Seduced by the U.P.’s Sylvania

Some of Johnston’s visitors saw what he saw in Sylvania, and together they purchased the remainder of the township, dubbing it The Sylvania Club. Eventually a number of buildings went up, and over the years visitors (such as Bing Crosby, Lawrence Welk and President Eisenhower) and club members came and went. In the 1960’s the club was for sale, and at the request of the Michigan congressional delegation, the National Forest Service purchased the land for $5.7 million.

Blue sky. Red canoe. Blue water. Black and white dog. He stretches his neck over the ash gunwales, sniffing the water and sampling with a ridiculously long pink tongue.

This is Florence Lake, a diminutive blue dot on the map south of Loon Lake, which is south of Clark and Crooked Lakes, the area’s two main entrance points. The banks of Florence Lake are low and boggy, lined with cedar and spruce. The scenery is close in, and the silence is staggering, broken only by the slurp of the lake at the canoe’s bow and the sucking sound of the mini whirlpools that trail our paddles.

Florence Lake is our first leg in a daylong paddle loop that will take us across five portages to visit four of Sylvania’s most remote lakes before ending up back at Loon Lake, where we’ve base-camped for a long weekend.

The route was recommended by the young, seemingly bored Forest Service worker at the permit desk, who perked up when we asked him his favorite spots to paddle. He was a backcountry genie coming out of a Nalgene bottle to grant us our wilderness wish. Pausing occasionally to glance at the pack of Webelo Scouts that recently burst through the door, he quickly told us about an eagle nest at the park’s southernmost lake, as well as loons with chicks on some other lakes along the route.

It takes us longer to set the boat in the water and load it than it does to cross Florence Lake, and now with the canoe and packs shouldered once again we step into the dark mouth of the portage trail on the opposite bank. Each portage is a tunnel deeper into Sylvania, which, though it is a wilderness area, can be busy at its entrance points (there’s a 48-unit car campground just off Clark Lake).

We are here for the paddling, but it is the portages that define canoeing in Sylvania, the ability to hop from lake to lake, each time shedding a layer of the outside world. Each tug of the tumpline or bite of yoke is a minor purifying mortification of the flesh that’s rewarded at portage’s end by the next watery blue heaven.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is. But I’ve decided there are only two kinds of work in this world – that which involves canoes, and the other kind. I prefer bosses that float.

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