Saturday, September 23, 2017

Canoeing the Au Sable River is always better in the fall

One of the few times you'll see an image of me on this page. And yes, I am wearing a bandana with skulls and crossbones
on it. Thanks, 2007 CMU Homecoming. (Photo by Jim Kenning)
My first times canoeing as a child came along the South Branch of the Au Sable River. Some close family friends have a cottage near Mio, and I vaguely remember drifting down the river with my paddle, getting exhausted in the process.

The colors along the river looked just like this: mostly green
with a splash of bright red and orange. (Photo by Jim Kenning)
I returned to that same portion of the river this past weekend, heading up north to canoe one of Michigan's premiere canoeing rivers. It's just as nice a river as I remember from doing it a few years ago, and this is the time of year I recommend doing it.

The youth group I help lead does a fall trip each year, opting to canoe every-other year or so. We did the Rifle River back in 2015, as well as the South Branch of the Au Sable in 2012, and decided again to hit the waters this fall this year. With younger, more inexperienced canoers joining us this year, we decided doing the Au Sable would make for a great first trip for member of the young men.

That was certainly the case. We had at least one young man who had never gone canoeing before and had recently moved to the U.S. from Liberia. He seemed to enjoy the calm waters of the Au Sable, which were higher than I'm used to. There's at least a few sections of the river that typically have dried up in areas this time of year, but that wasn't the case last weekend.

As for my excursion, I finally succumbed to something I haven't done a river before: managed to take a spill and flip my boat. After stopping for others to catch up, our boat turned around. While trying to right the ship, we began floating sideways, having both the bow and stern get lodged on some downed trees in the river. That left us vulnerable to another canoe making its way down: once another boat tapped us, there was no for us to go but over, our canoe becoming a swivel. Into the drink we went, with our canoe floating down the river and the contents, too. For being mid-September, the water was unusually pleasant, though walking the 100 feet in the river's murky bed left my boots stinking to high heaven, a distinction they still hold a week later.

The South Branch of the Au Sable River as seen from the
Canoe Harbor State Forest Campground site.
The South Branch of the Au Sable is an excellent stretch for canoers looking for a good time but not wanting a huge challenge. The current is well-paced, and canoe liveries have done a nice job of trimming downed trees for easy passage. The depth can range from a few inches to a few feet. Starting at the Paddle Brave livery, the banks were lined with cabins and homes for the first few hours. After that, we headed into the Mason Tract, where all we saw along the banks were ducks and other water fowl. It's a calming experience to feel like you're in the middle of nowhere even when you know the highway can't be too far away.

After spending five hours on the river, we head back to the Canoe Harbor State Forest Campground, a wonderful place to stay if ever in the area. Since it was after Labor Day, we were some of only a handful of individuals staying there. The campground has a trail leading down to the river, which provided excellent visuals early Sunday morning when I went down the next day.

I've always found fall canoeing to be vastly superior to summer canoeing. The water is calmer, there's fewer people and the fall color highlight the already-gorgeous river. It's an experience everyone should have at least once. You might not head back to the river when it's warm.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Finally! I paid a visit to Detroit's "crown jewel"

The conservatory on Belle Isle. It, along with other buildings on the island, are typically open during weekends all year long.
Belle Isle was the place for fun for my father when he was growing up. It's a place I've heard plenty about throughout my life, but never made it to the island nestled in the Detroit River between the U.S. and Canada.

That all changed last month, as a summer work feature I wrote that was published online this past week took me to the island for a profile on the most-visited state park in Michigan.

Belle Isle became a state park in 2014 in the midst of Detroit's budget problems after the city's bankruptcy. With that, the state became responsible for upkeep on the island, which its manager told me is moving along nicely: bathrooms are being upgraded, repairs are being done to the picnic shelters, to name a few.

Right from my time driving across the bridge to the island, I noticed its majesty coming out of the river. The bridge is a welcoming view to the island, and once on it, there's a multitude of activities to partake in. After my scheduled interview with the manager, Karis Floyd, I spent some time on the island, getting a sense of its offerings to visitors. Floyd told me he typically advises first-time visitors to plan on staying for at least five hours, a number that shocked me when I first heard it. But as I drove my car all the way to the eastern part of the island near the driving range, I saw everything offered and realized he may have been estimating low.

I went on a Wednesday afternoon right after lunch, but you would have thought it was a Saturday with all the people on the island. The conservatory parking lot, where I parked, was nearly full, and children were riding the giant slide. I walked over to the Nancy Brown Peace Carillion to see what it was all about. It's a sign that the island still has a way to go, as the base of the tower, while gated off, is filled with overgrown vegetation.

The view of downtown Detroit near Sunset Point.
I got into my car and began my driving tour, riding past the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, the baseball fields and eventually, the beach. The water was full of children and adults enjoying a swim in the Detroit River, which connects Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie.

I made my way to a recommended stop, Sunset Point, after taking a loop around the island. I can see why Floyd told me that's the spot he recommends visitors go to first: the view of downtown Detroit and Windsor is a sight to behold. I've spent plenty of time in downtown Detroit, but this was one of
the first views I stopped to really take in the sight. Couple the Renaissance Center, the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit River, and you've got a picture-perfect backdrop to spend a wn afternoon reading a book.

While last month's visit was my first visit to the island, it most certainly will not be my last. It does require a Recreation Passport to enter if coming by car, in case you're curious as well.
The James Scott Memorial Fountain on Belle Isle.

Friday, August 18, 2017

An obsession with Michigan gardens continue with a visit to Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park

The pond in the Japanese gardens at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.
My wife and I always try to make at least one trip a year to Dow Gardens in Midland. We discovered it in college and loved it so much, we always try to go visit each summer.

While Dow Gardens is a small, more intimate setting to visit, one such garden and sculpture park we visited this past weekend was several times the size with plenty to offer.

A bumblebee on a flower in the
Japanese gardens.
Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park is located in Grand Rapids Township contains 158 acres of gardens, wetlands and sculptures across its landscape. Named for the man whose family is behind those wonderful 24-hour retail stores across the Midwest, the park opened in 1995. It contains a plethora of sculptures from renowned artists such as Marshall Fredericks, as well as a host of plants from across the globe.

From the time we walk from the parking lot, we're reminded of the beautiful flowers we can expect to see throughout our visit: the gardens surrounding the conservatories and visitor's center is covered with a wash of yellow, white, pink and green.

The American Horse sculpture.
Upon recommendation from several people, we spent plenty of time in the new Japanese gardens, which were not there the last time we visited the park back in 2010. This section is covered in cherry trees, as well as paths surrounding a gorgeous body of water with pavilions and rocks.

This section boasted a rock garden, a Japanese tea house (which was not open when we stopped by) and a variety of flowers around the path. Circling the little lake also revealed small break-offs from the main path, providing a unique view of the pond from a different perspective. I couldn't help but take every one of these spurs to see how the new angle affected the view of the pond and its features.

In addition, the park boasts an impressive sculpture section, including "The American Horse," a 24-foot-tall bronze horse sculpture done by Nina Akamu. Some are definitely more impressive than others, but it's quite the sight when you take the loop.

The wetlands along the boardwalk at the park.
A must-walk is the boardwalk in the back of the park through the wetlands. It's a callback to Michigan's natural beauty, complete with herons, turtles and other wildlife. While there's a buzz from the nearby freeways in the air, you forget you're in the city pretty quickly while walking the boardwalk.

The gardens are open throughout the year, though there is an admission fee to enter. The gardens routinely hold special events throughout the year, in case music or other events are your scene.

If you're in the Grand Rapids area and want to see the flowers and artwork in a beautiful outdoor setting, this is the place to do it.

A Venus Flytrap in the conservatory.

The Grand Rapids Arch.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Summer vs. winter at Island Lake State Rec Area: so different, I nearly got lost

A trail head in Island Lake State Recreation Area. Those pile of sticks were my reminder of which way to leave the park.
The trail intersection above is one I've traveled so many times. Close to 20, I'd guess.

But seeing it Sunday at Island Lake State Recreation Area through me for a loop. I didn't recognize it. I took that photo to make sure I could remember which direction my wife and I would head in case we got turned around in the park, located in the southeast part of Livingston County.

The biggest reason I was misdirected had to do with all the leaves on the trees: for the first time, I
Island Lake from a fishing dock Sunday afternoon.
spent an afternoon hiking at Island Lake in the summertime.

I was introduced to "roughing it" camping at Island Lake when I was 9. I took my first trip with the group I still volunteer with out of St. David's Episcopal Church in Southfield one cold January weekend. It's normal to spend our Saturday at the park cross-country skiing if there's enough snow, hiking if there's not.

This turtle greeted us as we walked
down the trail.
My wife and I decided to get out of the house and head out for the afternoon Sunday. Starting at the Green Oak Village Place shopping center, we took the trail into the park, enjoying the sights as we hiked. In addition to wildlife and flowers, there were plenty of bikers and trail runners spending the day doing exactly what we were doing: getting out a little close to home.

It still had that calming sense I'm used to in the winter, just with a lot more leaves. Once I got onto
the paths I knew, I'd stumble across landmarks I would always recognize in the winter and find they were unrecognizable.

If you've never spent time at Island Lake in any season, I'd recommend it. It's incredible how much land is still protected by the state in this part of Michigan, especially as development continues to creep outward from Detroit westward.

Just bring a map and don't get turned around like I did.

This daylily was one of many flowers spotted along the hike to Island Lake.



Thursday, June 1, 2017

There are plenty of dunes to be found in southwest Michigan, like at Warren Dunes State Park

The view after climbing to the top of a dune on a trail at Warren Dunes State Park.
Sand dunes are typically associated with the northwest Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Most notably is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which is a wonderful stretch of beach.

Signs mark part of the six miles of trail at
Warren Dunes State Park.
But the southwest portion of the state has its share of sandy beach. One such location is Warren Dunes State Park, located near Sawyer in Berrien County, about 15 miles north of the Michigan/Indiana border.

It's a park that doesn't get the attention it frankly deserves. We spent the weekend before Memorial Day camping in both the modern campground and the group sites. We decided to take this trip as one with backpacking incorporated into it, though after walking the trails and figuring out the group sites, I found backpacking in a little redundant, since there was a parking lot just 100 yards from the group sites.

After battling plenty of rain in the afternoon, it was time to head to the water. The group site is about a mile from the water, and takes a short hike through the woods and up. After climbing up the dunes, a truly spectacular sight was our reward: sloping sand dunes covered in vegetation led to the crystal shores of Lake Michigan.

Flowers on the dunes.
I remember going to the dunes more than 15 years ago with the Boy Scouts. I don't remember much about that trip, but I was reminded of one aspect of that trip: the massive, steep dune off of the lake. We happened to see several people trying to climb it, though I imagine it took quite some time to make it up.

After passing the dune and some flowers sprouting along the trail, we reached the beach. A fairly narrow beach, it stretched for several miles. Sloping sand dunes approach the water, making for the perfect place to perch while watching the waves crash along the sand.

It can be a bit tough of a hike, especially coming back uphill in the sand, but the view and the water is well worth it. We saw very few other people at this park that weekend, just some bird watchers and Boy Scouts. It was a little surprising, though I suspect the rain had scared them off from earlier in the day.

Warren Dunes State Park is well worth the visit, even if just for a stop on the way through town. With it being right off Interstate 94, it makes for a great pop-in in an afternoon. Just climbing to the top of the hill to overlook Lake Michigan is all one needs to feel at peace.

A broken sign approaching the lakeshore.



Monday, March 6, 2017

Nothing wrong with hitting the Holland State Park beach in March


The lighthouse on the shores of Lake Michigan near Lake Macatawa at Holland State Park.
The last time I was at Holland State Park, the beach was full, the water was full and the sky was lit up with patriotic fireworks.

It was a far cry from that Saturday afternoon. While visiting my wife on the west side of Michigan for the weekend (she's there for two weeks on work), we decided to head to Holland for the afternoon. After stopping by the Holland Museum downtown, we made the drive to Holland State Park, where we were met with a vastly different scene this time around.

Ice covers rocks on the jetty.
There were plenty of people coming to check out the sun as it glowed in the horizon, more than I expected. It goes to show the Great Lakes can draw people pretty much anytime of year, not just during the warm summer months and on Independence Day, which is the last time I paid a visit to this park back in 2010 while working in Grand Rapids.

While the nearby lighthouse was not covered in ice as I had hoped to see, there were still plenty of signs of winter: several rocks along the jetty were covered in white ice, with icicles dangling off of some of them. It wasn't what I was hoping for, but it was a sight I hadn't seen.

The wind whipping off of Lake Michigan proved to be the winner, as we didn't stay long on the waterfront. But just making the short drive to the beach on an early March afternoon can be invigorating.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Still no snow at Island Lake State Rec Area

The Huron River in Island Lake State Rec Area.
It's been several years, but once again, my annual trip to Island Lake State Recreation Area near Brighton saw no snow for the middle of January, just like 2013. What to do, what to do.

It's still an annual retreat I take each year with the same youth group I've been in/led since I was 9. It's a highlight trip to take when otherwise, I'd go several months without a night in the woods. This year was no different.

Piggybacking off of our activities from the outing in September, some of us decided to bust out our GPS devices during a hike on the very-icy trails and locate some geocaches around the area. Several were around, though the most impressive one we found was in a small prescription pill bottle hung about 20 feet in a tree. This didn't prove to be a challenge for one of our group members, who decided to climb the tree and log our group into the vial. Take a look:

It wasn't the only cache found. After returning to the cabin where we've stayed for years, I went onto my geocaching app and discovered another one nearby the cabin, one that had been there for 15 years. After a little looking, a friend and I stumbled across it, hiding underneath some wood. Filled
with small children's toys, we logged our group and added it to the app. Success!

A small cache of toys and stickers.
I was first exposed to the hobby back in September and I haven't done a lot with it, but having no snow to ski or sled with forced us to think outside the box. It's worthy of your time if you're in a wooded area and are looking to add a touch of adventure to that hike you planned out.

What else to do?
No snow requires more than just hikes and geocaching. Outings like these attract a wide range of members, and feeding them is no small feat.
Cooking takes up a good amount of time in the cabin, but these meals aren't anything most of the boys are used to. For example, I led a small band of fearless chefs (read: high schoolers) to create a
Lasagna stew. Couple it with a Kings Hawaiian roll and you've
got quite the meal.
lasagna stew using ingredients such as ricotta cheese, onions, spices and broken lasagna noodles. The dish turned up a little more soupy than expected, but even the pickiest of eaters with our group decided to give it a go. If you've got the time, there are plenty of recipes out there to try

A good cabin outing is nothing without games. I've created a list of them on the app li.st, though I'm not aware of a way to drop an embed code to that list. Some of those great games include:

  • Chess: One of the classics, it's a game I don't really play unless I'm away from home. Using a cobbled-together set along with an old board, it's a great game to concentrate on. I left the weekend 1-1.
  • Euchre: Seriously, I think it's a prerequisite for Michiganders who go to the woods play this game. It's one that doesn't get a lot of attention outside of the Midwest, but here's more info if you're curious.
  • Skittles: A game I've never seen anywhere else. Crafted many years ago by our leader's father, this game involves a wooden top, several wooden pins and a wooden box with slots cut out of it. Points are scored by knocking over pins as the top spins, and more points are scored for knocking down pins in the back rooms of the box. Take a look: