Nestled in the northeastern corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is a small boater’s paradise known as the Inland Waterway. This meandering body of water stretches about 40 miles, beginning in Crooked Lake at the town of Conway and proceeding through connecting rivers to Pickerel, Burt and Mullett lakes. The route skirts several small towns and finally ends in Cheboygan, where it feeds into Lake Huron. This beautiful waterway draws fishermen, boaters, swimmers, water sports enthusiasts and sightseers.
The Inland Waterway is one of the great natural—and lesser known—wonders of Michigan’s “Tip of the Mitt.” At its headwaters, at Crooked Lake’s west end, you are only 2.5 miles by land from Little Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan. The long way around, through the waterway to Cheboygan, then north and west through the Straits of Mackinac, it’s more than 100 miles to Little Traverse Bay.
Because it is a natural shortcut, the waterway has been a vital means of transportation since the days of Native Americans. They used the route to avoid rough water on the big lakes, and one of their encampments unearthed along the waterway dates back more than 3,000 years. Trappers and explorers used this safe passage. The logging industry plied these same waters, floating logs to the sawmills of Cheboygan—a much cheaper mode of transport than the railroads of the day. By the late 1800s, excursion steamboats were present. Much later, with the increasing popularity of pleasure boating among Michiganders, the channel was widened to 30 feet, with a five-foot controlling depth, in 1957. Today, thousands of boats visit each summer to enjoy the network of lakes and rivers.
They come from miles around
Lots of boaters enter the waterway from Cheboygan, but many more trailer their boats and launch at one of the eight boat ramps along the way, as the area is readily accessible from highways I-75, M-27, M-33 and U.S. 31. Modest fees are charged for daily use of ramps. Others boats launch from their cottages along the waterway’s more than 150 miles of shoreline. There are several full service marinas with dockage along the way, and it’s convenient to fill up, with the longest distance between fuel stops being a mere 10 miles.
Navigational charts of the Inland Waterway route are available through the Indian River Chamber of Commerce at a cost of $15, as well as the Northern Michigan Inland Waterway Guide for $10 (each plus tax and shipping). Call 800-394-8310 or visit irchamber.com/locks.htm.
Navigation on the southwestern end of the Inland Waterway is generally limited to boats less than 30 feet in length, though the far northeastern end can reportedly handle boats up to 60 feet long, with an 18-foot beam and five-foot draft. Check the charts to see how far you can proceed. The waterway is well marked with channel markers, and river entrances are designated with flashing lights. There is a moderate downbound current in the rivers, but not so strong as to preclude starting your tour in Cheboygan and heading upstream.
There are a number of places to camp along the waterway, so bring your tent and sleeping bags. Or stop at one of the river- or lakeside rental cabins dotting the shoreline, complete with docking facilities. You’ll even find motels —or “boatels”—along the Inland Waterway, where you can dock for the night just below your room.
And don’t forget your fishing gear, as the waterway boasts 17 species of fish, including perch, walleye, bass, trout, pike, muskie, and even lake sturgeon. Make sure you have a valid license, then fish to your heart’s content. Have a picnic lunch, or stop at one of the many riverside saloons along the way.
If you start at the southwestern end of the waterway, near Conway, you’ll make your way through Crooked Lake to the town of Oden, where you’ll find Windjammer Marina, the oldest marina on the waterway, which has a new marina facility offering a ship’s store, navigational charts, fuel and watercraft service. If you don’t have your own boat, this is one of several places to rent a small boat along the Inland Waterway.
Next, take the clam lock down two feet to Crooked River. Here, 2011 locking fees are $6 for recreational craft or $45 for a seasonal pass. The schedule varies over the summer season. Check out times at irchamber.com/locks.htm, or call 231-347-2311.
There’s a reason Crooked River got its name, which you’ll discover as you wind your way past the town of Alanson. Here, you’ll find Ryde Marine, where you can rent runabouts up to 115 hp, as well as Sunfish sailboats, kayaks and canoes.
Alanson also is home of the Inland Water Route Historical Society. The society operates a museum dedicated to the history of the waterway and its pivotal role in the development of northern Michigan. Boaters will enjoy the large variety of historical photos and artifacts from each community along the water route, as well as nautical, logging and railroad displays. The museum is located on River Street, one block from the swing bridge over the Crooked River, and is open during the summer on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Major fun at Indian River
The Crooked River empties into Burt Lake at Bullhead Bay. Head in a southeasterly direction and you’ll find the village of Indian River, which marks the halfway point of the waterway. Marinas in town include Burt Lake Marina, Indian River Marina, and Howe Marine. Burt Lake Marina, which has been in business since 1969, is a full-service facility, including mechanical and fiberglass repair, and features ShoreStation docks and storage. Likewise a full-service marina, Indian River offers gas, supplies, transient dockage, repairs and storage. The marina also boasts the longest rental day for pontoon and ski boats.
If your timing is right, you might see Indian River’s Fourth of July old-fashioned parade and fireworks. The Indian River Summerfest, scheduled for July 12 -17, includes a flea market, biathlon, community breakfast, the Indian River Aviation Expo, 5k/10k fun run, and coed beach volleyball tournament. Don’t miss Summerfest’s craft show, car show, farmer’s market, chili cook-off, lobster bake, pig roast and lots more entertainment. If you’re in town in mid-September, make sure to catch the annual Northern Rods ’n Rides Car Show of custom, classic and collectible cars.
For some shore-side exercise, join the Indian River Striders, who welcome all runners, walkers and joggers for fresh air and camaraderie. Walkers convene at 8 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while runners meet at the crack of dawn (6 a.m.). And all season long, Wednesdays feature the Indian River Farmer’s Market, where you can pick up some fresh produce.
If you like, tie up your boat at the dock and have lunch and a beverage at the Inn Between Bar & Grill, right on the water in Indian River. Other eateries, not on the river but worth visiting, are the Brown Trout and Vivio’s Italian Restaurant.
If you feel like playing tourist, one of Michigan’s best known attractions, the Cross In The Woods, is nearby. Sculpted by Marshall Fredericks and cast of bronze in Norway, this seven-ton gigantic depiction of Jesus is suspended on the world’s largest crucifix, 55 feet tall and carved from a California redwood. Thousands of visitors come annually to visit the crucifix in this beautiful wooded setting. See details at crossinthewoods.com.
For 62 years, the Inland Waterway has been the site of the Top of Michigan Marathon Outboard Boat Races, the longest running such marathon in the county. This year, the marathon takes place August 13-14, and the town of Indian River is one of many perfect vantage points. The Saturday run of approximately 45 miles starts at DeVoe Beach in Burt Lake, runs the entire length of Indian River, through Mullett Lake and down the full length of the Cheboygan River, does a quick U-turn at the city of Cheboygan, and then returns over the same course to the finish line back at DeVoe Beach.
Sunday’s run traverses Crooked River, around Crooked Lake, back through Crooked River, across Burt Lake, through the Indian River to a turnaround in Mullett Lake, then returns to Indian River. Drivers register their boats through the American Power Boat Association, and boats are categorized into classes according to weight, from 350 pounds to 505 pounds. During race times, certain rivers are closed to other boat traffic. Check out this year’s details at tomorc.com.
Beautiful, shallow Burt Lake is ringed with summer and year-round homes. The lake covers an area of about 26 square miles with a maximum depth of 73 feet. Here, the Burt Lake Yacht Club hosts sailboat races throughout the summer. Near Burt Lake State Park, the lake empties into Indian River, which passes under the state’s main north-south highway artery, I-75, and then winds quietly through wetlands full of wildlife. Along the way, keep an eye—and camera—out for white-tailed deer, raccoons, snow-white swans and American bald eagles.
Rollin’ on the rivers
If you don’t want to sleep aboard, try Fay Martin River Resort Cabins, located on Indian River between Burt and Mullett lakes. Started in 1922, the new owners have done a nice job of preserving the history of this resort, one of the oldest on Indian River. Nearby, Tuscarora Township is building a new Marina Park near the mouth of the Little Sturgeon River, another docking option.
Once through the Indian River, 12-mile-long Mullett Lake is a powerboater’s dream. Michigan’s third-largest inland lake, and one of its most beautiful, is popular with anglers and water skiers, canoeists and water-tubing enthusiasts. At about 26 square miles of surface area and a maximum depth of 144 feet, the lake is big enough to easily accommodate these diverse recreational activities. Mullett Lake Marina has fuel and a ship’s store.
Aloha State Park, on the shores of Mullett Lake, has 285 modern campsites and two swimming beaches, a softball field, horseshoe pits, basketball and volleyball courts, boat launch and a protected boat basin.
Mullett Lake’s tour will take you past the town of Topinabee, where you can pick up a few groceries at the Topinabee Market and dock your boat at the Topinabee Motel for a shore-side room. Next are the headwaters of the Cheboygan River. If you’re around on a summer Saturday, catch Music on Mullett, a giant party of rafted-up boats gathered in the shallows of the lake where the Cheboygan River heads for the city. There, they share Michigan’s crystal waters, fantastic Rock and Blues and, undoubtedly, libations.
Or you can join the parade of hungry boaters who set course for the Hack-Ma-Tack Inn, not far from Mullett Lake, along the Cheboygan River. Docking is just steps away from this restaurant, where you can enjoy whitefish almandine (fresh daily from nearby Mackinaw City) and slow-cooked prime rib. Run by Detroit natives Mike and Sue Redding, the 1898 building was originally a hunting and fishing lodge.
A fitting end at Cheboygan
Like a number of motels on the Inland Waterway, the Best Western River Terrace has dockage—700 feet long—near downtown Cheboygan on the Cheboygan River. If you want a break from your v-berth, this is the perfect stop. Get a room and enjoy the indoor pool, spa and fitness center, while docked right out front. Or try a slip in front of family-owned and -operated Fleetwood Inn and Suites, also located on the Cheboygan River not far from downtown.
Nearing downtown Cheboygan, just two miles upstream of the mouth of the Cheboygan River, great walls of steel and cement of the Old Cheboygan Gate Lock, built in 1869, will lower your boat 15 feet to meet the water level of Lake Huron. Here, the 2011 locking fee is $6 for recreational craft or $45 for a seasonal pass. As locking times vary throughout the season, visit irchamber.com/locks.htm for more information, or call 231-627-9011.