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Drummond Island lies between the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Ontario, Canada. The St. Marys River flowing down from Lake Superior divides here, with water flowing into Lake Huron below from either the DeTour Passage to the west or the False DeTour Channel and North Channel to the East. Hundreds of miles to the southeast, over 200,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) roar over the falls of Niagara. 10,000 years ago, the scene at Drummond Island was very similar.
Wilderness canoe tripping constantly seeks out unknown and seldom traveled places. On Drummond Island, and lying within the Lake Superior State Forest, is the Potagannissing (pah-tah-guh-NEES-ing) River, originally a small stream flowing northward off the island into a bay of the same name. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) established a dam and weir one mile from the mouth and created the Potagannissing Wildlife Flooding. The river and flooding consist of four interconnected lakes into virtually uninhabited backcountry.
I thought of these facts, these known elements about Drummond Island, as I sat under a tarp in the rain at our camp on Fourth Lake. It was the unknown more than the known that had drawn me to this place, this wilderness. Nobody I had talked to for the past three years could tell me anything first hand about this place. Several people had tried to canoe into this area, but low summer water levels prevented access above First Lake. Beyond that it was unseen and unknown. It was a place to draw whirlpools and dragons on the map….
The roar of Niagara continued to echo in my ears with the sound of rain drumming off the tarp. 10,000 years ago, during the last days of the glaciers, the Niagara Escarpment stretched from present day Watertown, New York to its western terminus at Drummond Island. The remains of this escarpment can be seen today in the chain of islands separating Georgian Bay from Lake Huron, and continuing down southern Ontario into New York State. Water from ancient lakes poured over this in a mighty cataract. To the west of Drummond Island at the same time, the Mackinac Gorge was pouring through a 50 mile long canyon that began at the Straights of Mackinac and careened past Drummond Island. The island at that time sat on the lip of a cascade of monumental proportions.
It is not hard to lose your place in time on the Potagannissing River. Paddling through the channels is like a journey back in time. I kept listening for the distant roar of the falls that had created this place, but the wind soughing through the trees was good enough. The backcountry drew you out of yourself and the sounds of ducks and geese arriving from their winter ranges commanded your attention. Wildlife abounds in the area with deer, bear, and eagles being the most dramatic.
Planning a trip into the Potagannissing River backcountry is not difficult. The most difficult thing I found was the virtually complete lack of information about it. Undeterred, the wilderness beckoned me. I just had to see what was in this large, undocumented area.
Getting to the island is straightforward. From the Eastern U.P. of Michigan, take Highway 134 east from I-75 to DeTour Village. DeTour State Forest Campground is a nice place to stay just west of the Village. The one-mile ferry crossing runs every hour from either dock, with multiple ferries running during the busier tourist season. Confirm ferry schedules by calling (906) 297-8851. Camping on the island itself is limited to private campgrounds near the launching area. There are many nice resorts and lodges on the island that are available by contacting their website at www.drummond-island.com. We made use of a small campsite at the put-in that is on state land, but there are no facilities.
The Potagannissing River and Flooding are an excellent place for the seasoned wilderness tripper as well as the novice. The logistics of the canoe trip consist of launching your canoe and proceeding up four lakes connected by a small river channel. When you are ready to return, simply reverse your direction and float back to your vehicle. Shuttle problems on wilderness trips can forever discourage people from ever trying it again, and there are no such problems on this route.
Traveling in the backcountry is another matter. Topographic maps for the area are available from the Michigan United Conservation Clubs at (517) 371-1041. You will need DRUMMOND and DRUMMOND SE. Navigation can be challenging at times and compass work is essential as the low marsh grasses confuse the actual shoreline. It is important to keep your bearings, although it would be difficult to be lost for very long. The worst scenario would be an extended paddle around the shoreline searching for the channels.
First Lake begins due east from the launching site and progressively widens to just over one kilometer. It is almost 4 km long. An island on the map 2 km from the put-in doesn’t exist at the water levels best for canoeing and can be confusing by its absence. We were timing our trip for late April and the ice had just left the area a week before. By July the flooding would be too low to ascend out of First Lake. We had our own difficulties navigating among the marsh grasses and were too close to shore at the top of First Lake to find the correct channel the first time. After paddling in and out of the false channels at the northeast corner, a better way would have been to take a compass bearing on the eagle nest visible on the northeast shore from a couple hundred yards out and head for that. It took us right into the channel.
The topo maps show the rises in land around the water. They are really islands of rocky remains from the last glacier, and are the silent witnesses of the Niagara-like spectacle that occurred here. Just remember that the marshy areas extend well beyond most of the solid shoreline except in a few places, making campsites limited. Second Lake is mostly by-passed by cutting to the east and back into the river channel, but it could be explored as a trip is extended. A nice lunch stop or campsite exists along this southern shore.
The channel between Second and Third Lake actually has some current in it but not enough to impede progress. It winds through some extremely remote cedar swamp and could easily pass for anywhere in Canada. The channel gradually widens and opens into the smallest of the four lakes, Third Lake.
On Third Lake we began to discover the first of several small cabins or shacks. Apparently, there is a tiny amount of private property that pre-dates the DNR taking over management of the area, and a few hunting and fishing shacks are still allowed. They encroach very little on the area and were clean and tidy. We looked them over with curiosity and went on our way. They appeared to be used mostly in the fall and were accessed from some undisclosed road on Fourth Lake.
The channel from Third Lake to Fourth Lake was full of excitement and anticipation. I didn’t have any reason to believe that anything more than wilderness lay at the end of the journey, but somehow the lure of something being “unknown” had beckoned like a siren. Whirlpools and dragons, unicorns perhaps…
Fourth Lake opened up in silence and wideness. I drank in the solitude and the air. A small cabin on the far shore told me I was not completely alone, but no human occupants were around to add their voice to it. A short swing around the point of land as we entered the lake rewarded us with a comfortable campsite. No evidence of it is visible from shore, but it is exactly where you would expect someone to stay. It provided shelter from the wind and higher ground to pitch our tents.
The human history of Drummond Island is not as colorful as its neighbor 40 miles to the west, Mackinac Island. Mackinac Island stood even more precariously on the lip of the ancient falls, but as geological events calmed to their present state, Mackinac was in a lucrative position for the European fur trade. The War of 1812 saw the capture of Mackinac Island by the British, but the Treaty of Ghent in 1815 saw the British return Mackinac to the United States and they built a new fort on Drummond Island. In 1822 they discovered that according to the Treaty, Drummond Island was still within United States territory, and they had to leave yet again. Drummond Island remains to this day as a quiet vacation and tourist destination.
We explored Fourth Lake and its surroundings. Two separate pairs of sandhill cranes vied for territory in a continual gronking contest. There were several smaller inlets coming into Fourth Lake that we tried to poke our canoes up into. We longed to find one more lake above Fourth and name it something more imaginative than the first four. Something like Unicorn Pond, or Dragon Lake, or Whirlpool Abyssal. Alas, only timber-choked streams lay before us.
The variety of ducks in the area was astounding and I would recommend bringing a bird book along unless you were already well acquainted with the many species. Small mammals seem to be doing well, also. We found several skulls from squirrels as well as a beaver skull in the weeds along the shore around camp, but the number of living squirrels and beaver we saw are testimony to their continued survival. Deer are abundant and move from high ground to high ground with ease through the marshes in between. Bear are present in healthy numbers in the backcountry, but we saw no sign of them. We treed all our food in the evening as on any other wilderness trip as a routine precaution. Raccoons and mice can be as devastating as a bear on unsecured food.
We savored the solitude around camp. It is very rare to find remote places this close to home, and it was easy to lose your self in your imagination. I could not shake the vision of Niagara Falls roaring through this area 10,000 years ago, and as I sat stirring my evening meal, I pretended I was there. “Just a mile over there is the North Channel”, I mused, “and just past the southern edge of the island the falls drop 200 feet to intersect the Mackinac Gorge coming in from the right. For as far as the eye could see during this time, you would have seen nothing but roaring falls and cataracts as billions of gallons of water carved the landscape into what we know today. Drummond Island is sitting like a terrified animal on the lip of this fantastic spectacle, and I am sitting on the island eating my dinner”.
We chose to stay the two nights at the same campsite on Fourth Lake, but there were several others around that we discovered during our exploration. It is also possible to move back and forth between the lakes as you wish, and a stay in the backcountry could be extended well past the three days we were there. Other than the occasional distant drone of a small plane, don’t expect much company. Most of the human pressure is from fisherman at the DNR dam and weir at the put-in on down to the mouth of the river at the bay.
The area has also been studied for the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference (SOLEC) in 1996, and the sensitivities of the adjacent wetlands to environmental pressures. This is an ongoing study, with observations that wetlands in the immediate area are unique to the Great Lakes and highly reactive to pollution. Indications are that the Potagannissing River and Flooding are still being actively studied and managed for health. These and other efforts have contributed to the backcountry remaining in a virtual wilderness condition to this day.
I knew now what lay in this previously unknown area. I knew there were other human visitors before me, but somehow none of that had mattered. Only seeing it myself could have satisfied my own curiosity. And I had not been disappointed. Even as I floated out from the camp at Fourth Lake to head back, I took a long look around. “Right over there is the North Channel” I spoke to myself, “and the falls beyond”. I could hear the wind in the trees and it was my cascade. As I began to move my canoe forward, I gazed into the forest edges. There still might be a unicorn or dragon out there somewhere…
Published Fall 2001 in "Paddle and Portage"