, or the path skirts its banks. If you want spectacular, this is the place.
The DNR’s Barnes sums it up well: “It’s a unique area and we take a lot of pride in managing it,” he says. “There’s so much history that not a lot of people know about. It’s a unique group of people who know about it, and it’s a unique area. That’s why they find such solitude and joy when they go there.”
My friend Dale would heartily agree.
Friends of the Mason Tract volunteers work within the tract. Its Facebook page provides updates on snow grooming and meetings. Volunteers are welcome to join. Ski rentals are available at nearby Cross-Country Ski Headquarters. Hire a fishing guide in the Grayling area. Check fishing regulations before heading out, since they aren’t uniform in the tract.
Story and Photos By Bill Semion