Indian Fields Park near Caro gets its name for a reason. Prior to there being present day Caro, Indian Fields had permanent Native American residents, who in the fall met with other tribes and had an annual powwow just prior to a big hunt to get meat for the winter. This is all described in the book “The Hunting Expeditions of Oliver Hazard Perry”. Perry had ventured from his home in Ohio in the fall of 1852 to hunt elk and deer in the Thumb’s wilderness along the Cass River (during which he killed a huge 8 x 8 bull elk). In his book, Perry describes a couple of Indian tribes visiting Indian Fields as being “Sebewane” and “Quanicussee”.
Due to the hunting powwow getting a bit boisterous Perry and his hunting companion would buy a canoe from the Indians and travelled upstream and made a hunting camp at the Forks of the Cass near present day Cass City. Perry describes venturing up the rapids on the Cass’s Upper Reaches quite vividly, and where the canoe had to be poled and pulled to traverse them upstream. Having done this myself a time or two, I can easily identify with Perry’s writings.
After a couple weeks of hunting near the Forks, where elk, deer, bears and wolves were seen, some fall rains brought the Cass River’s water level up enough, that Perry and his hunting companion had clear sailing downstream over the rapids to reach Indian Fields with their heavily loaded canoe. Perry describes the site at Indian Fields as being mostly evergreen trees, entailing a predominance of enormous hemlocks. After a short stay, they would begin their journey downstream to reach Saginaw, where they would depart by ship and return to Ohio.
Indian Fields would be the launch site for continuing my journey of canoeing the Cass River from Cass City to Saginaw to commemorate the river recently becoming an official water trail, thanks to the efforts of the Cass River Greenway, a group of dedicated folks I strongly support. I’m also duplicating Oliver Hazard Perry’s 1852 journey down the Cass from “The Forks” to Saginaw to point out the fact that the Cass River has always been an important water trail for eons. Native Americans relied upon it, as did pioneers, hunters and lumbermen. The Cass River has clearly played a very important key role in the history and development of the Thumb Area.
Having never launched a canoe from Indian Fields, I decided to scout it out a couple days ahead of time. Over the years I’ve had a lot of fun in the hills and streams of Indian Fields Park, thanks to family reunions, and it is easy to see why it was a preferred site for Native Americans. The canoe launch entails a steep staircase, and I had my eye on the shallow ravine right next to it for an easier access for a number of canoes and kayaks, which would require only about a 10 yard haul from the access road. However, the high winds which swept through the Thumb the day before we were going to launch would change the entire picture.
The following morning we were greeted with fallen trees across the road, and the simple 10 yard haul of canoes and kayaks turned into a 200 yard obstacle course. Most of the folks who had joined me on the earlier trip down the Upper Reaches of the Cass were back again to join me on this start down the Lower Reaches. I had discovered at the very beginning that I was on this river adventure with really wonderful folks who never hesitated in giving assistance when needed, and without having to be asked. They were all naturally into teamwork and knew what to do. Needless to say, canoes and kayaks reached the river in no time at all, and I’d share a river adventure with all of these folks anywhere and anytime.
A large tree had fallen into and filled the ravine, so it was just the steep staircase waiting for us. 14 year old Kyle Fall of Millington donned chest-waders, and was in the river steadying canoes and kayaks while folks climbed aboard, of which there were a dozen in our group, and we were all anticipating the journey downstream to Vassar. This would entail 3 canoes and 4 kayaks, and it would be my first time venturing down the Cass in a kayak, something I was looking forward to.
I’ve long considered myself as being a dyed in the wool canoe-guy, but during the recent trip down the Upper Reaches of the Cass, I developed a profound respect for kayaks as being superbly maneuverable in rough waters, as well as their ability to literally glide along the surface with little effort. For this leg of the journey I was using a two-person kayak provided by Eric Fielbrandt, owner of Frankenmuth Kayak Adventures (www.kayakfrankenmuth.com or call 989-652-3400). Cameraman John Scollon, who is filming my entire journey down the Cass, was set up in the front of our kayak, and he had a very stabile platform for his tripod and camera. I’m no tiny-tot, and I found this kayak to be plenty roomy and offering a very comfortable seat, and I truly appreciated the ability to slice through the water with a full load aboard.
Fielbrandt had also brought a one-person kayak for Larry Kolb of Cass City, and this unique watercraft really caught my eye. It featured a comfortable seat on top of a very stabile double hull (and even had handy fishing rod holders), and Kolb never quit smiling while really enjoying paddling this kayak during the entire trip.
Having canoed all over the state, I’ve long appreciated the convenient logistics of renting watercraft instead of hauling my own around on top of my vehicle. The services provided by rental businesses such as Frankenmuth Kayak Adventures include drop-off and pick-up which is an important factor to always consider, and I’ll be using their kayaks for the remainder of my journey to Saginaw, as they offer a top quality product and service.
Our trip from Indian Fields to Vassar entailed great water depths, an excellent current under clear blue skies, balmy temperatures and absolutely no bugs, and all in the company of good people who truly enjoyed the river. It doesn’t get any better than that!
My being primarily an Upper Reaches river paddler, it was good to have a seasoned Lower Reaches river paddler along, such as Peggy Fall of Millington who ran point for us in her kayak, to scout ahead and assure the best way to skirt around any fallen trees caused by the windstorm the day before. Perry had mentioned in his book that his 1852 downstream paddle from Indian Fields to Vassar took 5 ½ hours and it remains so today. We did it in 6 hours, which included a relaxing lunch break on the riverbank. We did have to skirt around a fallen tree here and there, especially under bridges, but otherwise it was clear sailing all the way without any hitches whatsoever.
It was on this Lower Reaches stretch that I was introduced to the northern map turtle (its name derived from the markings on its neck and legs which resemble contour lines on a map) which I haven’t seen on the Upper Reaches, but is unique to this stretch during which we observed over three dozen, along with several soft shell turtles. We also saw bald eagles, ospreys, waterfowl and a wide variety of songbirds which included a brilliantly colored male scarlet tanager, not to mention deer and even beavers which were seen.
Naturalists Miles Willard of Mayville and Dan Duso of Bay City who accompanied us on this trip as well as on the Upper Reaches, both commented that it was amazing to watch an obvious change and difference in the fauna and flora along the Cass River as you venture down it, with certain species being unique to either the Upper or Lower Reaches. Willard and Duso also stated that the Cass River offered more solitude, less congestion and was cleaner (no doubt due to the efforts of the Cass River Greenway) than most notable rivers further north. I’ll toast to that, folks!
Landing at Vassar required a final patch of fast water where a dam once stood, directly followed by making a hard left turn to reach the canoe/kayak launch, which we all did with no problem, and all too soon this particular paddle was done. As was the norm, everyone was helping everyone in getting their canoe and kayaks and gear to the parking lot close by.
I’m truly looking forward to the next leg of the journey down the historic Cass River which will entail Vassar to at least Frankenmuth. I’ve really been enjoying the adventures of canoeing down this fantastic river and getting to know some mighty fine folks during the process. You never know, it could become an annual event!