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Preface: St Clair Flats Area

By Derek Smith

The following is the first chapter in a camping and cruising journal, detailing the camping and sailing events of a small party of outdoor enthusiasts, while they explore the great St Clair River, its tributaries, islands, and the St Clair Flats, within the St Clair County region.

The diary of events begins on the 6th of July 1879 and is an interesting glimpse into the early days of outdoor life in the late 1870s. The travel log is historically engaging, as it tempts one’s curiosity into a past that was breathed 144 years ago.

I am grateful that the writer found the good sense to publish his journal, and that by Devine intervention, fortunate fate, or handsome circumstance his articles found my eye. 

His writings will be published in a series of chapters over the next few weeks. 

Cruise and Camp, July 6, 1879

“How the Expedition Was Fitted Out- Two Nights with the Mosquitos-Down the River With a South Wind- a Faithful Chronicle of the Cruise.”


In the foreground the edge of an oak grove, with a white tent pitched under the overhanging boughs, a hammock swinging in the shade of rustling leaves, camp chairs half hidden in the shady woods, a boat drawn up on the sandy beach, and beyond a line of weeds,

 the river rolling southward, with a little village shaded by noble trees drowsing away the quiet hour of Sunday on the opposite bank. Birds are twittering in the grove, a channel wind tempers the heat of the sun, and nature is at its loveliest.

So much for the scene. 

The personality of this party is limited to the unromantic number of four individuals, who in this prosaic but voracious chronicle shall be known as the captain, the mate, the boy, and the girl. The present scene is complete when the actors are located according to the facts in the case, which are that the mate sleeps under an abundance of mosquito netting on a canvas bed in the tent, the boy swings in the hammock, the girl paddles, barefooted, in the water, while the captain writes his log in a very easy chair under a tree.

The reason for undertaking this expedition may be summarized in a few words, and they were, a well-grounded belief and the healthfulness of the outdoor life, a need and desire for recreation, and a desire to prove the possibility of finding all the advantages of “cruise and camp” on the great river and its banks, that forms 40 miles or more of the boundary of Saint Clair County. The means used to accomplish these ends, and their success, shall be simply recorded, and may not prove entirely devoid of interest to some portion of the reader of the Times.(Port Huron Daily Times)

First, as to Outfits. 

A boat, 17 feet long overall and four feet beam, weight 150 pounds, two pairs of oars, mast, main boom, sprit main sail, bowsprit and jib, tent, including seven poles, 16 stakes and the guy ropes, weighing 15 pounds, and standing when pitted 6 1/2 feet high in the clear, and seven and a half to 8 feet in the ground, canvas bed, for two persons, with poles and stakes weighing 15 pounds, hammock weighed 6 pounds, camp chest 12 by 12 inches height, and breadth, at 2 1/2 feet long, filled with plates, cups, knives and forks, etc, and provisions for four persons for a week or more, weighing 75 pounds, 2 satchels with extra clothing, 25 pounds, 6 baskets, 15 pounds, 3 shawls ,10 pounds, rubber blanket, bathing dresses, basket with nails, extra rope, strings, etc, lanterns, 3 umbrellas, hatchet, small shovel, fishing tackle, strips of carpeting, two chairs, camp cattle, frying pan, tin pails and basins, cans of fruit and meat, bow and arrows, papers and magazines, extra coats and hats, a basket of strawberries, The articles considered necessary for a cruising and camping expedition that might last 10 days, or might end ingloriously in two days.

The aim was to make the party as independent of outside assistance as though the proposed route extended into the depths of the wilderness, except in the matter of fresh milk, and possibly a few other articles of that sort, no absolute necessities to carry everything on the boat and make the entire trip in it, if possible, without the aid of a tow. The entire weight of the outfit and provisions exclusive of the boat and rudder were found to be about 300 pounds.

Although independence in the matter of outfit was sought for, it was not proposed to submit to serious discomforts for the sake of maintaining the entire independence of hotels and other local necessities of civilization. Just what discomforts of camp would be found unbearable was a matter of some doubt, but mosquitoes were regarded with serious, and as will be seen hereafter, well-grounded suspicion.

Thus provided for, and with everything snugly stowed away, leaving room for two oarsmen and comfortable seats for all, our boat floated out on the Saint Clair River at high noon, with the hot sun above and the fresh south wind in our faces. First halt, for dinner, under a bank, above which stood the residence of a substantial citizen of Port Huron. Off again before 2:00 o’clock, the boy trolling for pickerel, and our boat floating lazily on the river. An hour of suffices, the result being fish enough for supper and breakfast. Then the sail is hoisted, and with the fresh south wind, we tack down the river at good speed until Stag Island is reached. This we will sail around, seeking a camping place, but finding none that does not swarm with mosquitoes or show an army of wood ticks confronting us as with fixed bayonets.

This will never do and the mate, looking wistfully toward the west shore there, spots a grove on a sloping bank in the dim distance and pronounces that the haven of rest for the night.

The wind is still fresh, and a little more than half an hour suffices to bring us to the American shore at Brakeman’s Grove, and as we sail up the river, seeking a convenient place, we spy, seated under a tree, with their boat moored below, a pair of Canadian lovers. It is evident that they will be happiest alone and we move higher up, leaving them to their billing and cooing.

Then opens in earnest, camp life. The boat is moored, camp equipment unladen and carried up the steep bank, the tent pitched, and the hammock swung, campfire built, and finally supper is prepared.

Description: El Capitan HD:Users:smithderek:Desktop:gettyimages-1305448692-612x612.jpg

Vessels are passing frequently, and the fact that our camp attracts an unpleasant amount of attention is evidenced by the waving of handkerchiefs, and the occasional “hail” from upper decks, one fellow on a steam barge calls out,” is supper ready”? We find this a beautiful place, John Brakeman, who owns it, seeing our tent through the trees, wanders down that way in the evening, and kindly grants us the freedom of the grove which we had taken without leave or license.

                     Steam Barge

Our first night’s experience in camp had one serious drawback to its perfect enjoyment, mosquitoes. They did not appear early in the evening, and no special preparations were made to keep them out of the tent; but just as an inclination to sleep, in spite of the novelty of the situation, began to come over us, their tuneful hum began, and it was kept up with great industry until morning.

The passing and re-passing of boats close to the shore also proved a serious hindrance to sleep, and the number of hours of sound slumber before sunrise the next morning, by any of the party, was not large enough to allow extensive division by integers.

Daylight saw us stir again; breakfast was ready at 5 o’clock, in an hour or two later the captain and the boy are trolling on the river, mate was drowning in the hammock, and the girl was at her favorite amusement of wading in the shallow water along the shore. An abundant supply of fresh milk for the day was supplied by Mr. Brakeman, who refused to accept payment, and stood at the bank at 9 o’clock as we sailed away, urging the call on our return.

The wind was again fresh from the south, and an hour sufficed to bring us to St. Clair, after some lively tossing about on the waves, aggravated by the swell of a propeller.

Going ashore here, they found that temperature as compared with that on the water “ like an oven”, and we were glad enough to push out again on the “raging St. Clair “ so an extra supply of mosquito netting could be purchased. Hauling up to the railroad dock thinking there’s a daily train given from Ridgeway, and unsuccessful efforts to purchase a Detroit morning paper.

Turning again down the river good miles south were made on each tack, and at 1 o’clock our boat hauled up to the dock at Marine City, just as a storm was threatening to come down upon us from the west. Dinner had been eaten on route.

We sought shelter, but the storm lingered, and after half hour’s delay we started for Fawn Island, which we understood was open to the public.  Reaching it we were informed by the man in charge that money would not purchase the privilege of staying there tonight, but, as a storm is approaching rapidly, we might store our trappings in the unoccupied building erected last year as a resort for excursion parties during the afternoon. Accordingly, the boat was unloaded, and its cargo put under shelter; but the storm went to the north and to the south, came not here. The men working on the island, engage that day in an interesting occupation of killing potato bugs. The men are very courteous and accommodating furnishing ice water, and opening to us a flower garden, and strawberry patch which are surrounded by a high fence with a locked gate.

                     Potato Bug

We were informed that the owner of the island spent two to three dollars last year on the erection of buildings, clearing of land, planting trees, flowers, and shrubs, building the dock, etc., will not open it this year because an extra license is demanded by the Canadian authorities.

Shortly after 3 o’clock, baggage is stowed on board again, and our boat’s prow was turned northward toward Marine City.


To Be Continued…

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