Drummond Island, Pt. 1: “...One of the Last Places”

August, 2012. 

There are very few corners and crevices of this fine Michiganian empire that I have not yet trod upon, and the easternmost tip of the Upper Peninsula was one of them. The Yoopee's easternmost point is actually an island, called Drummond Island, the second biggest American island in the Great Lakes after Isle Royale. The peninsula of land leading out to the island is a region of the Yoopee known as Les Chenaux, which is French for “The Channels,” which refers to the countless tiny islets strung out into Lake Huron from its fine fingers of rocky land.

Drummond Island (MAP) was one of the spoils of the War of 1812, won during border renegotiations with British Canada after the Treaty of Ghent (in which the throne of England finally was forced to acknowledge America as a new independent nation and leave us the hell alone once and for all). Before that it had been under the flag of New France since the 1600s, and the Ojibwe called the island "Pontaganipy" (probably a variation on the word Potagannissing) for centuries before that. My main interest with the island of course at the moment was the fact that there were still trace remnants of Fort Drummond there, which was built by the British (who lusted to possess the Michigan Territory on a permanent basis because of its many bounties, and fought us and France for it for almost 200 years). It was the last British fort to be constructed in the United States. With the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, recent interest in that period has been high, and the Great Lakes region played a much bigger role in that war than most Americans realize. In many ways, it was a war for control of “the Northwest,” which is what this area was called back then. When President Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war on the British Empire, one of the points he outlined as justification was obtaining secure possession of the Great Lakes, and because the British had aroused the native tribes against American settlers in that area, causing much hardship. Some scholars argue that the issue of British influence on the Great Lakes was the real reason behind the declaration of war in 1812.

Keep in mind the Louis & Clark Expedition occurred in this same time period, because the white man was still trying to find the mythical waterway to India across North America, which would allegedly open absolutely unheard-of improvement in trade with the east. It was believed by many that the Great Lakes might be the gateway to that enchanted passage, if only it could be found. The incredibly lucrative fur trade also hung in the balance, which also was the basis of all the Native American alliances (and the courting of their favor that the French, British, and Americans all attempted at various points), to say nothing of the rumors of undreamt-of mineral riches that were being whispered.

At any rate an article was published recently in Michigan History Magazine written by someone who said they used to hang out among the ruins of old Fort Drummond as children; that it was essentially their backyard. What I didn't initially realize was that these ruins were on wholly private property, and are literally still in that writer's backyard. Nonetheless, I was convinced that now was the time to make my trip to Drummond Island, seeing as it was already late August and I had not yet been to the Yoopee even once this year.

Despite Drummond's size it is home to less than 1,000 people, mostly retirees and a few employees of the limestone quarry. In summer, the population swells to 5,000 with the influx of cottagers. The way to get on the island is by car ferry from the tiny Yoopee town of DeTour Village, across the narrow DeTour Passage, which is part of the St. Mary's River, flowing from Lake Superior to Lake Huron. The extremely wide St. Mary's waterway is absolutely full of endless islands ranging in size from the huge Drummond and St. Joseph Islands, to tiny islets barely big enough to put a house on. All are wilderness or nearly so; the nearest urban center is Sault Ste. Marie (better known as “the Soo”) straddling the Canadian border over half an hour to the northwest, with a population of maybe 30,000 on both sides of the border. Father Jaques Marquette and Claude Dablon founded this city in 1668, making it the first white settlement in the American Midwest. Archaeological records indicate humans have been here for 11,000 years however. The word “Soo,” “Sault,” or “Salteaux” refers to the “People of the Rapids,” who have fished these waters since the glaciers melted. However, when we Michiganders say “The Soo,” we are often referring to the whole area of the straits, not just the city proper.

As I was scanning the area on Google Earth in preparation for my weekend trip, I noticed something along the coast just up from DeTour Village. One of the huge 800-foot lakers (ore freighters) was docked there, and it looked like it was not operational, perhaps laid up as surplus. Next to it was another smaller, much more ragged-looking ship that appeared to be in the process of being scrapped...clearly worth a look. I figured that chances were extremely good that the freighter was no longer sitting there, and had either been retrofitted and put back in commission, or melted into something Chinese by now, but I had to check it out.

I set out late on Friday morning, reaching the Mackinac Bridge at a decent hour and decided that proceeding with all haste to the Soo was best. I had planned to visit the ruins of Fort St. Joseph on the Canadian-held St. Joseph Island (MAP), then hopefully get back somewhere between the Soo and DeTour before dark, to sleep for the night in the back of my truck. If I had time, I also wanted to see if I could squeeze in a quick trip to Neebish Island on the way down to Drummond.

Fort St. Joseph was started in 1796 after the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution and re-drew the border, awarding the coveted jewel of Mackinac Island to the U.S. The King of England was informed that St. Joseph Island should be claimed immediately so as to be an answer to the American presence at Fort Mackinac, which had stood unchallenged since 1780.

Basically what happened in the Great Lakes theater when the War of 1812 started was that the British descended on Fort Detroit and Fort Mackinac before the American forces were even aware that a war had been declared in Washington. Both forts—which together were the strategic keys to the Great Lakes—were surrendered without a fight because they were severely undermanned and no preparations had been made whatsoever for battle. Fort St. Joseph and Fort Malden (near Boblo Island) were the two corresponding British posts at that time, and that is where His Majesty's forces issued from when they proceeded to reach out and deftly grab the western empire by the balls. Later in the war, Fort St. Joseph was obliterated by the U.S. Navy.

Without going into boring detail, my trip to Canada was a fail, and on the drive back to the Soo the traffic to get back into America was so bad that I sat on the bridge with my motor off for a good 30 minutes. At least there was a beautiful view as the full moon rose and the sun set over the Soo:

You have to look close.

It was about 10pm so I needed a camping place. I decided to make my way down toward Neebish Island's ferry dock and see if I could find a secluded spot to pull over and roll out in the bed of my truck for the night. I ended up doing this in the actual staging area for the ferry company. I shut my truck off and that familiar crisp cedar-scented silence of the Yoopee night closed over me as the moon rose higher in the cloudless sky. A few pulls off the ol' campin' whiskey and I was off to lala-land. I didn't have the cap on my truck, but it was nice enough this weekend to sleep without it. My plan was to wake up in time for the first ferry of the day.

I heard a loud long horn blast, and looked up over the side of my truck bed to see that the morning mist was rising off the water like steam on a cup of coffee in the golden rays of morning. I quickly rolled up my bag and drove the rest of the way down the road to the ferry dock.

I was the third person in line. I could hear the diesel churning across the narrow channel as the small boat motored over to this side. I think it held maybe 10 cars, max. I paid the $12 (which includes my return trip) to the Chippewa County transportation authority, and we were off.

The toll taker guy, your typical friendly flannel-clad Yooper, immediately pegged me as someone who had never been on his ferry before. He asked what brought me here to his little island, and I told him that basically it was just one of the few places left in the state that I hadn't been to before. This answer seemed to thrill him, and he wished me a good trip.

I knew there wasn't much to see on Neebish Island—mostly trees—but nonetheless it was one of the increasingly few remaining places in Michigan I hadn't been to yet, so therefore I kind of had to go anyway (MAP). Plus, you never know what you might find. It is a smaller island, a mere 21 square miles, and its name is Ojibwe for “leaf.” It actually also includes two smaller islands (Sand Island and Rains Island) which have become conjoined to it via land bridges formed when the stagnant marshy waters between them eventually turn to more solid ground. The total population is about 77.

What I was about to find out is that despite the almost complete lack of development here, damn little of Neebish Island is public. Every road seems to lead right up to someone's house, and I could not find a way to a good public waterfront of any kind. The main thing I wanted to do was just get to a spot where I could overlook Sailors' Encampment, which is a tiny community on the shore of St. Joseph Island immediately across the narrow shipping channel from Neebish—or I should say, Rains Island. I get the impression that this is a place where ships shelter often, for whatever reason. There seem to be a lot of photos of them doing so online, and on Google Earth I can see some chilling there.

Neebish is basically a traffic median between the upbound and downbound shipping lanes, and traffic is always heavy here because it is the only way between Lakes Huron and Superior. When I finally found a road that seemed to lead to Rains Island and the shore, I also noticed this marker:

It stated that I was now at the location of the John McDougall Johnston Homesite, where in 1864 he and his wife and six children homesteaded Rains Island. John Johnston was the interpreter for the Indian agent, state geologist, and all-around famous Michigander, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Johnston was also descended from a famous fur trader of the Soo area. Unfortunately no structures remain here, but their family grave plot was just up the hill a ways:

In 1892 one of the children, Anna Marie, inherited the land and had birch-bark cabins erected here to house visitors, and called the place “O-non-e-gwud” which is Ojibwe for “Happy Place.”

Just down the way I could see across to Sailors' Encampment, though I was in someone's backyard again, so I didn't really snoop around too much, but it seemed there were no large flotillas of ships hanging around so I just took this photo and departed:

Judging by the neutralized current there or whatever you call it, a ship might have just passed through:

What I did not know until just now as I'm doing some more research while writing is that (according to Dave M. Brown's 1984 Michigan County Atlas) Neebish Island itself was originally named Sailor's Encampment Island, after a British vessel became lodged in ice here in 1817 and was forced to winter on the island.

I had pretty much traveled every bit of this island that I could by car, so I headed back to the ferry. Right as I was getting there waiting on the hood of my truck, I saw that the freighter American Courage was passing though the incredibly tight channel on its way down to Lake Huron.

I was amazed to see it actually, being that the river doesn't look wide enough, but it turns out the Coast Guard made a rock cut by blasting away the solid stone bottom that used to form a boiling rapids here long ago, so that deep-draft ships could pass through. Nonetheless this is about as tight a squeeze as you're going to get, and as a captain of one of these behemoths, you have no room for error.

One of the things I did while waiting for the ferry was read the community bulletin board posted in the shelter next to the ferry hut. They sure had a lot of euchre on the calendar of events, ha.  In fact that's pretty much all that was on there! But it seemed I happened to show up on the weekend of their one big shindig of the year, Labor Day, including a chicken BBQ, and—of course—a euchre tournament. Unfortunately I couldn't stick around for this excitement, as I had other horizons to go explore. A guy on a 4-wheeler with a milk crate strapped to the front showed up to open the gate and start the ferry, and we were off.

About halfway from Neebish Island to Drummond Island is another place that I have been meaning to check out since about 2003. That is “Gogomain Forest,” or “Gogomain Swamp,” as it is marked on maps, one of the most remote and inaccessible places in mainland Michigan. From aerial view it appears as a dark, almost black smudge on the eastern end of the Yoopee. I first learned of it by reading one of those cheesy tabloidal “Strange But True” type books you see in the Paranormal / New Age section of the bookstore claiming it was "Michigan's Kingdom of Darkness," and that cougars dwelled there. Despite the hokey tales I naturally was fascinated by such an impenetrable wilderness—just a big, vast dark blot of trees without one single gap between them for miles and miles. No roads. No structures. The fact that it is a swamp probably has deterred man from ever really tampering with it. I decided that if I ever got around to going to Drummond Island that that would also be a perfect time to check out Gogomain as well, being that they're in the same end of the Yoopee.

As I approached St. Mary's Shores, I saw the American Courage again (as I had been glimpsing it through the trees for much of my southeasterly journey from Neebish), now passing Twin Island:

I found Raber to be quite the scenic harbor, with great views of Lime Island (upon which are the ruins of the quarry and lime kilns that built Fort St. Joseph, that I hope to check out someday). Approaching the Gogomain area, I knew that it might be trickier to “get in” than one might be led to believe. Again, there are no real roads that go in, much of the land along the surrounding roads is private, and there wasn't really anywhere convenient to pull off or park. The real cedar forest didn't look like it began until you waded in about a half mile to a mile...so one would have to hike quite a ways before being able to say they were even in the “true” Gogomain.

Huh, I didn't realize it was also a village by the same name...

The one trail (or, I assume that's what it is by the low-res imagery of Google & Bing) that goes deep into Gogomain is not named on any maps I have, and was gated off when I got there in person. After circling the entire swamp, pulling over a few times and exasperatedly checking and rechecking my maps, I thought I had found a decentish-looking public road that led basically in to within a half mile of the edge of the cedar bog (I judged this by the sharp difference in coloration of the treetops on Google Earth). Once again it was a confusion with road names, or lack thereof that was the source of my navigational ills. Finally believing I was on the right track, I was humping along old forest roads in a northerly direction toward the bottom edge of the Gogomain. From this route it looked like I could get within a quarter mile of the edge before the dirt road veered away to the west. As you'd expect, I passed through a lot of pine plantation land.

The long military rows of red pine are a familiar and eye-catching sight of northern Michigan.

Along the way I stopped to ogle this late 1930s car from a distance:

There also seemed to be a fair amount of failed farm ruins.

What a desolate place to have a farm.

Well, I started to do the circling thing again, because the road I was on didn't go as straight as I was expecting, based on my map. So, I got kind of lost for awhile, and didn't see any scary-looking “woods of doom” looming anywhere. Finally feeling I had wasted enough time on this, I gave up in frustration realizing that I would need to devote a lot more time to this than just two hours. This one was pretty well protected from the trifling explorer; no way would I be getting anything from this bad boy without devoting my full attention. At the moment, I had Drummond Island to attend to, and that is the direction I now turned in. I stopped a moment on a tiny bridge crossing the Gogomain River:

To tackle this place, I think I will need a canoe; driving in seems to be out of the question, unless I plan on walking several miles before I even see the edge of the cedars. But even a canoe may be thwarted...in all likelihood this river was just a mess of dead logs laying across it like Pick-Up Stix.

I continued down the road towards DeTour Village, where the Drummond Island ferry lands. I decided that I had enough time to drive past the place where I saw the potentially abandoned freighter John Sherwin docked, at the northwest edge of town. It seemed less likely that I could pull it off while being in the line of fire of several potential curtain-twitchers, but I had to at least check it out. I stepped over the decaying remnants of what looked to be old fishing nets, the aromatic grove I was traversing was lit all about me by laser-straight rays of late morning sun creating pools of radiance shimmering amongst the darkness of the cedars, and the clear lusty scent of the lake was filling my sinuses. I stepped out from the bowers of the woodland and looked to my left. Instantly I had butterflies.

It's that moment that every one of us as explorers lives for. That moment when you realize success is suddenly within your grasp. I rubbed my eyes to make sure it wasn't a mirage.

I looked around again to make sure I wasn't in someone's line of sight...this just seemed too easy. I wondered how many other people came this way for the same reason, be they local kids or curious snoopers like me. I stayed within the shadows of the trees as I cautiously began to walk the beach. I wanted to look like I was just out for a casual waterfront stroll, as innocent people so often do. There were plenty of private craft on the water today, many of them fishing. I would more likely be in danger from them at this moment than anyone on land. There was a fishing boat not more than 300 yards from me right now, and I might be on their property for all I knew. I went very slowly, waiting for them to move out of the area before I got close to the ship. Guess where they went?

You can see them to the bottom right of the John Sherwin in the above photo, going in for a closer look themselves. They were motoring very slowly. Once the water was clear of small craft, I sped up my pace to close the distance.

Now fully aware of the reality that I had accomplished getting up close to this ship, I began to wonder how far I was going to take this. Surely there would not very likely be a gangway for me to just waltz aboard. I didn't seriously think that getting on the ship was a realistic possibility, so I hadn't really put any planning into how I might actually effect such a maneuver. The only way I could conjecture that I might get aboard would be by doing some Errol Flynn shit and climbing a mooring line and hopping over the gunwhale like a pirate.

I could see myself doing that, but on the other hand, I could see myself doing it only in a subjective sense, like how I also “could” wash the dishes rotting in my sink, but that it would most likely wait until some other time when I am really gung-ho to do dishes; or like how I “could” go to the moon if, say, I buddy up to the owner of one of these up and coming privately-owned space travel agencies.

Wow, this sucker was big. I could hardly believe I was standing here—an abandoned 800-foot long freighter, practically my oyster. I sure as hell didn't see any gang planks, however. But on the bright side, there didn't seem to be any activity here in this yard either; all was quiet and I didn't see any cars.

I stood here long, considering what I wanted to do. I *really* didn't come here today expecting some full on, balls-to-the-wall ninja climbing shit. I guess I didn't expect to get this far, or that the ship would still be here, and I honestly was feeling rather lazy. The only pic I had seen online of it sitting here was from three years ago. I decided to walk a bit closer now, seeing as there didn't seem to be any danger.

I noticed that the propeller was gone:  

These boats have big, expensive screws on 'em, usually made out of bronze, I think? And they're popular as lawn art for museums and city halls and such. I think there's a couple on display on Belle Isle back home. The absence of this piece of hardware seems to indicate this boat will likely never go anywhere again, but I could be wrong. There was talk on boatnerd.com that she was merely awaiting a new engine. By the way, to give you an idea of scale, the part of this rudder that is sticking above the water is twice as big as my truck.

I kept eying the mooring lines going up to the decks of this ship, in a hypothetical, a priori sense. As in, “If I were to attempt that, something I would want to bear in mind is ____,” and “Supposing I was looking to tackle this at some point, ____ is one of the things I would need to think about,” etc. I then walked up to a couple of the lines to test them and such—if, let's say, I were wanting to try it at some point, just to get a feel for it. I looked up them, gauged the angle of incline, distance, etc. Wow, that shit looks beat as hell. I sure as hell wouldn't want to attempt that craziness unless I came prepared. I then sighed, and thought about Drummond Island.

Michigan County Atlas, Second Edition, David M. Brown, 1984
Michigan Atlas & Gazetteer
Hunt's Guide to Michigan's Upper Peninsula
"Michilimackinac and Prairie du Chien: Northern Anchors of British Authority in the War of 1812," by Barry Gough, The Michigan Historical Review, Vol. 38, No. 1
"An Old Fort was Our Playground," by Jill Lowe Brumwell, Michigan History Magazine, September/October 2012
Weird Michigan, by Linda S. Godfrey

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