Seduced by the U.P.’s Sylvania

Sylvania is many things to many people. To my wife and me, after pushing through portage after portage, it is a truly wild landscape in perfect harmony. To others it is a family friendly camping area that requires a little more effort, but is worth it. For this group from southern Ohio, it’s a place where really big fish are rumored to live.

The trail between Clark Lake and Crooked Lake takes you through the site where the Sylvania Club lodges once stood. All that’s left today are grassy meadows after the Forest Service removed the buildings for liability and upkeep reasons. Following the trail one can imagine the awe Johnston may have felt upon seeing this forest for the first time.

The trees here are so big it hurts our brains to think about their age, and what was happening in the world when they sprouted. Just pass by, reach out and touch their bark to be reminded of your small place in the world. Trees like this make me want to carry politicians and rush hour drivers on my back to this place, and say, "Look, we are small and short-lived, so be quiet … and more kind."

Occasionally there’s an opening in the forest where one of the giant maples or yellow birch have fallen and young shoots leap up to replace their elders. It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize lithe wood nymphs populating these forests, flitting between oversized trunks, watching from a hollow stump or shallow pool.

At the edge of Crooked Lake the world changes. The crystal, sterile water of the other Sylvania lakes has been replaced by the familiar, dark tannin-stained Upper Peninsula variety. A bed of wild rice grows right up to the shore and spreads to the other side of the lake. Just a narrow channel leads through it from the trail to open water.

A quick side trip from Crooked Lake up to Mountain Lake presents an opportunity to see seldom-visited, extraordinary little ponds. About halfway up the lake, on the west side, a narrow channel can be paddled and poled to enter a small acidic pond ringed with curious bog plants. Carnivorous pitcher plants grow among wild cranberries on spongy floating mats. Another shallow, mucky channel connects to another pond with similar inhabitants, and then a short hop over a mound of high ground brings you back into the mainstream at Mountain Lake.

After an exploration of Crooked Lake and its neighbor Mountain Lake, it’s time to hit the road back home. But the map shows this multi-lobed lake snaking and twisting into narrow channels and backwaters that beg to be explored. Red dotted portage routes lead north to other smaller, remote lakes. The bad news is we have to leave, but the good news is we know where our next trip will be.

 Sylvania Paddling Resources

Aaron Peterson is a writer and photographer living in Chatham, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. aaronpeterson.net.

Note: This article was first published in August 2007, and was updated for the web February 2008.

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