Black River Cruise
by Sam Huonder
Jim and I are nearing the end of our second
season in Bayfield and are ready for another kind of adventure. While we
have spent many nights away from the safety of Pike’s Bay Marina among the
many lovely anchorages of the Apostle Islands, it is time to venture
further. I cast my eyes eastward and feel an almost physical tug to head out
there. I want to know what it’s like to sail 30 or more miles in a day, and
it is time to do it. Our always enthusiastic sailing companion, John
Currier, agrees to be our crew, and after some research we pick three
destinations to try for: Black River Harbor, Ontonagon and Saxon Harbor. All
three are east and along the south shore of Wisconsin and Michigan.
|View of the Porcupines from the Swagman.
On Friday September 2, with our provisions loaded, diesel and water tanks
full, we motor out of Pikes Bay at 7:50 CT. The temperature is in the high
50’s; the skies are partly cloudy; the winds are out of the west at 10 knots
with 1-2 foot seas. We motor until everyone has eaten breakfast, then we
hoist the sails and set them wing on wing, with boom tied down and jib poled
The Swagman romps before the wind at a very smart and respectable 6+ knots.
Leaning against the bulkhead in the cockpit with John at the helm, I watch
Pikes Bay fade into the distance, while Jim and I sing “Wandering Star” from
“Paint Your Wagon.”
It takes us about an hour to clear Madeline and Long Island. Finally, we are
in the open lake…a lake that is mighty fond of long fetches. The wind and
the seas begin to build, and pretty soon we are doing over 7 knots. We don’t
mind the 7 knots, but the 4-5 foot waves are having a lot of fun with the
Swagman. I can hardly keep my eyes off the big waves chasing the Swagman’s
stern. When the waves catch us, the stern drops as the wave rolls under,
then she wags her tail, sailing down the wave, as it curls, hisses and foams
alongside our hull before racing past the bow. We take a double reef in the
main, roll up the jib, and still the boat won’t slow, so we just hang on.
After about 3 hours of this, I ask who wants lunch and am met by green
faces. The rolling around doesn’t seem to be bothering me, so I attend to
navigation duties in the cabin, which consist of marking our course on the
chart every hour. We take bets on our arrival time and make excellent
progress. I read Bonnie Dahl’s Cruising Guide. She tells us the harbor
entrance and breakwater is hard to spot, so we watch for the ski jump that
Bonnie mentions, instead. At about noon, I spot it in the distance. We
figure we’re only 12 miles away, which is a good thing because Jim makes it
quite clear that he will not listen to me sing “The Wreck of the Edmund
Fitzgerald” one more time. At 14:00 CT we spot the breakwater for Black
River Harbor. I hail the harbor master on the VHF and confirm that there is
dock space for us.
As we enter the harbor, I am struck by the beauty of the place. The dock we
tie up to follows the curve of the river as it winds through the Porcupine
Mountains. A suspension bridge spans the river about a quarter mile up from
the harbor entrance, and only shallow draft boats can go that far. We head
for the concession stand to pay our docking fee.
John and I are delighted to see the fresh popcorn in the popper and ice
cream treats in the freezer. After snacks, we wander the adjacent picnic
grounds before heading back to the Swagman for lunch. I am on the hunt for
some AA batteries so that the GPS doesn’t crap out on us. The dock area is
filled with serious fishing boats and rigs. We find a couple of friendly
fisherman who are happy to trade batteries for some of my chocolate chip
cookies. A deal is struck and everyone is happy. After a lunch of my
homemade pasta salad, we all hit the sack and are unconscious for an hour or
so. After clawing our way back to wakefulness, we walk to the bridge, cross
over and hike up the hill, trying to find Rainbow Falls. Unable to find it,
we wander around until we happen upon a bench and a really good view of the
lake. There, we sit for a long time just taking it all in.
Then it’s time to head back to the boat for a dinner of fresh Lake Superior
whitefish, green beans, sourdough bread and chocolate chip cookies for
dessert. When the dishes are done we walk to the shore to watch the sunset,
and John gives Jim and I a lesson on how to use a sextant. Jim is fascinated
and catches on quickly. I am bored because I much prefer my electronic
gadgets. It is almost full dark by this time, so we head up to the
facilities. As we are walking back to the boat we spot northern lights. I
have never in my life seen Aurora Borealis, and I am thrilled. The lights
dance, shimmer, glow and pulse, and it is hard to look away. We stay on the
dock, eyes fixed on the sky for as long as we can.
In the morning, we discuss our options for the day. We really want to make
Ontonagon, but the wind is forecast to be 10-15 out of the NNE, which would
make it a hard beat for about 35 miles. At 09:00, however, the winds are
nonexistent, so we decide to motor and get as far as we can before the winds
become a factor. Once again, NOAA has missed by a wide margin as the winds
never blow out of the north. In fact the winds don’t blow at all, and we are
forced to motor all the way to Ontonagon. But it is no penance because the
day is lovely. The skies are a perfect blue; the clouds a perfect white. The
lake reflects the sky, and the lady of the lake seems to smile at us today.
The Porcupines continue to rise, and it seems that my eyes cannot get enough
of the lush greenness.
We talk, tell stories, laugh and enjoy those long comfortable silences that
you can only have with really good friends. Jim continues to learn how to
use the sextant, and I continue to chart and plot our course.
Once an hour, on the half hour, I take our position from the GPS, find the
lat and lon on the chart and make a small dark circle. When I draw the line,
connecting our last position with our new position, I feel an intense
satisfaction knowing that “THIS is where I am.” We arrive at Ontonagon, and
I hail the bridge master for bridge clearance and the harbor master to
request a transient slip. As we turn into the harbor entrance we see the
bridge about a quarter mile ahead of us. We can hear the warning bell and
watch as the bridge swings open.
|Jim learns how to use the sextant.
Jim takes the Swagman safely through, and about another quarter mile in we
spot the marina. We tie up at our slip with a minimum of fuss and are soon
in the harbor master’s office. We decide a walk into town to stretch our
legs is just the thing, and we set off. On the way, we stop and talk with
the bridge master, who, after determining we are the sailboat that came in,
offers us the use of her car if we need gas or groceries. We thank her for
her kind offer but don’t need anything. After returning to the boat, we all
head to the showers before dinner, which that night is baby back ribs with
baked beans and slightly burned corn bread. I still find the vagaries of my
alcohol stove a bit of a puzzle.
For dessert, we head back into town for ice cream at Connie’s, which came
highly recommended by friends of ours. Connie of Connie’s Ice Cream scoops
cones for John and I while Jim chats with her about her store décor. His
interest in architecture and design soon sparks quite a chat between them,
while she points out the work she did on the space. We head back to the boat
and play cards until we are all too tired to keep our eyes open.
On Sunday morning, we wake to another gorgeous day and are anxious to be on
our way. Our goal is Saxon Harbor, 48 miles away. We motor out of the marina
and hail the bridge master again. Our friend is still on duty and comes out
to wave goodbye.
After passing through the bridge, we get a good, close look at an ore
freighter tied up, off-loading coal for the paper plant in Ontonagon. Other
than being the start of Hwy 45, which goes 1300 miles to the Gulf of Mexico
(as a large sign in town proclaims), this appears to be Ontonagon’s claim to
fame. As we motor out of the harbor, I am forced to admit that, while
Ontonagon may be short of bucolic charm or much in the way of scenic appeal,
the people of the town are some the nicest we have met. I would be happy to
stop again, I decide.
After clearing the harbor entrance, we turn west and hoist the sails. The
sky is clear, the temp is in the high 50’s and the breeze is light out of
the south. We sail for most of the day with the addition of the diesel to
keep us moving. It is a long day, but the weather is pleasant, and we find
ways to amuse ourselves. For me, napping and reading in the cockpit fulfills
all my entertainment needs. John steers and sings along with my favorite CD,
made for me by my stepson. It is called “Songs for Sailing, the Greatest
Hits of the Jolly Swagman.” Jim does some emergency stitching on the dodger.
|Leaving Ontonago the bridge master waves goodbye.
We approach Saxon Harbor late in the afternoon, and even from a distance we
can see a large group of children standing atop the walls of the breakwater.
As we turn into the entrance they all wave, and one little girl tells me she
likes my “little boat” (the dinghy we are towing). Saxon Harbor is small
and, on this night, is getting heavy use from campers, power boaters and 4
wheelers. Lawn games are in progress, and ZZ Top is playing at full blast.
Once we tie up in our minimal slip, (we have to rig an aft spring line to
keep the bow out of the rocky shallow shore!), Jim goes below for a nap, and
John and I play cribbage in the cockpit. Of course, my lifetime losing
streak continues, which makes John happy. That night we eat brats in the
cockpit, and I toss bread to the geese hanging around. The geese are so
enthralled that at bedtime they are still hanging around, hoping for more
|The Swagman at Saxon Harbor.
After dinner we walk up to the Harbor Light Saloon. Apparently this is where
the harbor master resides. We pass through the doors, and I feel like I have
been transported to another time. The room is long, narrow, dark and
crowded. It reminds me of every saloon I ever sat in with my dad when I was
small, and somehow I feel right at home.
We sit at the bar, we three non-drinkers, and Jim and I have an O'Doul's
while John has a Virgin Bloody Mary. It’s kind of a lark, and the locals
quickly spot us as the newly arrived sailors. We visit for a while but
eventually head back to the boat for more card games and my continued losing
streak. Jim and I wake the next day before 7 am. Eventually we wake John
with our noise, which is about the time Jim crawls back into his bunk. John
and I hang out for awhile and then decide it is time to go. John fires up
the diesel, and I cast off. As we are motoring out of the marina, Jim
appears in the companionway, wondering where his boat is going without him.
|Riding Scooter on Madeline Island.
It is another beautiful day with temps in the 70’s already and clear skies.
We hoist quickly and put the Swagman on a heading of 210. The breeze is out
of the NNE at 10-12 knots, allowing us to sail probably the most perfect
beam reach for 22 miles. By 12:30 p.m. Madeline Island is in view. Soon we
pass Grant’s Point and head for the Madeline Island Yacht Club. We snag a
transient slip and hike into town for lunch at the Beach Club. Afterwards, a
mood of daring overtakes us and we decide to rent scooters to tour the
island. Instructions from the rental company are simple, and in minutes we
are zipping along Big Bay Road. Jim and John cannot resist some good natured
competition, while I putter, a little nervously, behind them. We stop at Big
Bay Park, and, of course, it is spectacular. After all the fabulous sights
we have been treated to these last few days, I wonder if it is possible to
exceed one’s quotient of awesome views. If so, it is distinctly possible
that I have. It doesn’t seem possible, but our hour is almost up, so,
reluctantly, we head back to town.
Finally, it is time to head back to Pike’s Bay, so we leave Madeline Island.
The breeze has freshened to about 15 knots, making our sail to Pike’s Bay
pass too quickly.
We are all a little quiet, knowing that this all-too-short of a journey is
at an end. I look at John and Jim, my two best friends in the whole world. I
think about how long we have known each other, how much we have taught each
other about boats, ourselves and life. I think that, of all the hours I have
spent on sailboats, ninety percent of it has been the three of us.
My throat is tight for just a moment as I realize how precious this moment
is, how precious these last few days were. I find myself wondering, since
John and his wife, Judie, are close to retiring and moving to North
Carolina, how many more chances like this will we have?
Just then, Jim calls for a tack, and as I scramble across the cockpit and
crank on the winch drum I realize that in sailing as in life, things always
change, and while I can’t change the wind, I can adjust my sails.
Sam Hounder is former Commodore of Black Bear Yacht Club and Rear Commodore
of Sailfest. She and husband Jim have been sailing together for about 15
years. They keep the Jolly Swagman in Pike’s Bay Marina in Bayfield, WI.
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