Thursday, September 24, 2015

Sylvania Wilderness, Watersmeet, MI, September 5-7, 2015

The Sylvania Wilderness is a small but beautiful Federally designated wilderness in the Ottawa National Forest with 18,000 acres of pristine lakes, old growth forests and spacious campsites. The campsites are available only by reservation either in advance or from the ranger station, so unlike the Boundary Waters, you can guarantee yourself a campsite even on holiday weekends. Having a reserved site on a lake without motor boats makes Sylvania an ideal holiday weekend getaway, so we reserved a site for Labor Day weekend. The sites were most interested in taking were either reserved or not reservable in advance, so I booked Perch 1 on Whitefish Lake.

Comforting notice at the trailhead
Wide, well-maintained portage to Whitefish Lake
As usual, we packed the night before and got an early start on Saturday morning. It's about a four hour drive without stops, so it usually takes us about 5 hours. We arrived around 11 am at Sylvania Outfitters where we reserved a Wenonah Boundary Waters ultralight kevlar canoe. Previously, we brought our heavier royalex canoe, but the portage into Whitefish is about 240 rods or 0.76 miles, and we were hoping to explore some other lakes on a day trip. With the canoe topped on the van, we headed to the ranger station to pick up our permit. After being reassured the trail from the parking lot to Whitefish Lake was well maintained, so we headed to the parking lot for a lunch of sandwiches and potato chips. 

The 240 rod portage was the longest on we ever did, but it wasn't bad at all. However, I'm not sure if I would have done it without a break if I was carrying our royalex canoe. It was a quick paddle to our campsite from the portage. It was a little windy and choppy but nothing too challenging. Sites at Sylvania are harder to see
from the water than in the Boundary Waters, but they are marked by inconspicuous wooden markers. So we paddled along the shoreline looking for campsite Perch 1 and found it atop of a hill. There's not much of a landing, and it's quite the climb up the hill to the site. Based on the landing, I was a bit apprehensive about what the site would look like, but I was pleasantly surprised once we made it to the top. The site, as many at Sylvania, was spacious with little undergrowth. Many of the sites, however, don't have very many flat spots, but Perch 1 has enough for 3 or 4 tents with a couple of those being near perfect. 

I totally recommend this site despite the steep hill. The crown jewel of the site is easy access to a small beach just west of the site. We ended up departing from the beach and will use it as a landing if we ever return to the site. At least at the water levels we encountered, there was about three feet of natural sand beach with slow shallow entrance into the clear water lake. 

Perch 1 campsite
Beach next to Perch 1 campsite
The sunny day, pristine water and sandy beach was a draw for more than just us as we were accompanied by 11 rowdy young men drinking beer (illegally from cans and bottles) and whooping it up. They spent several hours at the beach behaving completely contrary to the wilderness ethos. After awhile, I decided to check to see if we had cell service to call the ranger. To my surprise, we had full 4G internet on the AT&T network, although I'm a bit reluctant to post that information here. The ranger station was closed by then, so we just suffered through it. I went down and watched them for awhile, but I didn't feel comfortable saying anything since I had no idea how these drunken partiers would react. 
We had planned to spend Sunday exploring various lakes, and I was especially hoping to make it to Loon Lake as it's one of the only remaining lakes with established portages that I haven't visited in Sylvania. However, I awoke to an overcast, windy morning and didn't have the ambition to make an early start. I figured since we had internet, I would get a detailed forecast and found severe thunderstorms with damaging winds and hail predicted. I would guess that we had wind gusts well above 30 miles per hour, which produced small whitecaps on the lake. The waves weren't enough to be scary but the wind wasn't something I wanted to fight with the prospects of heavy storms. I wondered if we should leave but figured at the least we should not risk being stuck out on a day trip with minimal shelter and supplies if such a storm should hit. Therefore, we ended up making a lazy day out of it. 

Fortunately, the heavy storms missed us, but radar showed them both to the north and south of us. I spent some time chilling and napping in the hammock. Eventually the weather improved on Sunday, and the sun came out, giving us a chance to enjoy the beach. We really enjoyed our time there playing in the water, and I definitely hope to stay at this site again. Amber decided she wanted to take a ladies only paddle, so her and Lorraine explored the North end of Whitefish Lake. We capped the
evening off with a nice fire, which was interrupted by rain. We decided to call it a night instead of hanging out under the tarp in the rain. 

We got a slow start out on Monday morning after a hashbrown and bacon breakfast. For some reason, the portage seemed longer on the way out. We stopped at the ranger station to ask a few questions about the trails and report the bad behavior we encountered, then we dropped off the rental canoe at Sylvania
Wilderness. I finally got the opportunity to have a conversation with Bob, the owner, and he is a good guy and quite the character. If you're in the area, I recommend stopping by for canoe or bike rentals, fishing licenses, etc. Finally around 1 or 2 o'clock we made it to our ritual lunch spot at Brew's Pub in Land O' Lakes where they have excellent burgers and fries. It's totally a Northwoods bar and grill where everyone knows everyone (except us, of course). Last time our daughter wanted dessert, so they served us a slice of someone's birthday cake. Anyway, it's something we all seem to look forward to on our paddle and portage out of the wilderness.

Whitefish Lake from the portage to the trailhead

Jawbone at the campsite

Looking up from the Perch 1 landing

Typical forest in Sylvania

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