Sunday, April 19, 2009

BIG NEWS - but first, how it all began

In the summer of 1986, after I had retired from the state of Michigan, my family and I were visiting Lansing's "Riverfest." I was attracted to an exhibit by an organization called "Project Lakewell," a group of Voyageur re-enactors complete with costumes and a 36' imitation birchbark canoe made of fiberglass. Having a long-time interest in canoes and Michigan history, it looked like a perfect fit, so I gave them my $15 and became an instant member.

Sometime later I received an invitation to a meeting at the home of the man who portrayed Father Marquette to consider Project Lakewell's involvement in the planning of Grand River Expedition '90. GRE 90 was to be a canoe expedition going down the length of the Grand River to bring attention to the recreational potential of the river and its environmental attractions and problems. The leaders were the famous long-distance canoeists Verlen and Valerie Kruger. Valerie was the planning chairman and ramrod and Verlen was to be the Rivermaster. 

It turned out that as a result of my topographic engineering experience with the Army and the state and my extensive collection of topographic maps that I knew more about the Upper Grand River and its headwaters than any one else in the organization. Thus I became the guru of everything pertaining to the Grand River upstream of Lansing

At Liberty Mills, in Jackson County, the site of the first dam on the river, I discovered the Liberty Mills General Store, whose proprietors owned the dam and generating plant and knew everybody in Liberty Township and the headwater environs.

I got to know Verlen and Valerie quite well and they entrusted me with the job of getting historical markers for the Grand and to M.C. the opening ceremonies when the time came for the expedition to start down the river. So with the help of the people at the general store, a large boulder was moved from Bunday Hill - the highest place in the Grand River watershed - to a location adjacent to the dam. Thanks to a lady from Mt. Hope Monument Company who participated in GRE 90, we got the boulder engraved with a message-in-stone about the headwaters.

Also with financial assistance from the Lansing City Council, I arranged for the erection of a State of Michigan historical marker on the Riverwalk in Lansing. The marker told the history of the Grand on one side and the Hugh Heward story on the other.

During the planning for GRE 90 I ran across an article in the Lansing State Journal by Birt Darling about Hugh Heward and his encounter with Indians on the Grand. I went to the library and got the book Birt referenced and became fascinated with Heward's story of his trip from Detroit to the Mississippi by crossing Lower Michigan by canoe. I spent a lot of time working out the route that Heward would have taken. To prove my theories, in June of 1990, Verlen Kruger and Brian Ewert from Ann Arbor put their canoes in the Huron River and worked their way up Portage Creek to Hell. Verlen carried his canoe by the Hell store so I could get a picture of him by the sign - my grandson Adam was with me.

The next week Verlen continued bushwhacking up the creek alone. I remember him coming back down the creek at one bridge where I was waiting, and telling me that he found what looked like a portage head - right where I thought it ought to be. Now if there is anyone who would have known what a portage head looked like, it was Verlen.

We put his canoe on top of my Chevrolet and crossed the height-of-land and the big Portage Lake Swamp and put in in the headwaters of the Portage River.  From there, he paddled down the Portage and into the Grand. I met him at the Maple Grove canoe launch and he reported that it was very difficult to tell when he entered the Grand River, because at that point it is one big swamp. (Heward reported the same thing in 1790 - he didn't know he was in the Grand until he ran into some Indians.)

So for 19 years I've wanted somebody to fill the gap Verlen left between Portage Creek (in the Lake Erie watershed) and the tributary of the Grand. Saturday morning, April 18, 2009, I heard from Neil Miller and Brian Prodin that the waiting is over.

On Friday, April 17, Neil and Brian took on the portage across the Lake Erie/Lake Michigan divide and the wade through the Portage Lake Swamp, duplicating what Hugh Heward and his crew did in 1790. They did this even as the Ultimate Hugh Heward Challengers were launching from Detroit as Hugh did.

This is a very big deal, folks. Historic you might say. The preparations for this effort have been going on below the radar, so to speak. I am so pleased that it has been safely completed. These guys risked their butts in this effort, as did Charlie Parmelee and Doug McDougall last year.

Here is the report I received from Neil that morning, followed by my response:

"Hi Jim,  We completed the Heward Portage in 11 hours from a point 200 meters upstream of McIntyre Lake on Portage Creek to the Munith Road Bridge.  We came ashore about a hundred meters below our intended landing spot on the "island" marked 940 (the north marsh, north of Tophith Road) and had to do 2 hours of serious, arduous bushwhacking.  We had to scout a route through using a Gerber Brush Thinner and surveyor tape and then come back and carry the gear.  We hadn't anticipated such difficulty on that island and even though we had GPS waypoints to go to we had to bushwhack through very gnarly growth.  We used that Gerber tool two more times cutting a path through the Tag Alders to get into clear swamp.

We had planned on two days (and maybe even a third) to make the crossing but we had to force it because we ran out of water. We carried two 50 ounce Nalgene water bottles and we stashed another 80 ounces south of Tophith Road but by 2:00 p.m. we were out.  We just didn't want to pump water out of the marsh so I didn't bring my PUR Hiker.

I will send you a trip summary later today or tomorrow and a complete highly detailed report in the near future, as promised.

We put in at Munith Road then paddled down to Moeckel Road for our pick-up.

Oh, and we managed to get across most private land without incident except on the Schumacher Road Peninsula where the landowner chased us off his property."

Neil Miller

"Neil and Brian,

Congratulations! I'm really proud of you guys and proud of myself for instigating such an effort. Verlen would be proud too. I'll beam a message across the river to him that his 1990 gap has been bridged. You know I can see his grave site from my landing?

Looking forward to the reports and I invite you guys to join in the Hugh Heward Challenge 50 miler from Dimondale to Portland on April 25 or just come to Thompson Field in Portland that Saturday afternoon to be recognized. I am going to buy you an engraved brick for the Verlen Kruger Memorial plaza.

The Ultimate Hugh Heward Challengers left Belle Isle at 9 AM yesterday morning and made it into the Huron River and camped near Rockwood last night. They are on their way upstream this morning.

My cup runneth over and a curse on the Schumacher Road landowner."

Jim Woodruff


On the Grand River

in Delta Township

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