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 out.

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 treats.
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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