Tuesday, December 29, 2009

How Project Lakewell Changed My Life


Back in 1986 when I retired from the State of Michigan my fellow workers gave me an electronic fish finder as my retirement gift, believing that bass fishing was going to be my retirement hobby. My wife gave me a look which said: "You don't really believe you are going to spend a lot of your retirement time away bass fishing, do you?"
 
No, come to think about it, I guess I really didn't. But I did start to convert my Jon Boat into a poor-man's bass boat and spent a lot of time looking the Bass Pro Shops catalog.
 
I had fended off the oil and gas companies, utilities and law firms who wanted to hire me full or part time or use me as a consultant or lobbyist. I was determined to really retire, period.
 
As I mentally inventoried my interests I came up with canoes (I am a long time member of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association); history, particularly Michigan history; genealogy and maps. I have a  large collection of Michigan topographic maps as a result of being on the State Mapping Advisory Board and I was a topographic engineer in the Army during World War II.
 
Enough background and bio: A while after retiring, I'm not sure what year, Elaine and I were down at the riverfront in Lansing during "Riverfest" and there was this campsite set up with a group of people in voyageur costumes. In addition, in the river was this 26 foot fake birchbark Montreal Canoe made of fiberglass but looking quite authentic. It turns out that this was some organization called Project Lakewell (I'm still not sure why it is called that) that was a fur-trading days reenactment group.
 
I was immediately fascinated and since their dues were cheap ($15) I signed up to become a member of Project Lakewell on the spot.
 
The guy who signed me up was this skinny-legged guy in a skimpy voyageur outfit called "Pierre" who apparently steered the canoe. I later learned he was Jim Meyerle. There was another guy, middle aged I would guess, with a big, gray handlebar mustache, dressed in black. He was supposed to be Father Marquette. It was Ken Kuester who promptly gave me a "Bless you my son" greeting. There were some female role-players, also in costume, one of whom I believe was that well-known author of children's books, Janie Lynn Panagopoulis. Enough name dropping.....I could add many more Lakewell people whom I got to know and respect like Dave and Jack and Frenchie.
 
That winter I got an invitation to come to a meeting of Project Lakewell at Ken's house, the subject participation in something to be called Grand River Expedition '90. There I learned the group intended to paddle their big canoe the length of the Grand River under the leadership of the world-famous long-distance canoeist Verlen Kruger and his then-wife, Valerie Fons Kruger.
 
If it hadn't been for that meeting I would probably only have watched Grand River Expedition '90 from the river bank as the canoes floated down and would never have become involved with the Krugers, who ended up as dear friends and neighbors.
 
At that meeting it became clear to me that because of my work with Michigan maps that I might knew more about the Grand River than anyone present. It later became obvious (to me at least) that I was better informed about the Grand than probably anyone else involved with the expedition, particularly with respect to the headwaters.
 
When the regular monthly planning meetings for GRE '90 got started I met Verlen and Valerie and shortly started accumulating assignments. Verlen was the designated Rivermaster and Valerie became the expedition's chairperson and ramrod.
 
I first volunteered to take the lead on headwaters activities. I drove Jim , Ken and I forget who else to Jackson and Hillsdale Counties and showed them the streams and dams and ponds from which the Grand flowed.
 
On that trip I met Art Hunter (?) and his wife, proprietors of the Liberty Mills General Store, who became interested and involved with GRE '90 and led the charge and greased the skids for all that was done at or about the headwaters. They owned the dam (the first on the river) which became to focus of headwaters activities both for GRE '90 and GRE 2000 ten years later. I was the MC for the opening day ceremony in July of 1990 (a whole other story) and in 2000.
 
I also became responsible for the two historical markers sponsored by GRE '90, one an official State of Michigan Historical Marker on the Riverwalk in Lansing, and the other an engraved glacial boulder at the Liberty Mills dam. That boulder came from Bunday Hill, the highest elevation in the Grand River watershed. The words on both markers are mine.
 
I also helped the Krugers by scouting out campsites for the 13 days the expedition would take going down the river. My late canoeing buddy George Voorhis paddled with me for three days on GRE '90.
 
Another life changer resulting from my Project Lakewell membership is the annual Hugh Heward Challenge and the 2009 Ultimate Hugh Heward Challenge. More on that later.
 
In 1990 I read an article in the Lansing State Journal by history writer Birt Darling about a 1790 trip in two birchbark canoes by the British trader Hugh Heward and seven French-Canadian paddlers from Detroit to the Chicago River. They crossed the Lower Peninsula by going up the Huron River and, after portaging across the Lake Erie-Lake Michigan divide, paddled all the way down the Grand River to Lake Michigan. Thus they went down the Grand exactly 200 years before GRE '90 was to go down the same river. I was thereby inspired to determine exactly how the Heward party got from the Huron to the Grand.
 
"Topology" is defied as the topographic study of a place in relation to its history. I consider myself to be a topologist and that topology is my retirement hobby. In the winter and spring of 1990 I studied my topographic maps and made many trips by car reconnoitering Heward's possible routes until I became convinced I knew exactly how and where the Heward party paddled and portaged between the Huron and the Grand.
 
I shared this information with Verlen and he decided to prove me right or wrong his way, by launching his canoe in the Huron and paddling and bushwhacking to see if he could get to the Grand the way I believed Heward did. It took him two days, but he did it and it was my way. Since, many adventurous paddlers have followed Verlen's path, usually stopping in Hell for beer and pizza.
 
According to his journal, on April 28,1790 Heward's party, having encountered "an ill looking band" of renegade Indians the day before, paddled nearly 50 miles down the Grand River in one day before they felt safe to camp. In the aftermath of GRE '90 I issued a challenge by letter to a number of mid-Michigan canoeists, including Verlen, to try to try to match the Heward expedition's sprint by birchbark canoe with their sleek, modern canoes.
 
To make a long story short, my smart-alec challenge has become the Annual Hugh Heward Challenge, a 55 miler from Dimondale to Portland, a money raising function of the Verlen Kruger Memorial Association complete with T-shirts and feeding and speechifying at Thompson Field at Portland where Verlen's life-size bronze statue is to be erected. The first year 5 canoeists completed the challenge. Last year, the 10th I believe, 110 canoeists participated.
 
I have become sort of famous among a select group of canoeists for this affair and the related Charlie Parmelee 2008 Odyssey and the 2009 Ultimate Hugh Heward Detroit-to-Chicago Challenge and it all started with laying $15 on the table to join Project Lakewell that day at Lansing's Riverfest.
 
I have been honored by being presented with the Eaton County Heritage Award for 2001, the Verlen Kruger Award at the Quiet Water Symposium in 2004, and a bronze statuette of Verlen in 2007 for my initiation of the Hugh Heward Challenge.
 
Further, there is a series of self-published narrative/monographs that I have authored whereby I used the topology techniques I perfected in working out Hugh's route.  I have done "The Search for the Route of LaSalle's 1680 Walk Across Michigan", "Locating Michigan's Old Canoe Portages" (2 volumes) and "Across Lower Michigan by Canoe-1790". Other monographs that deserve Project Lakewell inspiration credit are "LaSalle's Elmbark Canoe", "Michigan's Whitewood Dugout Canoes" and "Hiawatha's Canoe". All are in significant Michigan historical libraries and museums.
 
One last thing that I can trace back to that day at Riverfest, my home "The Riverhouse" on the Grand River in Delta Township of Eaton County west of Lansing. I think it's the best place on the river. An acre of woods and meadow about 400 yards upstream of the Kruger Canoe Base with all of the land across the river an Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary. My wife found it while I was giving her a tour of places I visited during GRE '90. When the leaves are off I can see across the river the top of a big cedar tree in Hillside Cemetery, next to which Verlen is buried.

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