Keweenaw Waterway
by Cyndi Perkins

Over the years we've developed a taste for distance. Our journeys aboard our 32-foot Downeast sailboat Chip Ahoy normally cover 50-100 miles daily. But it can be an unexpected pleasure to stop and smell the roses closer to home, as we found in 2004 after completing a 6,000-mile transit of America's Great Circle Loop.

The Keweenaw Waterway offered a variety of fresh experiences shared with long-time buddies and new friends. There are a minimum of eight great stops for deeper draft vessels and several others for shallow draft boats along the approximately 29-mile stretch intersecting Upper Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula.

Houghton County Marina is the epicenter of the waterway's boating services. Located at the foot of the Portage Lake Lift Bridge linking the two main cities, Houghton and Hancock, we rate the marina tops among the dozens we have visited for ambience and amenities. The long-time harbormaster, Brach Schnabel, is regionally known for his hospitality, clean and well-maintained facilities and politically incorrect jokes, as well as his faithful "guard dog," Becky the Beagle. For many years it has been our summer home and we encourage all boaters to visit for a night, a week or a season. Rates are quite affordable at the state waterways commission sanctioned marina. Gas, diesel, water, pumpout, hot showers and a laundromat are available.

Fourteen boatloads of Lake Superior sailors completed the Thunder Bay, Ontario to Houghton, Michigan leg of the 2004 Lake Superior Offshore Series. Visiting racers overnighted at Houghton City's free dock.

On a balmy Friday afternoon in early August, we loosed the docklines and left the rest of the chore list for another day. We'd earned a break after replacing and painting the floorboards in the dinghy, greasing a through-hull and scrubbing the decks. A new locale in our neck of the woods beckoned: Lake Linden Village docks.

Chip Ahoy's headsail pulled us along at a stately 4 miles per hour toward the south entry of "the canal," as it is known locally. Keweenaw Waterway is composed of natural rivers, lakes and bays, as well as manmade channels dredged for greater depth and ease of commercial transport. The Portage Lake Shipping Canal, conceived in 1865, provided refuge for vessels transiting Lake Superior, as well as a transportation network for goods going in and out of the bustling port cities of Houghton and Hancock during copper mining's heyday. At Houghton City's Dee Stadium, to the right, there's a free museum with extensive photos detailing the waterfront's history. It's a wonderful complement to the self-guided walking tours in both Houghton and Hancock. At the private stadium docks you may see the Keweenaw Star, an excursion vessel offering sunset cruises, sightseeing trips and chartering for private parties. The adjacent Isle Royale National Park Service dock is home to the Ranger III, which ferries visitors to the remote Lake Superior archipelago from park headquarters in Houghton.

The next landmark is the campus of Michigan Technological University, with its world-class engineering programs and performing arts center. The breeze is always fluky here, swirling through the man-made wind tunnels created by the area's tallest buildings. Opposite, on the north bank, is H&Y Marina, which is generally patronized by friendly locals who jokingly tell us that H&Y stands for "Help Yourself." Transient boating services are limited.

The lower entry light and jetty are visible in the distance.

As we coast along the canal into Portage Lake, we salute US Coast Guard Station Portage headquarters. At the red buoy marking the entrance to Torch Bay, we divert north off the main channel, aiming for the narrow and enchanting Torch Channel, which winds through a wetlands resplendent with wild roses and water lilies. The channel is well marked to guide Chips safely past the mucky shoals and we enter Torch Lake without incident. On the western shore we can make out the streetscape of Lake Linden Village and after clearing a long finger shoal identified on the charts I have a good angle for a binocular sighting of the dock. The adrenaline is flowing, as it always does when we enter unfamiliar territory, particularly since these docks are so new that we haven't been able to find any reference to the facility in any charts or guidebooks. A power-boating friend and a sailing couple at the marina assured us we'd find adequate depths. I hope they're right.

As it turns out, our friend Mark is waving from the docks, his little red speedboat in tow. He assists in guiding us in and catches our lines. Ulterior motive: he wants marine electronic technician Scott to help him install a fancy fish finder. Guess we haven't finished with chores today, we've just moved on to somebody else's list!

Putzing along in light winds our trip lasted a mere 3-1/2 hours. The Lake Linden docks are sturdy and attractive, with excellent lighting and power stanchions. The village deserves credit for such a nice facility. At the end closest to the village park and campground the weedy water is barely shin deep but in the center slip we find 18 feet. A sign informs us that docking is $10 per night with a two-day limit. There's a drop box for payment on the honor system. Chip Ahoy is the only boat docked at the moment and we enjoy the solitude while it lasts. I'll bet this dock doesn't stay empty for long, particularly during Lake Linden's Fourth of July celebrations.

By evening, with Mark staying for grilled chicken dinner, another sailboat arrived. The young couple aboard their pocket cruiser had trailered up from Lower Michigan for a three-week sailing vacation. They'd put in at Big Bay in the central Upper Peninsula. We filled them in on nearby services, including the showers available at the campground as well as Louie's Super Valu Foods, a large, well-stocked grocery store across the highway.

Downtown Lake Linden is an old-time red sandstone mélange of restaurants, taverns, banks and offices where a leisurely stroll can yield a tasty meal or refreshing beverage. After pointing them in the right direction, we turned in early, tuckered out after a day of chores and the rush of landing in a port new to us.

On Saturday morning the saucy toot-toot of the Houghton County Historical Society Museum train roused us. The museum complex is directly adjacent to the docks. The recently restored steam engine, with two cars for whisking visitors around the grounds, is a delightful example of how the Copper Country shares and celebrates its heritage, forged during America's copper-mining boom and predating California's Gold Rush. In addition to thousands of interesting exhibits, including an authentic one-room schoolhouse, visitors will see the mark mining made on the area through the landscape of crumbling smokestacks and abandoned smelting and processing buildings. These remnants may sound ugly, but actually lend a stark beauty to the setting.

Becky the beagle, Houghton County Marina's affectionate mascot, pays us a dockside visit at breakfast time - no doubt drawn by the aroma of frying bacon!

Our daughter Shannon and my husband's mother Josephine arrive by car as we're pouring the coffee, bearing bakery picked up at a local church sale. There are definitely advantages to cruising close to home! Around noon two local powerboats dock. The kids aboard ignore the "no swimming or diving" sign at their own peril, as the boat launch is in constant use and the scrap metal, rotted pilings and concrete chunks visible in the rust-tinted water are likely just the tip of the iceberg. Mine tailings - the byproduct of copper processing, also lie beneath. During an Environmental Protection Agency investigation under the Superfund program more than a decade ago it was determined that the best way to neutralize the effects of mining/refining in the area was to cover affected soil and stampsand with dirt and grass while allowing the lake to essentially clean itself over time. The remnants of milling operations were determined to pose no serious threat to human health and eventually the former Superfund site was delisted.

By Sunday we are ready for a change of scenery and a break from ongoing boat launch traffic. At 11 a.m. after a big bacon and egg breakfast we backed out of our slip, motoring in cloudy, windless conditions back through the channel. Heading out of Torch Bay we briefly considered a stop at Dreamland, the fancifully named historic restaurant/tavern that maintains a large dock with good approach depths on the east side of the bay. It's a terrific meal or beverage stop, often featuring live entertainment on weekends. The welcoming owners allow boaters to spend the night, space permitting.

The smell of rain is rapidly followed by actual splats of precipitation, prompting us to pull out the warm-weather foulies and keep moving. Back on the waterway, we pick up the buoys and continue down Portage Lake to the Portage River, one of the most wild and fascinating sectors of Keweenaw Waterway. The binoculars are put to good use spotting markers as well as an abundance of waterfowl and the occasional eagle. Reliable all-weather anchoring is available near Princess Point tucked in behind Sheep Island, where the Palosaaris, a local farming family, ferry a flock of sheep to graze in late summer. The Palosaari sons say that transporting the sheep on a pontoon boat can be an adventure, especially when the flock decides to shift its weight to the front or back of the raft. I guess you could say we are easily amused - we baa at the sheep as we pass by.

Other harbingers of Keweenaw's farming heritage are readily apparent along this stretch, including a picturesque abandoned red barn that I have always thought would make a spectacular home. Speaking of gorgeous real estate, a palatial log cabin mansion is also sure to capture your attention, along with other year 'round and seasonal cottages both vintage and brand new.

By 1:40 p.m. Captain Scott has brought Chip Ahoy alongside the massive Portage River pier, a designated harbor of refuge with limited stays allowed. Home to two Native American fishing boats, there's still plenty of room for everyone. We bumper well to protect from the occasional rude wake. Ardent fishermen faithfully use the closest boat launch to Lake Superior's Keweenaw Bay. It is only suitable for shallow-draft vessels.

Bikers, joggers and strollers roam the length of the concrete pier. Families come down to eat at the picnic tables and fish at dusk. There is a dark but clean concrete outhouse and a falling-apart water pump. Who cares about the primitive conditions? The raspberries are ripe and the area's black bear population hasn't gotten to them yet!
It's still raining on and off, so we do what any good cruiser would and take siesta. Scott's guitar wakes me gently. Eric Clapton's "Layla" is followed by "Knockin' On Heaven's Door." We fix juicy burgers on the cockpit grill and watch the parade of boat trailers at the launch. If you happen to stop here when the Indian fishermen bring in a catch, feel free to ask them for something fresh off the boat. Trout or whitefish are very affordable if you are willing to do the cleaning and filleting yourself.

The mosquitoes drive us inside at dark. After a restful slumber we're greeted by a brilliantly hot sunny morning that successfully tempts us to tarry at the pier. From our vantage point we can see the lower entry pier. The concrete/riprap breakwall is at best a day dock and never recommended for overnight stays. Its chief charms are access to White Sands, one of the peninsula's most breathtaking beaches and the lower entry light.
Clouds are alternating with sunshine and a south wind has picked up. The marine forecast calls for a passing storm front. The wind will hold us off the wall so we decide to wait out whatever Mother Nature dishes up. Scott gets a pork roast going in the pressure cooker while I peel potatoes.
Around 5 p.m. the worst, which wasn't much, blows over. Replete with a good meal, we sail and motor-sail back to Houghton in 10-15 mph winds with a light chop on Portage Lake. The lake is as capable of turning nasty as Superior, and we give it the respect it is due, adding one reef to the main and trimming the headsail. At a steady 6-7 mph, we are back in the sister cities by 7 p.m.

The Houghton County Historical Society Museum directly adjacent to Lake Linden's docks, launch and campground, features a restored tourist train that takes visitors for a spin around the museum complex grounds.

For another change of pace in our own back yard, we slide over to Houghton City dock opposite the marina. The "no overnight docking" signs of the past are gone. Your stay here in downtown Houghton is complimentary. There are picnic tables, a walking trail, grills and trash barrels. Shelden Avenue, Houghton's main street, is just a block up. You'll find a great selection of restaurants, the Lode movie theater, pubs, clubs, a coffeehouse, Internet cafe, tearoom, bookstore, banks, Swift's Hardware and the post office, along with numerous unique gift shops including the Einerlei North and Backroom used bookstore. Houghton's two largest grocery stores, a Wal-Mart Superstore, Copper Country Mall and Shopko are a short distance away by cab or the dial-a-ride bus. Whatever you're looking for, Houghton's dockside ambassador, Police Chief Ralph Raffaelli, will be able to point you in the right direction. The Chief, an avid Rver with a great interest in boating, routinely visits the docks each morning to greet new arrivals and make sure everyone has what everything they need for an enjoyable stay.

Like clockwork the Chief shows up bright and early Monday morning, full of questions about our travels the past year. We're especially interested in telling him about the Erie Canal and New York Canal system programs that encourage boating and other recreational uses of that waterway. He's all ears, as the city has a long-term development plan with similar aims. In the future we hope Houghton will follow through on plans to further encourage boaters by putting in power stanchions and water, perhaps charging a modest fee.

At 9 a.m. we decide to get out of town and head for other favorite ports in our Superior neighborhood. West winds at 10-15 mph with calm to two-foot seas on the big lake are favorable for a sail to Copper Harbor on the northern tip of Keweenaw Peninsula. We'll take the northwest leg of the Keweenaw Waterway to the upper entry of Lake Superior. First, we must pass under Portage Lake Lift Bridge, the largest, heaviest lift span in the world providing the only link between the northern and southern portions of the peninsula. Chip Ahoy's 47-foot mast requires a lift for clearance, so we hail the bridge operator on Channel 16. The bridge was on a limited lift schedule in 2004 due to construction, but it normally lifts on demand and tries to make your wait as short as possible. After several months of dealing with timed bridge openings on the Intracoastal Waterway down South and on the Eastern Seaboard while battling current and other boats jockeying for position while waiting for an opening, the accommodating attitude of "our" bridge operators is gratifying. They also have a sense of humor. "Chip Ahoy, didn't you get the memo? The bridge is closed today," the operator responds to our call. Before I have a chance to build up a head of steam, there's a chuckle over the airwaves. Those jokers can always get one over on me!

The bridge horn toots bon voyage as we pass under the span. To the right guests at the Ramada Inn/Upper Deck restaurant wave from the patio as we set the autopilot and tidy up lines and fenders. Ahead on the left, Houghton City Beach is attracting a family crowd with its impressive Chutes & Ladders play area, RV Park, boardwalks and picnic pavilion. We motor into the wind down the well-marked shipping channel past more incredible homes. Just after the canal kinks north we see a few brave souls diving off the swim dock at Hancock City Beach and Campgrounds. We frequented this facility during our RV days and highly recommend it as a family camping destination. There's a launch suitable for shallow-draft boats. Larger vessels normally put in at Houghton County Marina or the Houghton City launch under the bridge.

he final miles of the canal are a mix of civilization and wildlife, with an active eagle's nest, woods, farmland and residential areas providing plenty of sightseeing. Mind the markers and you'll have no problem avoiding shoals. Just shy of the mouth of the upper entry is Lilly Pond pier, boat launch and fishing dock. Though its main users are the Army Corps of Engineers and Native American fishermen, the side-tie pier is also a convenient and lovely stopping-off point for cruisers transiting to and from the lake. Refractive wake from speedboats can be annoying at times; use springlines when tying to the riprap wall and fender well. There are no services available other than the outhouse near the fishing dock and launch.

Here the manmade aspect of Keweenaw Waterway is most evident; fill rock braced against metal breakwalls periodically dotted with orange-painted ladders. Since the giant bollards are some distance from the dockwall itself, we normally lasso a ladder when docking before securing longer lines to the bollards. This pier is particularly lovely in late May/early June, with the scent of wild lilacs and apple blossoms perfume the air. We have rested and recovered here after hellacious trips across the lake and like many local boaters regard it as a perfect staging area for dawn departures to Isle Royale, the Apostle Islands or Canada's north shore. Today we pass by with a nod to the Three Brothers fishing boat preparing to go out for a day's work. We will be able to watch where they lay their nets and make our trout-fishing plans accordingly as we trek along the shore to Copper Harbor.

The open waterway narrows as the white upper entry light comes into view. "Look at that big dog, his ears are very pointy," I tell Captain Scott as we survey the black sands beach to our left. Duh. That's not a Great Dane; it's a deer coming down to drink at shore. To our right is McLain State Park, another terrific camping spot. A group of teens horse around on the rock jetty. In a few moments we'll be back out on the big lake. Life is good …

Cyndi Perkins is a freelance writer and full-time cruiser traveling with her husband Scott aboard their 32-foot Downeast sailboat Chip Ahoy. The couple completed America's Great Circle Loop - a nine-month 6,000-mile journey - on June 4, 2004. Since returning to their Lake Superior homeport they have been visiting and revisiting favorite destinations while preparing for another extended cruise south, slated to begin in July 2005. Cyndi will be sharing top northern and Midwest boating destinations with readers in her regular "Cruiser's Notebook" feature.

Keweenaw Convention & Visitors Bureau Friendly, informative staff, many brochures and guides. 1-800-338-7982. Calumet: 1-906-337-4579. Houghton: 1-906-482-5240. This locally operated website, known as Pasty Central (pronounced "past-tee") is a marvelous clearinghouse for all things Copper Country.
Houghton County Marina Transient slips, boat launch, electricity, water, restrooms/showers, grills/picnic tables, pumpout, ice, gas, diesel. 906-482-6010.
Boat Launches Possibilities include Chassell, Houghton City, Hancock City, Houghton County Marina, Lilly Pond at the Upper Entry and Lake Linden.
Transportation Houghton and Hancock have "dial a ride" city bus service within their respective boundaries. Hancock Public Transit 906-482-3450. Houghton City Transit 906-482-6092. Fees range from $2-5. Houghton offers after-5 p.m. bus service within the city.
Neil's Taxi 1-906-482-5515. The marina may have a loaner available.
Keweenaw Waterway Dining in Walking Distance
The Ambassador, Houghton waterfront: The best pizza you will ever eat bar none.
The Upper Deck, Ramada Inn, Hancock waterfront: A short walk from Houghton County Marina. Their docks are accessible and can accommodate vessels up to 30 feet, but don't expect help docking and watch for submerged posts and other debris on approach. Live entertainment Tuesday-Saturday. Tell proprietor Johnny Gervais I sent ya!
Keweenaw Brewery: No food, just peanuts and home brew in a laidback atmosphere
Farther afield
For an outstanding northwoods dining experience, you'll need a ride to the Pilgrim River Steakhouse on US-41 on the eastern outskirts of Houghton past Michigan Tech. Call Neil's Taxi at 1-906-482-5515 or ask Brach at the marina for the loaner car.
North Shore Grill & Pub has the most interesting menu in the area, featuring wild game and other out-of-the-ordinary entrees, soups and appetizers. Although it is close to Hancock City Beach, Campgrounds and Boat Launch, there is no docking facility, so this fine dining establishment is best visited by car.