Last October I paddled the full length of the AuSable River and then some distance north on Lake Huron; during that trip I saw many beautiful areas, but one in particular really stood out to me as worth a second visit. The river has six hydroelectric dams, all with reservoirs of varying sizes. Cooke Pond (named after the guy who had the idea to dam up the river) seemed especially scenic and remote to me when I passed through, and I wanted to come back and spend some more time exploring.
I recently bought an older model tandem sea kayak that I found on Craigslist, a model I’ve worked with before during my years as a kayak guide. They are heavy boats and not at all sporty, but they are sturdy and have a plenty of storage space for camping. This particular boat needs some repairs; due to supply shortages the parts I need won’t be available for a while, so I’ve had to improvise to make sure it’s safe. The center bulkhead of the boat, a very important safety feature, has temporarily had to be replaced with a large float bag, and we’ve created waterproof hatch covers until I can get the real versions.
We drove to the launch on Thursday afternoon, approximately a three-and-a-half-hour drive including stops. The launch was completely empty of people, with only one parked truck and trailer. This trip was Karisma’s very first time kayak camping, and I didn’t want it to be a strenuous ordeal that would discourage future trips. Except for my group backpacking trips, most of my adventures lean towards type two fun: exhausting (but very satisfying!) expedition-style trips. This relaxing kayak camping trip would be new for both of us.
We paddled past a petrified log covered in snails soon after launching. We have an aquarium with snails that look the same, so they were fun to see. The AuSable area was thoroughly logged by the 1920’s, and it wasn’t until the river was dammed that the power company planted white pine seeds to reforest it; this was completed by the 1950’s. We saw several such petrified trees, presumably remnants from the logging days. The pines there aren’t small, its interesting to think that they’re less than a hundred years old.
On the way to our campsite, we passed a few small fishing boats but no other kayaks. None of the other sites seemed to be occupied, except one: by a large racoon scouting for left-behind scraps. We also saw a few birds, including a woodpecker and a hawk. We also squinted at what I believe was a river otter in the distance, although it seemed to be alone which is unusual in my experience. I loved seeing them on my previous trip here, they’re so fun to watch.
As we were putting our gear in our boat, I noticed that despite using one of my own packing checklists, I had left behind my collapsible pot and bowl! Fortunately, Karisma’s cup, can also be used as a small pot. We also found a small Tupperware from my truck for me to eat out of and decided we could cook each meal in two separate portions instead of together. An inconvenience but nothing major. I can think of much worse things to forget!
Our campsite was across from the largest island in the reservoir and had a beautiful view. The only downside was a steep hill to get from the water to the campsite itself, although of course we wouldn’t have had the view without the climb! There was enough room on dry land at lake level to drag the boat up and secure it, with room left to sit and cook dinner and watch the sunset. There were plenty of bugs that seemed to be interested in landing on us, but the nice strong wind kept them from reaching their goals. Dinner was pesto pasta, a meal I had dehydrated, vacuum-sealed, and frozen last year for just such an occasion.
Mysteriously, our tent stakes were not in their usual location in the tent bag. Possibly we took them out for cleaning last year and didn’t replace them. Fortunately, we were able to improvise with some sticks. So, tent stakes and a pot… so far not the worst things to forget. We were tired from a long few days and ready to sleep early, but there was a loud rustling near our tent. Really very close to the tent. It sounded like a massive animal, possibly an elephant.
Karisma stuck her head out but couldn’t see anything nearby. I put my contacts back in and heroically prepared to sacrifice myself to whatever was out there, but even after scouting all around I couldn’t find any animals, not even a racoon or a chipmunk. The one visitor we did experience up close was a massive dragonfly that sounded more like a hummingbird or perhaps an electric toothbrush and was very interested in getting into our tent. Thankfully I had earplugs 😂 We did figure out the surprising source of the noise the next morning: robins! They were scratching around on the ground near our tent and were making a lot more noise than you’d expect.
After breakfast and getting into our wetsuits, we headed out to explore more of the reservoir. I had been a little worried that we might be a little warm in our water-temperature-appropriate wetsuits, although I’m too safety conscious to skip them, but we were very comfortable and even needed to put on our splash jackets at times.
We wanted to paddle to the dam at the opposite end from where we launched, and started out following the shoreline somewhat closely, to better see interesting things on land. There was a light pushing wind at the beginning, and it was a relaxing paddle. We passed some boats, mostly pontoons, and some other campsites. The only other kayak we saw was an inflatable with an inflatable raft at one of the sites. Those are not fun boats to paddle in the wind!
With the direction of the wind, there were big clouds of pollen collected against the shoreline, and Karisma started scratching reflexively after seeing them. Since we noticed it, we decided to paddle up a tributary river a ways; I don’t think we would have even seen the river mouth if we hadn’t been so close to the shore. I’m sure we could have kept going for miles up the river, but we were starting to get hungry and decided to head straight to the dam for our lunch stop.
The wind had picked up significantly; I had seen this in the forecast before we launched but wasn’t concerned. It was a tremendous workout to get back to the campsite! Karisma paddled a fair amount, especially when we were in the windiest areas, but we aren’t yet that well-coordinated and I like the exercise, so I didn’t mind when she took breaks.
By the time we neared the campsite, there were one-foot waves building, which was pretty impressive for the depth of the reservoir. We decided that we’d had enough exploring for the day and brought the boat back in, securing it and the rest of our gear against the wind. Fortunately, our improvised tent stakes had held up perfectly. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and playing cards before making dinner with our single-serving-pot system: my favorite, dehydrated tikka masala and peach crumble for dessert.
On our last day, I woke up naturally around 6 AM when it started getting light out. I was surprised at how cold it was. I couldn’t wake Karisma up this early and still have a happy campsite, so I went to make coffee, regretting not bringing a book. I had gathered up everything I needed to do this and started down the hill towards the boats to find that there was a gigantic snapping turtle about halfway up the slope! Evidently, they do like to find sandy spots for egg laying this time of year; I wonder if that’s what she was doing. Hopefully she decided that by a campsite wasn’t the best area.
As we packed up, the wind started picking up. Another windy day! We were freshly rested so decided to take a detour, paddling around the island over to the Lumberman’s Monument. We spotted another petrified log and a large bunch of snail shells, plus a cove with stumps that that were sprouting new trees; they looked like miniature islands. It was a pretty paddle back with only a moderate headwind, a relaxing final day that we topped off with an ice cream stop on the way home.
All in all, it was a fun and relaxing camping trip. We covered about eighteen miles, but going long distances wasn’t the goal of this trip. A sea kayak is definitely the way to go for any kind of camping trip, and is the safest choice for any open water paddling. More photos are below, most with captions. If you’re interested in going on a camping trip with me, there are several spots available on my upcoming backpacking trips here. Or, get in touch if you’d like to learn more about sea kayaking.