Canoeing the Historical Cass River
Guest Blogger: Tom Lounsbury
The canoe has a very long and ancient history in North America, especially in the Great Lakes Region where it was relied upon by Native Americans as an important means of transportation and survival. When the first European explorers arrived, they quickly adopted the canoe as well because it was a unique watercraft that maintained a shallow draft and was fully capable of carrying a load and navigating a diverse mixture of streams, rivers and lakes, and light enough to be portaged on land around obstacles. The canoe would play a major role in the early development of this country, including for trade and commerce. The well-known French voyagers are a prime example.
Depending upon the region and local resources the canoe could have a fixed framework covered with bark or animal skins, or be a dugout created from a large tree trunk. What comes to mind most often is the typical birch bark canoe that was actually a lot more durable than you might think, and it could be easily repaired with local natural materials found along the riverbank or lakeshore. I can remember some artists’ depictions of birch bark canoes as having the white side of the birch bark facing outward, but in reality they were constructed with the bark’s dark side outward. The birch bark for canoes was peeled from trees during springtime when the bark was at its thickest state, and was sewn together over a cedar framework using spruce roots, and pine gum was used for caulking. Birch bark canoes actually stayed in use right up to the early 20th century.
The early canoes didn’t feature seats either, as kneeling allowed for more agility and stability during paddling (I’ve found that when I want to do some serious paddling, I instinctively go into a kneeling position with my rear braced at the edge of the seat, which allows me to lean forward and put more constructive energy into my paddle-strokes). The wood/canvas canoe would eventually ease the birch bark canoe out, but like the birch bark canoe, it too required occasional repairs when the cloth covering was torn by hitting underwater obstructions (a repair kit was mandatory item to have on long hauls). The canvas/wood canoe, which required regular upkeep would eventually then become eased out by today’s very durable and weather resistant aluminum, fiberglass and Kevlar (various plastics) canoes.
My first canoeing experience began as a kid on the Cass River more than 50 years ago using a wood/canvas canoe owned by some friends. I became immediately smitten with canoeing and have been doing it ever since. Although I have canoed multiple rivers all over Michigan, the Thumb’s Cass River has remained my favorite. No doubt my having grown up and still living in close proximity to the Cass River helps with my affection due to this ready access that is close to home. Just the same, canoeing the Cass River is not a boring pastime as it has its share of challenges including fast water and rapids, and plenty of scenery, including wildlife.
To start, there is nothing difficult about learning how to canoe and it is a great pastime for the whole family. There are some special paddle strokes, such as the “J-stroke” that more easily turn the canoe, but usually a pair of folks can quite quickly pick up the technique of working a canoe together as a team. The person sitting in the stern has the most control as far as direction and thus is captain. The person in the bow has the best vantage point for seeing things such as rocks ahead and is thus the navigator. Personally I have no preference or problem sitting in either position.
Being a farm kid, I never had much of an opportunity back then to be a Cub Scout or Boy Scout, but when I got into high school I was fortunate to become an Explorer Scout (Troop 2974 of Cass City), which was strong into doing outdoors related activities. A key springtime activity was canoeing down the Cass River with our canoes loaded with camping gear, and our goal for a two-day paddle was to reach at least Vassar, and if conditions (such as weather) allowed, go all the way to Frankenmuth (yes folks, unless you are an Olympic-type paddler, it takes at least two days to canoe from Cass City to Frankenmuth – the Cass River features bountiful twists and turns as it winds through the Thumb).
I will always remember my first canoe trip with fellow Explorer Scouts, as it was a true adventure. I was in the stern and Bill Perlaki Jr was my bowman and we made a great team. Needless to say we all had important items such as sleeping bags and spare clothes in waterproof containers because that first stretch entailed its share of rapids and unexpected obstacles (during this timeframe a lot of elm trees, which lined the riverbank in certain areas, had succumbed to the Dutch Elm Disease and some had toppled into the river). Such made for some interesting navigation, especially if it included rapids in the mix. It was a thrill ride I loved clean to the core of my being, and we all made it through without any mishaps (we had several canoes, each filled with two people and their camping gear).
It seemed like it took no time at all to reach the M-24 Bridge south of Caro, but from there the Caro Dam had slowed the current right down that had been scooting us right along. The river actually took on a still-lake effect during this stretch, which was compounded by a stiff headwind out of the west. For every three strokes with our paddles, the wind seemed to push us back a couple strokes, so it was pretty slow going. We were glad when we reached our overnight camping spot on a bluff not far from the dam, thanks to the landowner who had previously given us permission.
The bluff was covered with large pine trees which sheltered us from the wind and the first thing in order was creating our shelters that entailed using the canoes which were propped up on their sides using the paddles at each end for braces. Plastic tarps that had protected our gear had been lashed to the ground edge of the canoe, and then pulled up and over the angled, upraised edge and stretched out and staked down to create the perfect weatherproof lean-to. Another plastic tarp was used as a ground-cloth which was spread out underneath and all that was required after that was to bring in our gear and spread out our sleeping bags. It didn’t take hardly any time at all to get setup for the night (it is a handy system I still use for canoe-camping).
Not long after we turned in for the night and were snug in our sleeping bags, it began to rain. Listening to the rain drumming on the bottom of the canoe which was leaning over our heads, and the trilling of frogs intermingled with the occasional sounds of waterfowl resting in the river and all of it combined with a pine-scented air, well folks, I slept like a log.
The rain would stick with us, as the following morning found us portaging our gear and canoes around the Caro Dam (which is now under private ownership, but wasn’t back then) and continuing our journey downstream. Due the rain being driven into us by a strong headwind, our journey came to a halt at Vassar and we all agreed it had been a great, and in my case, still unforgettable adventure.
Thanks to an outstanding group known as the Cass River Greenway (www.cassriver.org) , a great focus has been placed upon the historical Cass River. This has entailed regular clean-ups (removal of tires, etc – you name it) to establishing canoe/kayak launches. They are presently striving to have the Cass River designated as an official Water Trail, which it truly deserves.
The new Fish Way at Frankenmuth (completed in October 2015) replaced the original Frankenmuth Dam, and it features a convenient canoe/kayak portage trail. On my previous jaunts down the Cass River, Frankenmuth was always my final stop due to the dam and other obstructions, but now I quite literally have clear sailing, so to speak, all the way to Saginaw. I am planning for a fact to canoe from Cass City (which before there was a town, was known as “The Forks of the Cass River”) all the way to Saginaw. Prior to the Civil War, the Cass River provided the only decent access for hunters to venture into the Thumb wilderness from Saginaw to hunt elk, and the particular elk hunting hotspot was “The Forks of the Cass River” (the reason the township there is named “Elkland”).
I have a new one-person canoe and I’m planning on giving the Cass River a full stretch whirl soon. So this story is to be continued.
After more than 50 years of paddling, I’ve found a proper fitting paddle can make or break a canoe trip. People of varying sizes require paddles that closely match their height. If I’m going to be in the canoe’s stern, I want the end of the paddle’s handle to be in line with my nose when I’m standing and the tip of the paddle is touching the ground. If I’m going to be in the bow, the paddle can be a couple inches shorter and be in line with my chin, but generally I use my nose to determine my size choice for a paddle. Also, unless you are in a canoe race and conditioned for it, avoid the wide paddles that are similar in dimension to a scoop shovel, because they will burn your energy up for the effort employed. The standard width gets the job thoroughly done in a far more relaxing manner.