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Cover Story

Back to Au Sable

Freshwater traveling among the salts of the earth

Photo: , License: N/A


For the second year in a row, my Hamtramck friends and I went on an early-season canoe trip in the Huron National Forest. Up around Mio, a 23-mile segment of the Au Sable (oddly, pronounced ah-SOB-bow) River is a designated  "scenic river" with campsites for canoers. Last year, I went with my friends Steve Cherry and Jeff Fournier, but this year we managed to convince Andy Dow, owner of the Painted Lady Lounge in Hamtramck, to come along. 

So Andy and I drove up together on a Tuesday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend and got to Mio early. So early, in fact, that we went to a local bar, where a few grizzled old-timers sat sucking on longneck bottles of beer and eyeing us warily. Finally, one of them asked where we were from.

"Hamtramck," we said.

"Jesus Christ," one of them said. "I'm from Hamtramck."

Another one laughed and piped up, "Me too!"

They regaled us with stories about old Hamtramck. The guy sitting across from us said his parents owned a few bars in the Polish area, one on Chene in Poletown. The other guy in the baseball cap went into a drunken reminiscence of his family house there.

But then he scowled and declared, "You still live there? I thought no white people lived there. Those black people ruined it."

Except he didn't say black people.

In fact, for the next few sentences, he absolutely napalmed us with N-bombs. They ruined this. They ruined that. Obviously, he was one of those Detroit expatriates for whom north of Hall Road wasn't far away enough. He finished the rant with, "It's a goddamn shame."

"Please, no swearing," the bartender promptly said, and made him put money in the jar for saying, "Goddamn." This was a real family-friendly bar, after all.

But only the drunk guy was pestering us. The other people there were friendlier, trying to change the subject to the past, to avoid troublesome topics. Yet, the old drunk interrupted again.

"And those Muslims!" he cried. "You know," he said, getting close to me, conspiratorially, "they want to take over the world!"

"You might not realize, mister," I told him, "but me and my friend left our turbans out in the car."

He drew back in disbelief, then, realizing the other patrons were laughing, mostly at him, settled back in on his barstool.

"Well, where do you work down there?" he asked.

"Nobody works in Hamtramck," Andy Dow joked, giggling as he added, "We're all living on your taxes. They gave us so much welfare, we get to go on vacation!"

"What?" he cried, again distracted by the laughter.

"How about it, Pops?" I asked. "They're taxing your pension so we can live it up on the river!"

Another patron teased him about his government pensions.

"I earned that goddamn money!" he cried.

Before the bartender could say anything, he thrust a dollar at him for the swear jar. "I'm gonna need to pay in advance at this rate!" he shouted.

Aside from the drunk, though, the people were cool as hell in that lazy Oscoda County way, with plenty of time to shoot the breeze and drain some cold beers on a Tuesday night. One of them urged us to say hello when we passed his house on the river, telling us where it was.

Oddly, before we left, Pops urged us to join him on a late-night jaunt to a place called Mr. T's Roadhouse. But with the sun setting, we decided it was best to head to Mio and set up camp.

Our other friends, Steve Cherry and Jeff Fournier, arrived late to our camp just outside town. In the morning, we packed up and headed to the livery in Mio and they dropped us in the river.

I'm a little ambivalent about canoeing. On one hand, it's a wonderful way to slip silently through the wilderness, spying wildlife and using your wits to pilot a small craft — as well as one hell of a core workout. But on the other hand, it takes a lot of effort. It's like, no sooner have I lit a cigarette and cracked a beer than I have to start paddling again. Luckily, the conditions were excellent, warm temperatures with almost full sun, and very few bugs.

We brought everything: not just sleeping bags and tents and cookware but chairs, several coolers, bags of food, several changes of clothing, lots of firewood, even a cast iron Dutch oven. Surprisingly, it's not really a hardship to pack a lot of gear into a canoe. You have to make sure that you have some stuff where you can get at it, but all your things can be waterproofed in case you spill, and it can all be tied under the thwarts, and it gives you enough ballast to sit comfortably up on your seat. That's a must when you're paddling in shallow water, and the levels on the Au Sable this year were definitely lower than last year.

Our first day on the river, we paddled about 10 miles downstream in moderate wind. That wind didn't cooperate much, blowing us from side to side. But I learned how to fight it better than I had in the past. Thanks to all that ballast, I was confident enough in my balance to shift the angle of my canoe against the wind by lowering a leg to one side, all while powering through broad, wide paddle stokes on the other side to fight it. You don't always win. Sometimes you give up fighting and backpaddle on the wind side to keep faced downstream, although you lose time and momentum. Heck, sometimes you can't win and have to let the wind swoop your canoe down the river backwards until you can find an eddy and turn around again. After all, the river is the boss.

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