By Howard Meyerson
CHAMPION — This is moose country — wet and wild. There are deer, loons and mink, even bald eagles flying. And the night air here is punctuated by hooting owls.
At 6,983 acres, Craig Lake State Park in Baraga County is said to be one of Michigan’s most remote state parks. That’s because it is located in the west-central Upper Peninsula, three to four dirt-road miles off the highway, and another 1,000 feet on foot to water’s edge. That’s a long walk carrying a canoe and pack.
Craig Lake’s rocky shoreline, though, proves just the opener. There are six lakes in the park and miles of water to explore. Trails lead into the bush and a long segment of the North Country Trail cuts through the park. This is home to a variety of wildlife species; even coyote and wolf have left signs on the trail.
On this day, our second of four, we would see only beaver, a fat one contentedly munching on reeds and signs of many others; their lodges and dams are hard to miss.
We left our rocky, elevated campsite after breakfast and paddled up into the northeast corner of Craig Lake to the mouth of the West Branch of the Peshekee River. Once there, we portaged a log jam and several downed trees.
By the time we stopped for lunch on sandstone outcropping two hours later, topped with signs of raccoon feeding there, we’d pushed and pulled the canoes over nearly a dozen beaver dams, exploring three miles of watery backcountry.
“It’s beaver dam after beaver dam after beaver dam,” said Fritz Hartley, of Grand Rapids,
chuckling at lunch. Hartley’s son, David, had joined us, opting for a respite before going back to law school.
“I have a feeling there is another one,” said Fritz Seegers, of Kalamazoo. And Seegers was right.
While the Peshekee River is known to be a kayak and rafting attraction, this part, the lower west branch, is canoe country. It is a narrow, winding river that requires climbing over the bow and standing on the dam or obstruction and hauling the canoe over and re-entering from the stern. Hard, dry land often is tough to find. Getting in and out of a kayak is much tougher.
“It’s a pretty remote place, and it offers a different kind of camping experience,” said Doug Barry, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources supervisor for Craig Lake and nearby Van Riper state parks. “It’s a good primer for a longer boundary waters-type trip, a good place to try out your gear and get a taste.”
Craig Lake also offers good angling for those who like to fish. Walleye, crappie, musky and northern pike are the main attractions. Bass fishing is best at Crooked Lake, a 3,000-foot portage away. Musky and northern fishing is catch and release, but walleye 13 inches and longer can be kept.
Craig Lake was acquired by the state of Michigan in the 1960s. It was owned by Frederick Miller, the founder of Millers Brewing. Miller owned about 1,000 acres. He built a fishing lodge there and a caretaker’s cabin. Those structures remain and can be rented by the night. The DNR also recently completed construction of the second of two yurts that can be rented.
Miller managed Craig Lake for trophy musky and pike. When the state took it over, it continued with his approach.
“He had his fish camp there, and those guys would fly in on a float plane and fish,” Barry said. “He had those rules, and (the) DNR fish division honored that. I’ve heard stories of people paddling in with walleye on a stringer, and musky comes along and gets their walleye.”
Despite its remote character, Craig Lake draws a crowd each year, numbering close to 20,000, including those who come in winter and snowshoe or ski in to one of the yurts. Most of the traffic comes in summer, and the visitors hail mostly from Green Bay, Milwaukee and Grand Rapids, Barry said.
“Most just come for the day; they come from Van Riper State Park and go for a hike in a wilderness area. It takes three to four hours to hike around Craig Lake.”
Far fewer actually bring a canoe and camp. Approximately 1,600 a year come to do that, Barry said.
That difference suited us well. Finding an open campsite proved no problem. Campers must use designated sites. Camping on islands is not allowed.
“I thought the place would be much more crowded. That’s a big plus for me,” Seegers said.
And back at camp at night, as we sat by the fire listening to loons, or moved down to water’s edge to watch the starry sky, that remoteness and a lack of campers was a big plus.