Category Archives: Travel
The Socially Distanced Cyclist: 16 Days, 1,170 Miles, and Minimal Human Contact Around the Coast of Lower Peninsula Michigan
From August 9 to 24, 2020, I took a solo, self-supported bicycle trip to explore the coastline of my home state, the great state of Michigan. Being the Great Lakes State and a water wonderland, Michigan offers 3,224 miles of freshwater coastline to explore as well as 124 lighthouses, both of which are the most of any state. The following is a summary the trip, encompassing 16 days, 1,170 miles, and following the coastline of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron around Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.
Day 1: Familiar Territory
Zeeland to Muskegon State Park: 67 Miles
It was a beautiful summer Sunday afternoon when I finally departed for my trip after a much longer than anticipated morning of final preparations. Bluebird skies and temps in the 80’s made it a day more fitting for a beach holiday than a long, sweaty bike ride. I would start the trip covering very familiar territory, a survey of the Lake Michigan beaches within just a short driving distance of where I grew up. I hopped on my overloaded bicycle and listened to the new squeaks and groans as the immense weight found its equilibrium on my old Cannondale, crossing my fingers that no spokes would snap (wanting to keep myself socially-distanced as possible, I chose to pack around 35 pounds of food so I wouldn’t need to re-provision the entire trip). My first leg would be the twelve mile distance to the white sand beaches of Holland State Park, with a ceremonial stop to see my beloved ‘Big Red’ Lighthouse, which would mark the first of many lighthouses I would stop to see on the trip.
The Holland area boasts many wonderful non-motorized recreational paths, and I followed one of them along Lakeshore Drive, past many lakeshore mansions, nearly all the way to Grand Haven. Grand Haven State Park, another beautiful white sandy beach, was packed with beach revelers on such a gorgeous day. From Grand Haven, I crossed the drawbridge over the Grand River and proceeded northward to Muskegon. This first day of the trip was marked by getting through some of the bigger metropolitan areas on the lakeshore to the less developed lands of the northern counties. North of Muskegon lies Muskegon State Park, a much quieter and forested lakeshore dune park than both of the state parks I had visited earlier. It was at Muskegon State Park where I would first camp for the night, and, as an omen for a good trip to come, I found a $20 bill on the road leading to the park.
Day 2: Storm’s A-Brewing
Muskegon State Park to Ludington: 72 Miles
Day two started fairly leisurely on the sandy beaches of Muskegon State Park, followed by a stimulating up-and down ride through the tree-covered dunes to the Blockhouse, the highest point in the park which offers great views of the dune ecosystem. Continuing northward, I followed the aptly-named Scenic Drive paralleling the lakeshore until I reached White Lake and the twin villages of Whitehall and Montague. As recommended, I found the Hart-Montague Trail, which was Michigan’s first Linear State Park and one of the earliest instances of Rail-to-Trail conversions in Michigan (1991). The Hart-Montague Trail runs for 22 miles and connects several small country towns that offer ice creameries and small cafes. Being a former railway, the trail is undeniably flat and straight, with mostly shrubs and brush for scenery. A few miles shy of Hart, I got the itch to return to the lakeshore for more expansive scenery and some hills for interest. I turned west towards the lake and the sand-buggy enclave of Silver Lake. Though I yearned to make the short detour to the remarkable Little Sable Point Lighthouse in Silver Lake, dark ominous clouds had begun building to the west.
I followed roads along the lakeshore through the city of Pentwater and past the cottages of Bass Lake. A few miles south of Ludington, the road passes right by the Ludington Pumped Storage Plant, once the largest pumped storage plant in the world! During the night, when there is excess electricity generated, the plant will pump water from Lake Michigan up into a 1.3 square mile reservoir over 350 feet above the lake. Releasing this water during the day generates supplemental electricity during peak demand. I stopped to gawk at its massive industrial workings, until a security guard came and asked me to leave. The guard said they were shutting down the overlook due to impending weather and showed me the radar on her phone. Yikes! I made a mad bike dash down from the high dunes to the city of Ludington, where I fortunately was able to set up camp before the heaviest rains set it. It was an eventful night as lightning flashed and thunder cracked overhead, but this would prove to be the only rain encountered on the whole trip.
Day 3: This is Hilly Amazing!
Ludington to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore: 78 Miles
The storms had passed during the night leaving me with wet gear, but a warm sunny day proved to be in order once again. North of Ludington, Hamlin Lake and Nordhouse Dunes (Lower Michigan’s only federally-designated wilderness area) block road access to the lakeshore, so I took an inland route of country roads through the matrix of forest and small farms. Riding into Manistee took me back to the lakeshore, and proved to be stop with plenty of great parks to relax at along the lakefront. A few miles north of Manistee, while riding on Lakeshore Road, I got caught up in paying too much attention to a car behind me as I looked to turn left towards the beach access. My front wheel slipped off the paved roadway immediately bogging down in the soft beach sand and causing a slow-motion flip over the handlebars. Aside from a few superficial scratches on my hands, knees, and bike, I was shaken, but OK.
I continued on, albeit more wary of soft shoulders now, around Portage Lake and the small town of Onekama. Onekama is the southern terminus of Michigan Highway 22 (or M-22), that famed route whose highway sign is emblazoned on merchandise and bumper stickers all over Michigan. Reaching M-22 proved a dramatic change in riding conditions; here, the hills began. Whereas up until now things had been remarkably flat, M-22 began a series of long, winding, gradual 1-to-2 mile climbs up a sand dune, followed by a speedy descent on the other side. I maxed my downhill speed out at 39 MPH, which on a fully-loaded bicycle is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. I broke up the hill climbs with stops at the little Victorian town of Arcadia’s city beach, and at the much more bustling tourist town of Frankfort. I then turned my route inland toward the town of Beulah, in search of cherry pie and wine. Riding from Frankfort along the sizable Crystal Lake proved no relief from the hills, and slower travel over the terrain caused me to miss out on the treats found in Beulah. Hungry and exhausted, I made my camp for the night just a few miles to the north in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Day 4: I Bearly Got Anywhere Today
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore: 37 Miles
However exhausted I was from the hill climbs the day before, I woke up very excited for the route I would cover today. I would be traveling through the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, perhaps the most scenic stretch of land in the Lower Peninsula (indeed, Sleeping Bear was named ‘The Most Beautiful Place in America’ by ABC’s Good Morning America in 2011). My bike, however, seemed less up for the challenge. As I had feared, all the popping and groaning coming from my crank were signs that my bearings were going bad, and my crank assembly had been growing disconcertingly looser and looser since day two. I would need to make a pit-stop to have that taken care of before I found myself stranded with no pedals to pedal.
I followed the quiet stretch of M-22 into the tourist outpost of Empire, where I met up with the Sleeping Bear Dunes Heritage Trail. This trail winds through the woods through most of the park, providing most excellent riding scenery. The trail also goes over some very steep dune sections and around some very sharp curves which makes for a sendy route to keep riders on their toes. Highly recommended is the Pierce-Stocking Scenic Drive, which winds a course of seven miles over some of the biggest dunes in the park and past some of the best vistas of Lake Michigan on top of the 400-foot tall sand dunes. Unfortunately for me, and maybe fortunately for my bike, the Pierce-Stocking drive was closed in 2020 due to road construction. However, a short distance north is the epic ‘Dune Climb’, a large active dune blowout that guests are encouraged to climb. The vantages from the top are quite spectacular, and offer sweeping vistas of Lake Michigan, the dune systems, and the valleys inland. Sleeping Bear Dunes also offers opportunities for history hounds as well. Just north of the dune climb is Glen Haven, a former fishing company town that the National Park Service now maintains as a historic village. Tucked in pockets around the park are also the barns and farmhouses of homesteaders of yore. In the course of time, most homesteads folded in the region, and the main economic driver switched to tourism.
I finally stopped to have my bike repaired in Glen Arbor, and the mandatory afternoon of downtime was well spent enjoying a swim in the crystal blue waters of Lake Michigan, as well as doing some tourist shopping in Glen Arbor itself. Not a big day distance-wise, but one of the best places just to enjoy some time in the splendid destination.
Day 5: Up and Down on Leelenau
Leland to Traverse City: 84 Miles
Back in 2012, I had taken a short bike vacation with my parents to the Leelenau Peninsula, and this area offers so much for the bicycle tourist on shorter trips as well as longer ones. The bigger towns of Leland, Northport, and Suttons Bay all offer their own vibe and tourist amenities. I started my day by following M-22 into Leland, of which any stop requires a mandatory visit to the historic and artsy Fishtown. A pleasant and lightly-trafficked ride north on M-22 took me to the quiet town of Northport. About an 8 mile ride north of Northport, past many cherry orchards, I reached the very tip of the Leelenau Peninsula which is home to a state park and the impressive Grand Traverse Lighthouse. The lighthouse was open to tours, though the tower was closed due to COVID.
On my way south on M-22 towards Suttons Bay, just past Omena, I crossed over the 45th Parallel (I had actually crossed over it earlier in the day between Leland and Northport), which, being the geography nerd that I am, necessitated a reason to celebrate. The closer I got to Suttons Bay, the more traffic M-22 picked up, and the worse shape the road became. Though riding M-22 next to Grand Traverse Bay was scenic, I was happy to beat the traffic by picking up the TART Trail (Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trail) going into Traverse City. Being the ‘Cherry Capital of the World,’ I biked past many cherry and fruit orchards on my way into the city.
Day 6: On a Mission
Old Mission Peninsula to Charlevoix: 78 Miles
The start of the day would take me onto the Old Mission Peninsula, the very long and narrow stretch of land that neatly divides Grand Traverse Bay in two. I peddled up the Peninsula on the west side’s Peninsula Drive, which offers a very quick and flat route to the tip, going past miles of miles of really fancy waterfront properties along the way. At the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula lies the Mission Point Lighthouse and a nice beach with crystal clear waters. The route back to Traverse City, along the main highway M-37, offered quite a contrast to the solitude and ease of Peninsula Drive. M-37 goes through the middle of the Peninsula, meaning the road goes up and down many hills as it winds its way mostly through vineyards. Though the hills were challenging, they did provide some incredible vistas of vineyards and Grand Traverse Bay. Had it not been before 10AM, I would have stopped for a tasting.
Once back into Traverse City, I caught the TART Trail to its eastern terminus in Acme, a few miles away. I was glad to avoid the heavy development and tourist traffic along that stretch of US-31. Once the path ended, I followed the signed bike route through some bucolic country acres until I ended up at US-31 again. During route planning, I had wanted to bike that stretch of US-31 as it passes on a narrow strip of land between Lake Michigan and both Elk Lake and Torch Lakes. In hindsight, this was the only section of my route that I wish I had changed. US-31 along that stretch has only a narrow, crumbling shoulder, and the summer tourist car traffic is constant. Even worse, the route has absolutely no views of any lake along the way. As a plus side, though, the heavy tourist traffic does bring with it an abundance of roadside food, fruit, and sweet stands, and Elk Rapids makes a nice town to stop at. Given that it was an exasperatingly hot and sunny day, I made my fill of stops along the way to replenish my belly and refill my electrolytes with some pasties, pastries, and apple cider.
Day 7: Through the Tunnel of Trees
Charlevoix to Cross Village: 81 Miles
Whereas the previous two days were spent biking around the Grand Traverse Bay, today I would bike around the Little Traverse Bay. First stop of the day was in the harbor town of Charlevoix, outside of which I picked up the Little Traverse Wheelway bike path. With the underlying bedrock of the region being limestone here, I made several lengthy stops along the lakeshore to try my hand at fossil hunting. Being so close to Petoskey, I was really hoping to find a stellar specimen of the city’s namesake and Michigan’s state rock (even though Petoskey stones are indeed a fossil, they are not Michigan’s state fossil). Alas, good specimens of Hexagonaria coral (AKA Petoskey stones) were difficult to find, but it doesn’t take an expert paleontologist to soon pick out many other fossils in the mix; fossilized horn corals, bivalves, brachiopods, and crinoids all make the lakeshore a Devonian paleontologist’s playground. Following the nicely-paved Wheelway around Little Traverse Bay will take you to the towns of Petoskey and Harbor Springs, both of which offer plenty of dining and shopping amenities. Petoskey offers a large historic downtown area built into a hillside, whereas Harbor Springs caters to the yacht club upper-crust.
Past Harbor Springs, following Michigan Highway 119 (M-119) is both the motorist and cyclist eye-candy route known as the ‘Tunnel of Trees’. The Tunnel of Trees is a splendid, curvy, 1 1/2 lane highway that encourages you to slow down and enjoy being immersed in the trees as the highway meanders along a sand dune bluff for nearly 20 miles. Traveling, as I was, on a mostly cloudy evening, I encountered very little auto traffic (I let my eyes wander once again, forgetting entirely my days-earlier episode of crashing my bike). At the northern end of the Tunnel of Trees is the tiny settlement of Cross Village, most notably known for its iconic roadhouse, the Legs Inn. In the 1930’s Polish immigrant Stanley Smolak, along with the help of local Odawa craftsmen, began to build the fantastical building using local stone and driftwood. It is highly recommended as a place to eat, or at least walk in and feast your eyes on the décor. Wait times often exceed one hour. Though a hot meal and a beer sounded nice after such a long day, I was burning daylight and had to get to my campsite near Wilderness State Park.
Day 8: In the Straits, not in dire straits
Wilderness State Park to Mackinac Island: 45 Miles
Wilderness State Park is a fantastic, remote expanse of land on the northwest tip of lower Michigan. It offers wide swathes of pine forest and vast expanses of sand dunes, and is highly recommended to spend a full day there. My time in Wilderness State Park would prove eventful. I had just started biking for the day when I came around a corner and saw two young men frantically waving for me. I caught glimpse of a motorcycle stuck under a truck, which is what they were making a big fuss about. I stopped to help the two guys, both named Tyler, incidentally, to get the motorcycle out from under the truck. By that time, I had already pieced together the narrative that the man with the fresh patches of road rash had lost control of his motorcycle going around the curve, and had slid under the parked truck. Fortunately everyone was OK, and I helped Tyler clean up his road rash a bit. Of the three of us there, only my flip phone had cell service, and I stayed with them until they arranged a tow. Flip phone for the win!
Since I no longer had time to explore the vastness of Wilderness State Park, I picked my way along rough rural roads in Emmet County towards the very tip of the Mitt at Mackinaw City. Along the way, however, I couldn’t resist stopping when I saw a sign for the McGulpin Point Lighthouse (which, by the way, you could actually climb the tower). From the McGulpin Point light tower, I could get a great view of the Mackinac Bridge spanning the Straits of Mackinaw. I was at the tip of the peninsula, but the Mackinac was a bridge I would not cross (at least not on this trip). Nearby the lighthouse is the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, and the region is perfect for stargazing on a clear night.
Now that I was halfway through my ride and at the tip of the Peninsula, my crowning stop would be an afternoon spent on Mackinac Island, Michigan’s iconic and premier island destination. A former British fort and a tourist destination since the mid-1800’s, Mackinac Island was once even briefly a federal National Park (1875-1895). Today, the island is known for its bikes and horse-drawn carriages, its Victorian architecture, its fudge and tourist shops, and for being carless. It is a half-hour ferry ride to the island from Mackinaw City, and to get to the ferry terminal you have to pass through all the shops of downtown Mackinaw City that are hawking fudge and T-shirts. Once you land on Mackinac Island itself, you’ll be in downtown and will walk past all the shops hawking the same fudge and T-shirts as the mainland. But when you’re on the island, it’s special, and I did the touristy thing of buying fudge, popcorn, and postcards. The island is also great for history buffs, given Fort Michilimackinac and other historic buildings to tour, but I was there for the bike riding. A right of passage on the island is to bike the 8 mile loop on M-185 that rings the island. I had biked around the island once before on a family trip when I was in fifth grade, but biking on my own as an adult was so much better. Of course I had to make a stop at some of the iconic geological formations such as Arch Rock and Skull Cave. And there was no better way to cap off the day than by getting ice cream from the shop below the Grand Hotel’s world-record 660′ long front porch.
Day 9: Lonesome Limestone Highway
Mackinaw City to Thompson’s Harbor State Park: 74 Miles
United States Highway 23 offers a dramatic contrast to the commercialism of Mackinaw City. Never before had I been to northeast Lower Michigan. It is an region of small towns separated by large distances all built on the extractive industries. From Mackinaw City to Cheboygan, the North Central State Trail follows an old railroad grade paralleling Highway 23. Though the crushed gravel of the state trail was nice, I found I preferred the feel of pavement and the glimpses of Lake Huron that riding on the road afforded me. Traffic was light and the shoulders were wide, which meant great riding conditions.
The surrounding waters of Lake Huron are extremely treacherous, and have claimed hundreds of ships and lives over the centuries. These shipwrecks are all protected within the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Forty miles from the Straits of Mackinac is the Forty Mile Point Lighthouse. Several shipwrecks lie in shallow water just offshore, but the remains of the 1905 wreck of the J.S. Fay lie on the beach near the lighthouse. Snorkeling, SCUBA diving, kayaking, or glass bottomed boat tours are all the best ways to see the wrecks.
From Forty Mile Point, one can get on the paved Huron-Sunrise Trail, which leads to Rogers City. Though Rogers City is small, its status as the only town of 1,000 or more people for 30 miles in either direction means that it has all the amenities a person would need. Rogers City is built on mining—mining the fossil-rich limestone bedrock that dominates the region. The limestone is crushed and used as an ingredient in cement, and Lake Huron provides easy access for shipping to distant markets. Outside the city is a special overlook that peers into the massive strip mine that gives Roger’s City its lifeblood. The Calcite Quarry, at over 1,800 acres, ships out 7 to 10 million tons of limestone each year.
Leaving Rogers City early in the evening, the sun was beginning to shine lower and lower on the horizon, while the blue open skies made the late sunshine feel quite tangible. I took a detour off of US-23 at Thompson’s Harbor State Park to search for the Presque Isle Lighthouses. Without directions or a detailed map, I followed an unnamed dirt road hoping it would take me to the lighthouses. The road dead ended at the outlet where water from Grand Lake flows into Lake Huron. The low gleaming sun, the slight warmth in the gentle breeze, the sound of the rocks rolling in the surf—it aligned all too perfectly. I had to stop right there for the day—I had to sit down and just bask in the beauty of the experience. If anything, that evening spent on the beach of Thompson’s Harbor was the defining spiritual experience of the trip. The video encapsulating my experience is included above.
Day 10: Here On Huron
Thompson’s Harbor State Park to Oscoda: 76 Miles
After my euphoric evening at Thompson’s Harbor State Park, I had to follow up with nothing short of a pre-breakfast swim in Lake Huron. My morning route would continue around Grand Lake to the small sleepy enclave of Presque Isle. I would find both the old and the new Presque Isle Lighthouses on a peninsula, and, not unexpectedly, both were closed for the summer. Nevertheless, taking the detour around Grand Lake to those small communities and idyllic harbors was well worth it. After passing another large limestone quarry, I reconnected to US-23 and had a short ride into the city of Alpena.
Alpena hails itself as the ‘Sanctuary of the Great Lakes’ owing to its location at the center of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It is a large city, as far as cities in northeastern Michigan go, and along with the extractive industries of fishing, lumbering, and limestone quarrying, Alpena boats a modest maritime tourist economy as well. Unfortunately the highly acclaimed NOAA Museum and adjoining glass-bottom boat tours were closed due to COVID. At this point in the trip, I had grown terribly tired of the food I had packed from home, so I stopped in downtown Alpena to get the greasiest cheeseburger Alpena could offer. While seated at the restaurant, a middle-aged couple started up a conversation by saying that they had seen me yesterday riding from Mackinaw City. We chatted a while about our Michigan travels, and they seemed thoroughly impressed by my stamina. They also paid for my meal.
I left Alpena headed south on US-23 on the mostly empty road past the endless forest. A peculiar place to stop would be Ossineke, where giant sculptures of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox great travelers on the highway. Nearby, a gigantic Jesus holding the earth aloft in one hand beckons visitors to come visit the Dinosaur Gardens Prehistoric Zoo, an eclectic and anachronistic mix of cavemen, dinosaurs, and Christianity. By the time I was ready for a break, I was passing by the small town of Harrisville, and I saw a sign for an outdoor concert at the lakefront pavilion. It was some good foot-tapping folk music being played, and after a few songs an announcement was made that it was the organizer of the concert series birthday today. A homemade carrot cake was cut up to celebrate. I was invited by a women to grab a slice. What great small-town hospitality! South of Harrisville, US-23 travels right next to Lake Huron, on what is called the ‘Sunrise Coast’. In a long stretch from Harrisville to Oscoda, the lake is lined with second homes and vacation rentals. I think I finally found where most of the east-siders go on their summer vacations.
Day 11: To the Thumb Pit
Oscoda to Standish: 71 Miles
The twin villages of Au Sable and Oscoda mark the finish line of one of Michigan’s most epic races: The Au Sable Canoe Marathon. In the race, competitors start 120 miles upstream in Grayling, paddling through the night to reach the finish line near Lake Huron. The race was cancelled in 2020, but seeing so many fine rivers as I biked along the coast made me itch to get out and paddle again.
A short distance later, I would be coming upon the start of the ‘Thumb Pit,’ better known as Saginaw Bay. The Tawas Point Lighthouse marks the start of the bay on the northern end, and Tawas City is a small tourist enclave. Continuing south on US-23, the highway is flat and runs right along the lakeshore. The tourist resorts and second homes disappear, and the landscape consists of forest and utilitarian buildings. Maybe it was something about this road, or maybe it was because I just started to put my head down and ride, but I began to notice an abundance of quarters, nickels, and dimes scattered on the shoulder. Another roadside find was a ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ flag, which was evocative of the region’s independent and libertarian leanings.
Day 12: Thumbs Up
Standish to Port Austin: 77 Miles
Today I would round Saginaw Bay and enter Michigan’s Thumb. Pure geographical curiosity had me wondering what it would be like to visit, though I have heard that the Thumb is very flat, rural, and agricultural. The rumors proved true: the Thumb is incredibly flat, rural, and agricultural. Very small farm towns dot the landscape. Biking south on M-13 going into Bay City, I passed through Pinconning, Michigan’s Cheese Capital. On the Thumb, the town of Sebewaing has a large sugar beet processing plant. It was not until the very tip of the thumb, in the towns of Caseville and Port Austin, where vacation homes and tourist attractions began to sprout up along M-25 by the lakeshore. The thumb-tip also offers a couple of nice state parks with sandy swimming beaches.
Day 13: Last Day Along the Lake
Port Austin to Lakeport: 84 Miles
Starting from the tip of the Thumb, today would be my last day biking along the lakeshore as I made my way south on M-25 towards Port Huron. M-25 runs right along Lake Huron, passing many small towns along the way. Even though the route is right next to a Great Lake, it remains agricultural and undeveloped. I biked past the historical company town of Huron City and then past the Point Aux Barques Lighthouse and former U.S. Life Saving Service Station. I continued biking past many sleepy towns enjoyed by the R.V. crowd, until I passed through more touristy enclaves like Lexington and Lakeport as I neared Port Huron.
Day 14: Eastward
Lakeport to Flint: 96 Miles
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and I was about to wrap up my travels along the Great Lakes and start the long trek eastward back to my starting point in Zeeland. I couldn’t help but say goodbye to Lake Huron with one final swim at Lakeport State Park. From Lakeport I would pedal eastward through the farm country in the heart of the state. I passed through small towns named Yale, Lynn, Capac, and Dryden. The roads were rough and had limited shoulder, and I bet that road bikers are a rare occurrence there. However, even with the unseemingly busy roads and all the trucks trying to get past me, every driver was courteous. By the time I biked to Metamora and Hadley, the farmland had turned to hills and forest. I would end the evening on the outskirts of Flint, after a very long, hot and sunny day.
Days 15 & 16: Wrapping Up
Flint to Middleville to Zeeland: 115 & 35 Miles
One final, scorching hot day was ahead of me as I aimed to make it to my friends Robert and Becky’s house in Middleville for the evening. From the outskirts of Flint, I was immediately back into farm country. I would pass through Durand, home of the Michigan Railroad Historical Museum. I would also pass through Laingsburg, where I began running into fleets of spandexed cyclists out for a Sunday morning ride. Out of Laingsburg, I would follow country roads that ran along the crisp and cool Looking Glass River, being thankful for the trees lining the road that provided some measure of relief from the sun. Once past the outskirts of Lansing, it was all sun-beaten farmland until Middleville. Wanting to avoid traffic, I wandered down country roads, meandering generally East and South towards my destination. While I succeeded in avoiding traffic, I also never ran into the gas station that I had optimistically been counting on to replenish my desperately low electrolytes. By the time I arrived at Robert and Becky’s house, it was well past sunset. An incredibly long day, but one the prospect of seeing old friends again had motivated me on towards.
From Middleville, it was a chip shot of a day to finish the remainder of the trip back to Zeeland. More meandering and country roads, and the unanticipated stretch of country gravel, but 35 miles later I had made the trip complete.
It was the middle of May 2018 when I first landed on Isle Royale. That storied island—that mass of rock isolated in northern Lake Superior. So far away it seems logically like it should be part of Canada, yet it belonged to Michigan—the only National Park in my home state. The mystery of that island beckoned me from maps with its geography and isolation. Long had I wanted to discover what this coveted gem had in store.
At long last, I finally visited the island after spending a winter and a spring teaching environmental education in northern Minnesota. By that time, I had become quite familiar with the boreal northwoods from all those hours teaching kids in the wilds. The northern forests, hence, were not all that different from my everyday existence.
Given my years of anticipation, Isle Royale was bound to be something exceptionally different than what one could experience on the mainland, I believed.
As it was, my first trip to the island was a simple, short overnight stay, ferrying in from Grand Portage, Minnesota to the Windigo Visitors Center on the western end of the island. As far as landscapes go, the flat, forested, mixed-conifer forests of Windigo are not spectacularly different than the Minnesota Northwoods I had become accustomed to.
I was a bit underwhelmed.
I didn’t even bother to take any pictures (incidentally, my camera had broken earlier that trip).
I left Isle Royale that trip convinced that I had seen the island in the wrong way. A simple overnight trip was no way to do the island ecosystem justice. If I was ever to return to Isle Royale, I thought, I would do it in the right way: I would hike the island from end to end, slow enough to absorb the ecological transitions, to understand the essence of what makes the place, and to enjoy immersion in the vast isolation of Isle Royale.
As chance would have it, in the summer of 2019 I was selected to take part in a volunteer restoration crew on Isle Royale’s Rock of Ages Lighthouse. I would be returning to Isle Royale sooner than I had thought, and this time, I would be staying on to hike across the island afterwards.
I started my hike on the western end of the Island, at Windigo, the widest part of the island. Here the forest commands the land and the coastline is smoother, less jagged. I made my way to the Greenstone Ridge trail, the hiking path that transects the middle of the island. Despite its name, the Greenstone Ridge at this point isn’t much of a ridge at all. The trail slowly climbs uphill under the cover of a mixed-forest—conifers, but also maples and even the warm-and-dry loving oaks. I spent my first night at the interior campsite of Island Mine, the site of an 1870’s copper mine that peaked and was abandoned in only a few years.
Mining history would be a big theme of the hike, and copper was the resource of value. It wasn’t just white Euro-Americans who were mining the island either: the Ojibwe, the indigenous people of Isle Royale, had mined the island for thousands of years. Archeological evidence suggests that as early as 4500 years ago, indigenous people harvested copper by using stones to hammer off chunks of native copper from outcroppings in the bedrock. As their technology progressed, they began to mine deeper in the bedrock by building large fires over ore deposits, then quickly dousing the fire with water in order to crack the bedrock. Small indigenous mining pits can still be seen throughout Isle Royale today. By the 1840’s the Objibwe had been duped into ceding their lands to settlement and development for the resource-hungry Americans. Speculators flocked to the island to make their riches, but mining on Isle Royale was always boom or bust. Island Mine organized in 1874 and extracted over 200,000 pounds of refined copper. Three years later, the company went bust. All that remains now are scattered pieces of rusting equipment and mounds of tailings.
Day two saw me continue east along the Greenstone Ridge. After a few miles of hiking through the shady canopy, I began to get my first views from the ridge: small, rocky clearings at first with scrubby oaks and small shrubs partly obscuring the views. First the clearings were few and far between, but then they became more abundant. From the ridge one could begin to see some of the inland lakes that dot the island, including the scenic Lake Desor, near the summit of Mount Desor, which at 1,394 feet is the highest point on the island. From clearings further along I could even see Ryan Island in Siskiwit Lake, the largest island in the largest lake on the largest island in the largest lake.
With the gradual opening from shady forest to open ridge, another fun thing happened: berries. Up on the ridge, the sun beats down and the soil becomes dry. The seasons progress quicker than by the lakeshore where Lake Superior tempers the weather. Whereas the thimbleberries at lower elevations were still hard and green, up on the ridge I began to encounter a progression of ripeness: first, an isolated red berry, then a few on a bramble, and finally whole thickets of the bright red berries. Thimbleberries are a thornless, velvety cousin of the raspberry, with shallow bright red berries which are so soft and juicy that they can only survive the journey from the hand to the mouth.
After gorging myself on snacks of thimbleberries and taking a mid-afternoon swim in the cool and clear Lake Desor, I made my campsite at Hatchet Lake.
The clear summer weather finally took a turn for the wet on my second night. It was a constant heavy rain that slowly drenched me. I awoke (did I even sleep?) with about an inch of standing water in my tent. I later learned that at Windigo they recorded nearly two inches of rain in that overnight.
I would start my third day soggy. Today I would be leaving the Greenstone Ridge trail for the north shore of Isle Royale and the infamous Minong Ridge. I reached Lake Superior at Todd Harbor, a picturesque cove with a mélange of water-smoothed rocks. I took a short side hike to the former open pit of the Haystack Mine, and then followed a trail just a little bit further to find a small waterfall that was the cause of some bubbling noise off in the distance. From Todd Harbor I took the Minong Trail towards McCargoe Cove. The Minong Trail, though it never reaches as high elevations as the Greenstone Ridge, deserves its reputation as a knee-destroyer. The Minong Ridge is a series of exposed escarpement ridges: a rocky, uneven gradual climb up the bare basalt, followed by a steep dropoff on the backside. Then repeat, again and again. On a hot day, it wears you out, as it wears out your knees.
I reached the deep and slender McCargoe Cove by mid-afternoon, and after such a soggy night, I was eager to rest and dry out. This afternoon, I finally got a shelter at one of the island’s campsites. They are spacious lean-tos, screened-in, and with the perfect combination of both scenic views and isolation. I dried my clothes off and basked in the sun.
Though McCargoe Cove was my favorite campsite of the hike, there were not many people there at all. Isle Royale consistently is the least visited national park in the contiguous 48 states. In 2017, this National Park had only more visitors than Lake Clark, Kobuk Valley, and Gates of the Arctic National Parks, all sites in remote interior Alaska. With only 28,196 people even paying a visit in all of 2017, more people visit parks like Yellowstone in a single day than all of Isle Royale in an entire year. The great benefit of Isle Royale’s lack of popularity is its solitude. The trails and campgrounds never feel crowded. With fewer folks around, you also develop good connections with your fellow travelers quite readily. At McCargoe Cove, I spent the evening around the campfire chatting with our only neighbors: a group of fishermen from Chicago and a pair of ladies from the Twin Cities. Trail community seems to come easily here.
McCargoe Cove was also the harbor used for the Minong Mine, the most prolific mine in Isle Royale’s history. Like other island mine sites, indigenous people had harvested surface copper deposits here first. In 1872, modern mining operations had commenced at Minong. This mine produced some incredible finds, such as a 5,720 pound nugget of almost pure copper. Finds like this nugget, and several other massive nuggets, added fuel to the mining fire. Two shafts were dug, up to 300 feet deep, as well as several drift tunnels that followed the ore veins. As tunnels were dug, tailings, or waste rock, began to fill in the adjoining marsh that leads to McCargoe Cove. A boomtown known as Cove sprang up at Minong, housing upwards of 150 people at its peak. Along with its railroad, stamp mill, and blacksmith shop, Cove even boasted a post office. Indeed, the prospect of permanent settlement on Isle Royale seemed so promising that Isle Royale even became its own county in 1875. By 1885, however, all mining operations on Isle Royale came to a halt for good. The grade of the ore dwindled and the price of copper fell; Isle Royale proved to be too isolated and the winters too harsh. Eventually, even though over 4 million pounds of refined copper were removed from the island, all mining ventures proved too non-economical to continue. Island boomtowns were abandoned. By 1897, with no permanent population left, Isle Royale County was re-absorbed into Keweenaw County.
On my fourth day, after very much enjoying my single-night stay in the shelter, I was off to hiking again. This time I decided to traverse the island from north shore to south shore, hiking astride several interior lakes along the way. I had been told that these interior lakes were hotbeds for moose activity. As storied and prolific as the moose population on Isle Royale has been, I had yet to see my first moose on the island. I knew they’d be around, as I had already seen plenty of moose scat and browse sign.
The scenic and shapely-named Chickenbone Lake proved of no avail for moose, though it was a Mecca for giant dragonflies. The next lake over, at Lake Ritchie, I got my first far-off glimpse of a moose browsing in the aquatic vegetation far across the lake. With the gradual decline of the predatory wolf population, the numbers of moose on Isle Royale have skyrocketed in recent years, with an estimated 2,000 moose inhabiting just over 200 square miles of island (learn more about Isle Royale Wolf-Moose dynamics here). I would only end up seeing one other moose on my trip. After losing the hiking trail on some bedrock, I wound up following a moose trail into the woods. The moose trail petered away until I reached a swamp. Suddenly, a large startled moose crashed away from me through the brush!
Though I had seen two moose, as far as their illustrious predator the wolves went, I had yet to see any. When I had visited previously in 2018, there was just a pair of wolves left on the island, simultaneously a brother-sister pair and a father-daughter pair (you do the math on that inbreeding!). In the winter of 2018-2019, four more wolves were introduced to reinvigorate the existing wolf population. For anyone, seeing a wolf is a rare treat. Alas, I never had a wolf encounter on the island; the closest I got to seeing the wolves was the island cabin of well-known wolf-moose researcher Rolf Peterson.
Once at the south side of the island, I camped at the large harbor of Moskey Basin. Completely different from the small, sparsely-filled campgrounds I had been staying at, Moskey Basin was filled to capacity with both families and large groups, and its vast expanses of exposed bedrock and its picnic tables made this site feel luxurious and tame. But I should have expected that, visiting in high season after all. Even in high season, though, Isle Royale is not that busy, and getting all of that wilderness ambiance while hiking was a treat not to be taken for granted.
The cove at Moskey Basin was a sight to behold—layers of exposed bedrock outcroppings running right into the water. I hadn’t noticed it too much before, but the island was becoming rockier and rockier the further I traveled east. The exposed rocks left plenty of good places for sunbathing and also proved to be a prime habitat for blueberries (thimbleberries, unfortunately, had all but disappeared after leaving the Greenstone Ridge). Also without my noticing, the broadleaf tree canopy had disappeared too. Thin soils could no longer support the large broadleaf trees seen more westerly on the island. Instead, the forest was becoming more a stunted array of firs and spruces.
With a clear night ahead looking promising, I made a commitment to staying up to see the stars. This being mid-summer in the westernmost Eastern Time Zone, the sun did not set until near 10pm, and the stars did not emerge until well afterwards. After a full day of hiking, I was usually in my tent well before the stars came out in their full glory. But I stayed up tonight and was treated to a show on an absolutely moonless night. Being miles away from any human settlements, the stars on Isle Royale are absolutely amazing!
My last day on Isle Royale would take me into the primary tourist outpost at Rock Harbor. Rather than hugging the shoreline trail to my final destination, I once again went inland to take the Greenstone Ridge home. The trail up to the Mount Ojibway Fire Tower was never too steep, provided uninterrupted views, and proved to be premiere blueberry habitat. The whole climb up I had a constant handful of blueberries as a power snack. The Mount Ojibway Fire Tower, unlike its much squatter kin at Mount Ishpeming, actually provides visitor access to the base. Climbing the tower provides views of the entire island from north to south.
The Greenstone Ridge continued its path northeast across exposed rocky and grassy balds. By the time I reached the Mount Franklin lookout, it was clear I was encountering a different area. The overlook was populated with day-tourists hiking up from their various Rock Harbor lodgings. I left the viewpoint and went on the downhill to Rock Harbor and my hike’s end. At the eastern end of the island, Isle Royale’s tilted geology splits the island into many narrow peninsulas and long bays running towards the northeast. I walked along these deep harbors right along the trails by the edge of Superior’s turquoise waters.
A sign for campsites signaled that I had made it into Rock Harbor. I could now bask in the luxuries of this tourist depot. Modern settlement at Rock Harbor started with a few unsuccessful mining ventures in the 1840’s, then moved into the realm of commercial fishing, as Scandinavian immigrants built their fishing shanties after the copper booms. By the early 1900’s, these fishermen were guiding pleasure-seekers around the island and accommodating throngs of tourists in cabins. Several resorts eventually popped up, having their heyday in the 1920’s. The Great Depression and changing societal tastes caused a drastic decline to tourism in the 1930’s. By 1940, Isle Royale had been declared a National Park, and the National Park Service began the process of buying out and shutting down the remaining tourist resorts and removing fishermen from the island. Gradually, this formerly logged, mined, and settled island would be transformed into a 99% wilderness park with no permanent population.
Today Rock Harbor boasts a store where one can buy fresh vegetables as well as craft beer, hot showers ($6 for a five-minute shower), laundry, a restaurant, rustic cabins, and even a few hotel rooms. For this wilderness traveler, it was a world apart from the Isle Royale I had just experienced. The development at Rock Harbor was a foil to the isolation of the island. Though I milled about the Rock Harbor Village for a while, it just wasn’t what I needed. I made off to a quiet edge of Lake Superior and took a long, cleansing swim in her waters. For me, that is what Isle Royale is about.
For those of you interested in some of the irregularities of state political boundaries—for instance, why Michigan is separated into two large peninsulas, why Oklahoma has a panhandle, or why Colorado is just a boring old rectangle—there is a great book to read. That book is How the States Got Their Shape by Mark Stein. In detail, Stein explores each state’s border—explaining the various social and political forces, many oft-long forgotten, that went into the making of each state’s boundary. It’s an easy and entertaining read, and it is quite surprising to learn how often petty disputes (i.e. Missouri’s southeast corner) or rudimentary surveying mistakes (i.e. the Kentucky/Tennessee border) made America’s state geography much more complicated than it ideally should have been.
For some folks, it is simple enough just to read about peculiar political boundaries. For others, it is necessary to visit them (think about the 4-corner intersection of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, which is a modern-day tourist attraction. The allure of being in four states at once is well worth the three dollar entrance fee!)
And, as American political boundaries rarely follow logical physical geographical boundaries, the result is some absurdities in state physical geography extremes. Recently, I spent a weekend exploring some geographical oddities near me; in particular I went to Mount Frissell, a mountain in Massachusetts which oddly enough is also the highest point in Connecticut.
What drew me to this particular non-descript mountain in the extreme southwestern corner of Massachusetts? Well, it was a form of geographical tourism known as highpointing. Simply put, highpointers are people who try to reach the highest point in each state or region. Now personally, I had previously climbed the tallest mountain in a few states before, but I had never really made highpointing more of a goal until I picked up a guidebook of state highpoints at a library used book sale last year. Being somewhat of a geography nerd, I thought it would be a fun travel project to undertake (at least to all the highpoints in which ropes and glacier travel are not required!)
And hence I learned about Mount Frissell. Though the mountain has its own scenic merits and was quite a lush walk through the deciduous Connecticut uplands, I would have had incredibly little reason to ever visit otherwise.
My approach to Mount Frissell came from the Connecticut side of the mountain, where an inconspicuous town road out of Salisbury eventually leads to the trailhead destination. I drove northwards out of town, up a narrow dirt road lined with verdant shrubs and trees. Immediately after hitting the state border marker with Massachusetts, I was at the trailhead. Oddly enough, I would not enter Connecticut on this trip again until I emerged at its state highpoint!
The trail to the summit begins deceptively flat and effortless. A quarter mile in, though, as East Coast trails are prone to do, the path shoots straight up the bedrock slopes of Mount Frissell. Fortunately, the trail was short enough, the views rewarding, and in less than an hour I was at the summit of Mount Frissell, elevation 2,454 feet.
Though I was at the summit, I still had not accomplished my highpoint goal for the day (nor was I at the highpoint of Massachusetts. That honor belongs to Mount Greylock at 3,489 feet, just a couple hours’ drive north.) Fortunately, my climbing portion was done. All I needed to do now was to descend about 300 yards down Frissell’s south slope until I reached the Connecticut border.
A rock cairn and a humble state survey marker are the only evidence that you’ve made it to Connecticut’s highpoint, a modest 2,379 feet. The area itself looks little different from the surrounding forest, and, being on a slope, the views are fairly obscured by vegetation. Nevertheless, I enjoyed being the highest person in the state of Connecticut for awhile, as I rested and perused the trail register notes left by fellow highpointers.
For geography bonus points, continue walking west on the trail for a few more minutes. Soon you will come upon the tri-state boundary for Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. As you stand there deep in the woods, maybe you’ll wonder to yourself ‘why in the world did people bother to put this giant stone obelisk in the middle of the forest?’ Well, that’s geographers for you.
Other nearby state superlatives of note: Bash Bish Falls, measuring nearly 200 feet in a series of separate cascades, is Massachusetts’s highest waterfall. Well worth the visit.
An item on many people’s bucket lists, including mine, is to visit every one of the fifty United States. It’s a large task, considering the vast size of our country…but then again, it’s not too challenging when one considers how large most states are and how merely transiting around this country will often result in unintended visits to new states and to new places. As for me, before I reached the age of 27 in 2017, I had already set foot in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Mapped out, it looks like I have visited most of our country:
But for how many people, is visiting every single county in the United States on the bucket list? Instead of a mere 50 states, the total list extends to 3,142 counties*. For fellow alumnus of Calvin College’s Geography Department Tom Byker, this was a very intentional goal. Byker started his earnest quest to visit every single American county after beginning college, and this county-visit project was one highlight on his resume that helped him in landing a job at the navigational company TomTom. Tom recently brought his county visit project to a close after visiting his final county in Hawaii in 2017.
Inspired by the fine-scale travel goals of Tom Byker and the other ‘County Collectors,’ I decided to make my own map of county visits, mainly out of curiosity of where I’ve been in each state. I have never kept a formal list of counties that I have visited, so the entire map is based off memory of past travels I have been on. The majority of county travel has occurred during college and beyond, but I did try and reconstruct the county locations of some early family trips. And yes, I did count driving through a county as adequate for a visit. Here is what my county-scale map looks like:
And what can I learn from the county-level map?
- In total, I have visited 924 of 3,142 counties, which is about 29% of all counties.
- Despite visiting 48 of 50 states, there are still large swaths of the United States that I have not visited, namely the South and the Southeast.
- It becomes quickly apparent in which counties the interstates are. Interstates 94, 90, 80, 70, 44, 40, 35, 55, 57, 65, 69, and 75 all readily pop out, as well as U.S. Highway 2. Can I say, ‘Road Trip?’
- It’s easy to tick off county visits in the Western U.S. Not only is the West a great road trip destination, but the counties are also much larger. For example, Wyoming’s counties average 4,257 square miles while Georgia’s counties average only 373 square miles.
- I have visited every single county in two states: Oregon (completed in 2014 after a 2012 summer internship and lots of Grad School fieldwork in the state) and Massachusetts (completed in 2017, which included visits by ferry to both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Islands, which are their own respective counties).
- Broken down by counties, the states I have seen the least of are Louisiana (<5%), Arkansas (<3%), and Texas (<2%) (excluding North and South Carolina, which I have not yet visited).
- I have visited less of my own home state of Michigan than many other states. I have visited 71% of all Michigan counties, which ranks my home state as only 12th on my list according to percentage of counties visited.
*Here I use the term county broadly to include all U.S. counties or county equivalents. Most states are divided into counties, but Louisiana is similarly divided into parishes, and Alaska is similarly divided into boroughs. Additionally, several states (although primarily Virginia) have cities that are independent of any county. All of these categories are combined to get the number 3,142.
Maps generated are courtesy of mapchart.net
Here is the state-wide data on visits to each state:
|State||# Counties||# Visited||% Visited|
|District of Columbia||1||1||100.00%|
In many European countries, particularly Northern and Eastern Europe, there is a modern culture and deep history of rambling around the countryside in uninhabited or pastoral lands, regardless of the ownership status of the land—whether privately or publicly held. This ability to freely roam and travel comes with an implied responsibility for the user; wanderers have an ethic to keep—to act courteously, to not disturb the land-owner, and to refrain from exploiting the land or its resources. The travelers have to leave no trace of their passing through, save for the beaten paths of the various travelways that develop along common routes. This freedom—this right to travel—provided a means for the landless commoners of European society to travel and recreate, and neither were landed classes excluded from such benefits of access. The freedom to travel dates back to antiquity as a right of the masses. It survived medieval feudalism, it endured the changes wrought by the industrial revolution, and it thrives today in modern European societies. Known by various different names in their home countries, the common translation for this freedom is the ‘Everyman’s Right.’ Alternatively known as the ‘right to roam’ or the ‘right of public access to the wilderness,’ the Everyman’s right provides every man (as well as every woman) the right to free movement on lands and waters for leisure or recreation.
The European land model of access (or sometimes in-access) developed based on feudalism and the lands known as the commons. In the feudal system, feudal peasants—i.e., the commoners—had property rights to small plots of land only when they were actively being cultivated. Once the crops had been harvested, the land reverted to being part of the commons. In general, the commons were lands that were commonly held by the people, and could thus be exploited by anyone for subsistence or for economic gain. Commoners could graze livestock or harvest plant resources from such common land within established feudal limits, just as well they could freely travel and recreate on such land. However, starting in England in the 15th century, manorial lords sought to increase their harvest of crops and thus began a practice of enclosure, whereby common lands were enclosed by hedgerows (primitive-day fencing) as a means of keeping the common benefits to themselves permanently. The act of enclosure removed the commoners’ access to benefit from the land resources economically, as well as creating a physical barrier for public access. Land enclosure progressed steadily in England until the late 1800’s when the start of the industrial revolution provided a momentum-boost for enclosure; just like the mindset of the industrial revolution, latter-day enclosure was commenced to create greater agricultural efficiency in production. The practice of enclosure eventually spread to continental Europe as well, and by the end of the industrial revolution, most enclosure on the continent—particularly Germany, France, and Denmark—was complete. The commoners of Europe found themselves displaced from the rural landscape and largely forced to migrate to large cities to work in the centers of industry. Though enclosure forced the end of commoners being able to benefit economically from common land, the practice of traveling through common land was retained as it was historically as a right to free movement. In modern Europe today, since the rise of the leisure class has given ample recreation time to the masses, the right to roam underpins the concept of using privately held lands for personal recreation. Though historically a de facto right, the Everyman’s right has only recently been formally legalized as a wave of European countries codified this practice into protected law, starting with the Nordic countries in the 1950’s and more recently with countries in the United Kingdom in the 1990’s and 2000’s.
I have never been to Europe. I have never gotten to practice the Everyman’s Right as it is the culture on that continent. Instead, I live in America where a different land access model developed. Unlike Europe, where residents lived since antiquity off the commons until the commons were enclosed, most American lands were systematically surveyed, partitioned, and essentially given away for free to private citizenry by a strong federal government all for the sake of rapidly settling this expansive country. And the land seemed inexhaustible in the early days of our nation. The outlook at this time by these Euro-american settlers and their government was that these lands were empty and owned by no one, free for the taking for whoever could claim and settle them (never mind the cruel fate of history where indigenous peoples were forced from their ancestral lands, often violently). Private property ownership was a draw for those European immigrants, displaced by the land reforms in the industrial revolution, who wanted land of their own and could find it plentifully in this country. And unlike Europe, where the commoner’s right to travel across land was respected, private property in America developed with the right—indeed the expectation—to exclude others from accessing their privately held lands.
It was not until some visionary leaders around the turn of the 20th century decided that America should hold back some of its lands from settlement to instead be held in the public trust for the good of the people. The influential works of these leaders included the environmental prophecy of John Muir, the scientific land management principles of Gifford Pinchot, and the political resolve of Teddy Roosevelt. John Muir, perhaps America’s greatest wandering vagabond, had a philosophy about land access that reflected his wanderlust-filled Scottish heritage and his first eleven years of life spent in Scotland; Muir’s penchant for free travel would be the underpinnings of his advocacy for recreational travel on wild lands. Political figures like Roosevelt and Pinchot worked to create the Forest Reserve act of 1891, which gave the president sweeping power to set aside vast swaths of public domain lands as forest reserves, and the Antiquities Act of 1906 which granted the president power to preserve public lands deemed as significant archaeological or public resources. These reserved lands would later become our national parks and national forests, the crown jewels of our public land system. As of today, approximately 27.4% of the United States land area is owned by the federal government, primarily administered by four large land management agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; many other agencies also manage smaller parcels of public land. These lands are held in the public trust for the “greatest good for the greatest number for the greatest time (Gifford Pinchot).” When Pinchot uttered those words, however, his intent was for the economic good of the people based on conservative resource extraction. Recreation on public lands as a good in and of itself, and as a governmental priority would not develop in earnest until post-WWII.
As landlord, the federal government makes the laws and regulations pertaining to the use and access of public lands. The vast majority of these lands are open to the public for travel and recreation with few exceptions (see text in the above graphic); the public is free to use and enjoy these public domain lands usually free of charge, or sometimes with a small fee to cover land management costs. As an American proud of the natural heritage of my country and in admiration of the earlier efforts of the heroes to preserve it for the perpetuity of the generations, I look at my nation as a shining example of preserving lands for public use. I am proud at how over a quarter of my country’s area is protected for the good of the people.
But as proud as I am of America’s public land resources and as much as I have enjoyed them first-hand, there is a great and obvious disparity in geography. While more than 27% of America lies in the public domain*, 96% of this land area lies in Alaska and the 11 western states. That means that just four percent of federal lands are shared among the remaining 38 states. This includes states like Connecticut and Iowa where only 0.3% of the state’s land area falls under the purview of the federal government, and thus free public access is limited to those small holdings of land. And, even though the majority of the land in the Western United States is public, not all of it is accessible due to private property rights. Public lands in the west are often interspersed in a matrix of private land ownership, preventing access to some lands in the public domain. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ‘checkerboard’ lands which resulted from governmental land grants to private corporations in the 1800’s.
As a Midwesterner, growing up in a landscape of privately-held farm and forest parcels, I am used to a paucity of large expanses of public wildlands. But drawn to where the public lands are, I have spent abundant time exploring our public lands in the western United States. My latest trip in the west, my 463-mile canoe trip down Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah’s Green River, put public land access on the forefront of my mind once again. Though I’ve studied federal land policy quite a bit in college, nothing puts such study directly into practice like trying to plan a long-distance river expedition over a matrix of public and private lands.
Enshrined in the United States Constitution, under Article 1, Section 8, is the Commerce Clause, which establishes the doctrine of Navigable Servitude. The Commerce Clause establishes that the United States Federal Government holds the property rights of all the navigable surface waters in the United States, and Navigable Servitude stipulates that these waters be held in the public domain for the sake of interstate commerce. Later case law—in a 2013 decision by the 4th Circuit Court—determined that paddling is not a federally protected right. Yet, where not specifically prohibited by law, boating is an acceptable action on public waterways. The land underlying the surface of navigable waters, however, does not fall under the purview of the Commerce Clause, and as such is able to be privately owned. Thus, on my Green River expedition, so long as I was paddling on the surface of the river, I was on public property.
The challenge of a long canoe trip, though, is that a paddler can’t spend the entire time canoeing. Eventually you have to land to take care of basic biological needs and to rest. On the Green River, in the very upriver-most sections where the river flows through the Bridger-Teton National Forest (i.e., federally-owned public land), it was easy to paddle the river and always land on public domain lands which were open to recreation. But once the Green left the National Forest, it entered a matrix of publicly and privately owned land, and in those upper reaches there were long stretches of river with no access to public land. Wyoming state law extends private property ownership rights to the land under the river itself (remember, the river itself is federally owned). So every time I stepped my foot out of my canoe, I was technically trespassing!
Fortunately, with me through this challenging mosaic of private land was my ever-heedful friend Jon, who is extraordinarily conscious about not trespassing. Though along this stretch of river we saw few people and even fewer buildings, most of this land was still privately-held rangeland. Whereas I personally had fewer reservations about stopping to rest on an isolated cow pasture, Jon was adamant about not infringing on the property rights of others. Though it was a constant challenge and concern, we were able to find parcels of public domain lands every night to camp on. And thanks to the tone set by Jon’s vigilance, all 24 nights I spent on the river ended up being on some sort of pubic domain land. In these areas, the federal lands fall to ‘shared-use’ management policies, which meant that grazing interests had a right to use the land for economic exploitation just as much as I had a right to use the land for personal recreation; the result was that my campsites were often shared by grazing cattle. Identifying the federal land in the upper stretches of the Green River proved not to be too difficult either; while the majority of the river corridor was flat rangeland, there was the occasional steep, unvegetated butte that always lined up perfectly with the land ownership boundaries. These public lands were of those administered by the Bureau of Land Management, colloquially known as ‘the lands that no one wanted.’ Paddling down the river, it was easy to see why certain land parcels ended up in the public domain.
On my Green River Expedition, I successfully spent each night camped on federal or state land instead of on private land, which is a small moral victory in terms of doing things legally. However, the view from the ground showed little distinction between public and private lands. Sure, there were a few derelict fences marking boundaries. But cattle grazing occurs on both public and private land, and little to no structural improvements were seen on the private land along the course of most of the river. The type of place the Green River flowed through, even if it was completely private land, would have been such that I would have felt comfortable traveling and camping on such land despite its private ownership status. If the Green was a European river, it absolutely would have been the kind of place where recreational access would have been granted under right to roam laws.
In America, where right to roam laws do not exist, I have had to practice my own right to roam access where public lands are not as plentiful. I try to avoid this whenever possible, but the few occasions I have resorted to this self-granted right have been on biking or hiking trips in the eastern U.S. where sections of private land are expansive and public resources hard to find. Instead of benefiting from a universal right to roam granted by the United States government, I call my practice guerrilla camping, where I bed down for the night hidden away on private land. My knowledgeable and intentional trespass onto private property is not done without its own moral code, however; akin to the ethics codified in the Everyman’s Right, I camp as far away from development as possible, do no damage to the land, and leave no trace of my ever being there. In the few dozen times I have had to resort to guerrilla camping, I have never been caught in the act, and I remain doubtful that the landowner is any wiser to my being there. It is my own first-hand experience that an Everyman’s Right is feasible in America.
But Americans still have certain attitudes towards private land ownership and its use that is not shared by their European counterparts, particularly where the freedom of passage is concerned. In America, where private property ownership is a near-virtue, we think about possessing the land. We take the libertarian stance that we are free to do as we like to our private property. But we don’t often think about the limitations that are already placed on land ownership; environmental laws and building codes all limit a land-owners freedom to dig a strip-mine or to build a citadel on their land. At its essence, private land ownership is not so much the physical possession of the physical land itself, but a bundle of rights of what one can do on and to the land. For example, private property rights entitles the land-holder to the rights of harvesting plant, animal, and mineral resources found on the land for economic gain within existing legal regulations; likewise the land-holder has the rights to modify the land and to make improvements on the land itself within the bounds of civil building codes. In America, also included in this bundle of property-owners’ rights is the right to exclude others from one’s property. This right sets up a system where trespassing becomes possible and punishable on private lands; this property right to exclude others is often the first right that comes to mind when an American thinks of private property. In European countries, where there is a traditional right to roam, the right to exclude others from property is not a right conveyed by private property ownership.
To the American mind that is accustomed to the notion of private property being the physical space where one can exclude others, the ability to limit the access of others is held sacrosanct. And, it is incredibly easy to distrust others and fear for the worst of what might happen if the right to exclude others from private property is out-legislated like it has in Europe. However, the code of ethics built into the Everyman’s Right legislation should alleviate fears of lawlessness and mass trespass should an Everyman’s Right be passed in America. Everyman’s Right legislation specifies limits to the right of public access. Access to lands and waters are generally only permitted for non-motorized recreational uses such as walking, cycling, and horseback riding. Camping on private land is limited to one night in most places, and most laws specify a certain distance that any recreational activity is to have away from homes, structures, and maintained lawns and gardens. Excessive noise is discouraged and most fires on private property are forbidden. Visitors are in general restricted from harvesting plant and animal resources that are found on the land, and visitors are encouraged to stick to existing pathways while on private property. Lands that can be ecologically damaged or sensitive croplands are also excluded from this right to travel. While the rights and responsibilities codified in these right to roam laws vary according to the specific country, the general theme is to allow public access while limiting infringement upon the property-owner’s rights. Just because the public gains access to your land doesn’t mean they are automatically permitted to start camping in your front yard and harvesting your vegetable garden.
Fortunately there is progress in America as states and localities are gradually making moves towards this more European-style right to roam land ethic. Coastal states like Oregon, California, and Florida have made much, if not all, of their coastal lands and beaches free to public access. States are also passing liability legislation to reduce land-owner liability for injuries sustained by other parties while on private land; such legislation is designed to encourage landowners to open up their land to increased public recreational access. Many non-profit organizations, such as the Land Conservancy, are working with private land owners to grant public access to private lands through conservation easements; such easements are one big step toward allowing limited public access while maintaining the rights of private landholders. As Americans, we cannot rely solely on our legacy of federal public land protection to provide wildland access to all the people in our country. We must continually seek to make free access to land a priority. On the Green River in Wyoming, despite the riparian zone being privately owned, many easements have been granted by private landowners along the river to permit the use of fishing access. It is a good step for ensuring equitable access to our nation’s land and water resources.
I would like to see the day when the United States adopts its own right to roam legislation. I would like to see a future where everyone, regardless of where they live, will have access to travel through our nation’s wild lands. I would like to be able to travel and roam myself and not have to worry about breaking trespassing laws when looking for a place to camp for the night. Until the time comes when America adopts its own right to roam law, we ought to start re-envisioning the greatest good for the greatest number for our privately held lands as well as our public lands.
*Additional public lands exist at the state and local government level, which get excluded from this analysis which focuses on federal lands due to various public access differences and due to lack of statistics on other public lands distribution.
Rather than share more of my Green River Canoe expedition with words, here is a selection of trip highlights as seen through time-lapse photography.
Self-portrait on the Flaming Gorge Reservoir
Stars at night in Desolation Canyon
Moving shadows in Desolation Canyon
Getting camp ready for the night in Desolation Canyon
The Roosevelt Fire that rained ash on Jon and mine’s first day, as seen from further down the Green River (near Warren Bridge, Wyoming)
Lightning storm reflects on the Green River from a campsite near Naples, Utah
How to set up a tent in 24 seconds. Kingfisher Island Boat Camp, Flaming Gorge Reservoir
Sunlight breaks into Desolation Canyon above Chandler Falls Rapid
A starry evening at camp, Desolation Canyon
Can one get to know a river, like one can get to know a person?
Does a river have a personality? Can it have moods?
Can one get to know for themselves the breadths and depths of the unfamiliar waters, as in the breadth and depths of another person’s soul?
I set out on my canoe expedition to know the Green River. To experience the river as a living, moving force. I wanted to see if I could truly get to know a river.
I set out to make the Green my river, the one river that I would know and esteem. I desired to create a personal history with the river. I would know her by floating through her waters.
It was nothing short of a relationship. We started small, in the headwaters. I introduced myself. I had come there to court her. I moved slowly, methodically at first. Upriver, she only revealed the most shallow parts of herself, a superficiality. It was a slow start. I had to prove that I had the will to endure; the stamina to weather the rocky growing pains of a fledgling relationship. The days passed and the miles progressed. Our relationship grew, and I became more familiarly acquainted with her waters.
Further down the river, I became increasingly taken by her course. I had seen more of her history. I was beginning to understand more of her trajectory. I began to get comfortable with her. My course and her course were entwined, for a time, together. I began to build trust and reliance on my ceaselessly moving river companion.
Over time, I had seen our relationship grow and change. I knew more of her history. I saw so much of her that a happenstance observer would never see. I felt an intimate connection.
But did I really know the Green River?
I had been with her on days both fair and foul. I had seen her in moods calm and sedated, as well as enraged in a storm. We had spent long nights together, and early mornings before sunrise. I saw the tributaries that influenced her character. I had even been immersed in her very substance.
But all that I had learned, was not, and could never be, the entirety of the river.
For the Green is not just one river. It is many rivers, all intricately woven together in a single flowage. The Green will, as it has for eons, continue its life through the seasons. Gradually, inevitably, through the imperceptible slippage of time and the perpetual cycling of the seasons, the Green will slowly shift into another river altogether. And, just as the largest storms in life can shake a person’s character to their core, so can an abrupt tempest drastically change the character of the river. The Green is not stagnant. It is eternally growing and changing. It is a diversity of rivers that is known by one name.
Like so many human relationships, mine with the Green River ended. We parted ways, amiably, I would say. I couldn’t court her forever. I had to move on to other things. Unperturbed by my absence, the Green kept flowing about her course. And all I was left with were the memories of our brief courtship, docile at times, tumultuous at others. Though I had learned so much about her, I knew I could never fully understand her.
This one river—known commonly as the Green—so many people have developed a relationship with her. So many people have a history with this river. So many people have gotten to know her depth and breadth to the extent that they can, creating their own stories with the river along the way. I count myself lucky to be among them, for even as short of a time as I could get to know her.
And in my time, I saw just a portion of her. I knew the Green only in one season of her life. I never knew all that composed her, never penetrated her depths. She is a seasoned veteran, a collector of an expansive watershed. She is much older, much wiser than me. She remains unperturbed, undaunted by her would be suitors like me. She remains timeless. An enigma.
Just as the depths of a person’s soul can never fully be understood by another, so too will a river’s waters remain an imperturbable mystery to a man.
One-hundred-and-twenty miles downstream of the town of Green River, Utah, past steep sandstone walls and through the winding labyrinth of canyons, the Green River finally reaches its terminus. Its silt-laden waters, wearing an opaque muddy brown-green veneer, run into the deep red hues of the Colorado River. The confluence is seen by few but the intrepid; it lies tucked in a maze of canyon walls, perfectly inaccessible, save for the adventuresome boater.
The confluence of the Green and the Colorado was a goal of mine to reach on my Green River expedition. What more natural ending place than where the river itself ends? After all, I had started the journey over 700 miles upriver, where the headwaters of the mighty Green become navigable. It only seemed appropriate to paddle the river to completion.
I didn’t make it to the confluence, however. I really didn’t expect to either, given the external time constraints that crept up upon the journey as I neared its commencement. Such an ending as the confluence would have made for a tidy, complete story to summarize the trip. It would have been easiest to say to others that I had paddled the entire river. Instead, reality and necessity broke the river into sections, and I found my paddle of the Green to be finished incomplete—65 miles left unpaddled near its rocky headwaters, 57 miles unpaddled through the raging rapids of Dinosaur National Monument, and the last 132 miles of flatwater from the end of Gray Canyon to the confluence.
In retrospect, it’s far too easy to look at those 254 miles that I didn’t paddle, and to think about all of the river I had missed along those untraveled stretches. What experiences were left unknown? It’s easy to let my mind focus in on what I didn’t accomplish during my expedition than to think about all I did accomplish. Twenty-eight days on the river and 463 miles of paddling is no small feat. That’s nearly two-thirds of the navigable river itself. It’s like traveling from Chicago to Pittsburgh with all of my possessions in one 14-foot long boat.
Even though I didn’t paddle down near as much of the river as I had anticipated or had dreamed about, I was, and still am, extremely satisfied with the length and the outcome of the trip. Regardless of the ultimate distance traveled, I had accomplished so many things on the journey. I had taken the opportunity to get out into the wilds and to explore some places unknown to me via reflective self-propelled travel. I had spent nights out in the backcountry alone and with the company of my Dad and my close friend Jon. I witnessed the gradual change in the landscape from the mountainous headwaters of the Wind River Range, through the high desert plains of Wyoming, and finally into the canyon country of Utah. I saw the brilliance of stars. I heard the call of wild animals. I had immersed myself in the instantaneous reality of the elements, testing my endurance through weather both hot and cold, parched dry or rainy, high winds, dead calm, and even a snowstorm. My mental and emotional states were tested to endure the journey just the same as my physical state was tested to endure. And I accomplished all of this in just 463 miles. I didn’t even need all 717.
Despite never making it to the confluence as a natural geographic ending for the expedition, the trip itself, in my perspective, came to its very own well-suited ending. By the end of Desolation and Gray Canyons, I had had my fill of experiences and lessons from the river, and I felt perfectly ready to end the journey. Though I did not get to see the entire river, I walked away with so much of what the river had to offer, even over the shorter course of distance traveled.
Even though I am now off the river, the very water which I paddled on still continues downstream towards the ocean. Much of it has likely passed the confluence already. It’s a way to know that my direct experience with the very substance of the river itself is intricately tied to the greater watershed. The confluence will still be there years to come, just like the rivers have been flowing there for thousands of years. Someday I hope to return to see the confluence for myself.
Segment 4 Summary—8 Days, 116 Miles. From Ouray, Utah, to Swasey’s Boat Launch, Green River, Utah.
Overall Summary—28 Days, 463 Miles.
Day 21: In the Same Boat—15 Miles
I picked up my Dad in Salt Lake City and we drove eastward back to the Green River to start a picturesque father-and-son canoe trip together. As far as activities go, my dad is more used to accounting than canoeing, but he was still game to join in on the high adventure of this river section to test himself. Starting on the river again at Ouray, Utah, was not anything spectacular for me. After all, there the river is calm and the land is flat. Nevertheless, my Dad’s camera was constantly out snapping photos of the terrain as the valley began to rise into rolling badland hills, though I was less impressed by it. The river’s flatwater proved to be good testing grounds for my Dad’s canoeing ability as he got used to the life of paddling and as we got accustomed to being paddle partners. Also, the drizzle that started as we began paddling would test how our attitudes and tenacity would hold for the rest of the trip. After making our first camp, we climbed a hill to get a better perspective on the river and the expansive isolation around us. As dusk was falling, the clouds cleared and gave glimpses of the stars. The sky was still a bit hazy, but my dad stood outside endlessly captivated by the stars. The rolling hills, the brilliant stars…they aren’t facets of the landscape where I grew up. But at week three of the trip for me, they had now become such commonplace sights as to render them unremarkable. Seeing the landscape afresh through my Dad’s eyes made me re-appreciate just the type of beauty I’d been traveling through.
Day 22: Arrival—17 Miles
Yesterday’s rainy weather cleared away, and we had a beautiful, sunny day of paddling in store for us. Back to the calm flatwater of the Green for another easy paddling day. The rolling badlands began to rise up into more prominent buttes and cliffs as we approached Sand Wash, the check-in location for the wild and rapidy Desolation and Gray Canyons. Along the paddle today, me and my Dad took on the duty of ‘river patrol,’ as we scooped trash out of the murky brown water (the doing of such which we would later lament as we had to portage all of that newly acquired garbage numerous times). The find of the day was my ‘river coat,’ a sodden, silt-laden jacket that smelled like algae and smeared mud on everything it touched (but would eventually go on to insulate my feet during cold nights). We arrived at Sand Wash by mid-afternoon, greeted by a band of horses and a few old ranch homestead buildings. We got our gear checked out by Ranger Jim, and obtained our river permit along with Jim’s best advice. That night, we stayed in the relative luxury of the Sand Wash campground, enjoying the picnic table, screened shelter, outhouses, and fire-pit. The stars, tonight, are brilliant. It is a rest before the trials of the canyon begin.
Day 23: Enter the Canyon—22 Miles
As my Dad put it today, “this is the type of place you see in magazines.” That certainly was the theme of the day as we entered Desolation Canyon. The walls of red sandstone towered above us, closing us in as we paddled deeper into the wilds. We had seen no one since we waved goodbye to Ranger Jim in the morning. In the evening, we found ourselves basking in the single hour of direct sunlight we had on our tidy little sandbar before the sun dipped behind the canyon walls. It had been a great day of paddling—mostly flatwater, but with our first taste of whitewater too. We ran our first three rapids today—the first two no problem, but the third one left a pond of water in our canoe along with getting us fairly soaked from splashing waves. At night, though, we could dry out. My dad pleasured himself with a nap on the sand as I worked on some photography. Our campsite is tucked between two bends in the river. It feels secluded and private and beautiful. It is the type of place magazine-readers get envious of.
Day 24: Snow Way!—18 Miles
The first flakes started falling as we were packing up camp. ‘How cute,’ I thought to myself as they fell, ‘we can say we got snowed on on our trip!’ By the time the snow started accumulating in our canoe an hour later, though, I wasn’t in such a whimsy. My Dad, nevertheless, proved to be unfazed by the weather, and was all smiles despite being in a canoe in an October snowstorm and subsequently getting splashed by waves on the first rapids we ran that morning. By mid-morning we took a break from the winter canoeing with a short hike to Mushroom Rock, an iconic formation where ancient Fremont Petroglyphs still survive in a gallery. Afterwards, we began to encounter the near-continuous whitewater of Desolation canyon. We ran small rapid after small rapid without being any worse for wear, aside from the constant splashing of cold water. By mid-afternoon, the snow had stopped and the sun eventually broke out, but today the sun provided no real warmth. By late afternoon we reached Steer Ridge Rapid and decided it best to respect this rock-dodging obstacle and make it the first portage of our trip. At the end of the portage we found a large beach to ourselves for camp, and we dried ourselves off with the warmth of a driftwood fire.
Day 25: Dumped—9 Miles
No snow this morning, but even colder temperatures. As I was washing the morning dishes, ice started forming in the wash-water. Soon enough though, more than just my hands would be submerged in cold water. Me and my dad packed up camp as usual, like the old pros we were by now. We got back on the river and started again running rapids. The first few posed no problem, and our confidence started growing—perhaps too much for our own good. On the river, every time your ego grows too much, the river puts you back in check. We got bold enough by our successful runs to start running rapids without scouting. At our approach to Log Cabin Rapid, I deemed it runnable, and we proceeded onward. Our canoe took a few big waves over the bow which reduced our agility such that by the time waves 3 and 4 came crashing over, our canoe was swamped and we were dumped in the river. Adrenaline took over, and me and my Dad safely swam to the riverbanks and began the clean-up process. Fortunately, a Utah DNR fish survey crew was just below the rapid, and helped to gather our scattered gear. After ensuring we were alright, they left us alone and went back to their fishy business. All items were accounted for after capsizing, save for the river guide. With much gratitude to the Utah DNR, they lent us their extra copy. Me and my Dad dried off and reconnoitered ourselves. The rapids, as they say, get tougher further down the canyon. If we are going to make it through in this canoe, it’s going to be a lot tougher than we bargained for. Me and my Dad were on our own to make it out of Desolation Canyon. The Utah DNR is not in the business of giving free rides out. So with no direction to go but downriver, me and my dad packed up and continued on for the day.
Day 26: A River Grudge Match—8 Miles
The roar of whitewater in Desolation Canyon is near constant, as the rapids grow larger and larger. It’s me and my Dad pitted in a grudge match against the river. Though the looming sandstone cliffs are still spectacular, we spend most of the day with our heads down focused on making it through. We portaged five long and tricky rapids, spending more time traveling on foot than by canoe today. Our 8 miles of progress are hard-won. Portage trails for most rapids here are poor to non-existent. By the time we reached a sandbar to camp on, we could breathe a little bit easier. We have been going to work each day to get down the river now; we’ve put in today’s time. One more big rapid before we are out of Desolation Canyon. Now at night, in the midst of the canyon walls and shining stars, we breathe a sigh of relief.
Day 27: It’s No Longer Desolate, but it Still Looks Pretty Gray—14 Miles
The worst, as they say, is behind us. Me and my Dad wake up early to start on another day of hard work. Two successive rapids portaged—Wire Fence and the notorious Three Fords Canyon—and we are out of Desolation Canyon. We leave the red sandstone walls behind us and travel for a few miles of luxurious flatwater before the next canyon begins encroaching upon us. We are now in Gray Canyon. Shorter and less steep than Desolation Canyon, Gray Canyon’s beige sandstone walls erode into fascinating patterns, but abundant rockfalls create a burden of rock piles to travel through. Gray Canyon’s rapids aren’t as large as Desolation, but they are longer and much rockier. The weather is cool and gray, and we portage two more rapids along the rocky banks of Gray Canyon. Our last portage of the day is the extremely long and muddy path around Coal Canyon Rapid. I find two muddy but intact cans of beer on the portage. Though the river usually taketh, sometimes the river giveth instead.
Day 28: Done…Well, Kind of—13 Miles
The rain started yesterday evening and had continued through the night, gradually soaking my well-worn tent and a number of my things inside. I woke up determined not to spend another night out in the cold and wet. I knew we would be getting out today. My Dad, seeing the pace we had been going at, was more skeptical. As we made breakfast and started packing up camp, intermittent rain showers came upon us. We tried to dodge the rain for a while, but we both knew that to make it out we had to brave the rain one last time. Our last big obstacle was the Rattlesnake Canyon Rapid, which we encountered early in the day and during the heaviest rainfall as well. We were both soaked and miserable early on, but had no choice but to keep pressing on downriver. The rapids decreased in difficulty further down the canyon, and the rain lightened up, but still we were working hard for our miles on our last day. My car was parked 25 miles downstream from our last river campsite in the town of Green River. Thirteen miles into the day, and in late afternoon, me and my Dad finally reached Swasey’s Boat Launch, the first real reach of civilization since Ouray. Cold, sodden, and exhausted we pulled out at Swasey’s putting an effective end to our trip. Instead of canoeing the 12 miles into town, we hitched a ride back to my car, traversing the washed-out road that had swallowed some Belgian tourists’ rental sedan. It had been the trip of a lifetime, but I was happy to be done. Showering and cleaning up in a hotel room never felt so good. Me and my Dad celebrated by getting burgers at the local icon Ray’s Tavern. This father and son trip had conquered the adversity of the weather and the rapids of Desolation and Gray Canyons. I was extremely proud of my dad for his tenacity. But we soon had to part ways. I had a job to start in Minnesota, and my Dad had a flight to catch in Denver. We said goodbye to the Green River. It will still be here, waiting, for my return to finish the last 132 miles.
Segment 3A Summary—2 Days, 39 Miles. From the Flaming Gorge Dam Spillway, Utah, to Crook Campground, Colorado.
Segment 3B Summary—3 Days, 72 Miles. From Split Mountain, Dinosaur National Monument, Utah, to Ouray, Utah.
Overall Summary—20 Days, 347 Miles.
Day 16: Dam! Rapids!—10 miles
Back on the actual Green River as opposed to the reservoir now. I put in at the Flaming Gorge Dam Spillway. It is an impressive dam, size-wise, extending more than 450 feet above the valley below. Kind of makes you feel small to be down in the canyon. Just as impressive in size were the rapids below the Dam for the first eight miles of paddling. Lots of sudden drops and rocks. Class I to Class III rapids. Ideal territory for a raft, not really for an open canoe. I ran most of the rapids successfully, only needing to bail in-between sets. The water finally caught up to me and swamped me after I broadsided a rock, whereupon I took my first involuntary swim in the Green. Aside from the loss of my water bottle and bail bucket, I emerged unscathed. After the dip in the river, being in the dark shadows of Red Canyon grew a little bit chilly. Though the weather had turned cool and rainy in the previous few days, it was still a sunny clear day in the canyon. I called it an early day and dried myself and my gear out in the dwindling sunlight.
Day 17: A Float through the Park—29 miles
Started the morning playing the ‘rain, rain, go away game.’ Off-and-on drizzle had moved in overnight, dampening whatever the river had left dry. No sense in waiting around feeling miserable, so I bundled up to brace the cold and rain. I was past the major rapids, but the river still drops as it leaves Red Canyon, creating many long sections of significant riffles that keeps a canoer on his toes. The needed vigilance was a needed distraction from the cold weather. Past the point where Red Creek runs into the Green River, the river makes a distinct transition in appearance. Red Creek, aptly named, flows with a ruddy silt-laden flow into the Green, transforming the clear Green into its historical chocolate-brown hue. Upstream, the Green is a product of the dam and reservoir system which only releases clear, cold water. The clear cold water is ideal for a trout fishery, but is actually nowhere near what the river was like ecologically before it was tamed. As Red Canyon winds down, the Green enters a flat section called Brown’s Park. It was named a ‘park’ in 1869 by John Wesley Powell, who though the cottonwood flats in the midst of the mountains resembled a park. Once in Brown’s Park, the river flattens and widens out, making it a real float through the park. As a testament to how slow the river flow becomes and how silty the water gets, I constantly got stranded on sandbars I couldn’t see in the lower section of the river. With the water an opaque brown, you can never tell the transition from paddling in feet of water to inches of water. Though Brown’s Park is sparsely populated today, back in the wild west of the late-1800’s, Brown’s Park’s isolation made it a notorious robber’s roost. One well-known resident was the general store owner John Jarvie, whose ranch and store I visited along the river. Jarvie lived on the Green for 29 years before he was shot and killed in a robbery.
Day 18: Where Dinosaurs Roamed—21 Miles
Skipping the Class IV whitewater through the storied Gates of Lodore Canyon saw me launch just downriver at Split Mountain in Dinosaur National Monument. Here, geologic action has uplifted hundreds of millions of years of sedimentary rocks into the mélange of colorful mountains seen in Dinosaur, though the Green River only took a few thousand years to erode its current course through the mountains. Though I couldn’t take the river tour of Dinosaur’s 23 layers of sediment, I could still marvel at the mountains as I launched and paddled directly away from them. But no visit to Dinosaur National Monument would be complete without visiting the quarry that started it all, where a jumble of 149-million year-old dinosaur bones are ensconced in relief against the sandstone they were buried in. Dinosaur National Monument has more to offer than just canyons and dinosaurs, and I spent the morning exploring the pictographs of the ancient Fremont People, and the cabins of a few homesteaders in the park. Exploring the Monument was great, but was partly a delay tactic to avoid the inevitable—launching my canoe in the cold, wind, and rain. As far as paddling weather goes, today was not ideal. Personally, given the situation, I found it hard to believe the ranger when she said this area was a desert that receives less than ten inches of rain per year. All ten inches, it seemed, happened to be falling today. Despite my hopes, the rain never let up. As I passed out of the mountains of Dinosaur, and into the agricultural fields of Jensen, Utah, the constant drizzle kept everything saturated. I eventually pitched a wet camp on a wet sandbar and called it a day.
Day 19: Endurance—26 Miles
A cold rainy day prior led into a cold rainy morning. I delayed getting up as long as I could justify it. Not much fun taking down a wet camp and starting to paddle in the rain again. Looking up at the mountains of Dinosaur, I could see snow in the high peaks. The rain eventually stopped in the morning, and I spent all day trying to chase down the hint of blue skies I could see where the river was flowing—to the south and the west. Unfortunately for me, I would never reach those blue skies. The Green in this section of its flowage—though it has much more volume than upriver—meanders lacksidasically through the flat Uintah Basin. Today the river flowed through such large equestrian features like The Horseshoe and The Stirrup. After paddling many river miles through these features, I was only a few miles as the crow flies from where I started. The river also has innumerable sandbars that come up out of nowhere to strand my canoe. Much like my first few days of paddling, the Green is only inches deep in parts. It is a cold day of paddling that barely makes it to 50 degrees. I pitched camp early and had a warm cup of tea as my tent slowly dried out in the cold breeze. Some days of a journey are more about getting through than prospering.
Day 20: An Autumnal Paddle—25 Miles
If two days of cold and rain were the punishment, then today was the much needed reward. Partly cloudy skies greeted me, and would soon be a bright blue dappled by small cumulus. It is cold, but refreshingly so. The breeze is slight and enlivening. The air smells crisp. Overall, a very pleasant day to paddle. Unlike previous days of travel through the steep-walled canyons, today’s landscape had relatively little topographical relief. And, unlike days of paddling through the arid sagebrush steppe, today’s vegetation featured a nearly continuous wall of mature green and yellow cottonwoods lining the riverbanks. Given the broad, shallow nature of the river, and the wooded setting, today felt almost as if I were paddling a river in northern Wisconsin rather than western Utah. I paddled past hundreds of herons, all which soar off into flight where they see me. They honk loudly and circle the skies above. On the riverbanks, dozens of horses roam free as they wander and graze. The air is crisp. It is a lovely autumn day paddle.