Black River Harbor
By Cyndi Perkins

During the course of seven sailing seasons on Lake Superior, we’ve talked about visiting Black River Harbor. It was high time we walked the walk. Since we were in the western Lake Superior neighborhood anyway for service on our diesel engine, what better time to stop by? With great anticipation and a stable weather window we set course from Washburn, Wisconsin, to Black River Harbor. Headsail unfurled on our 32-foot DownEast sailboat Chip Ahoy, we motored most of the 30-odd miles in calm seas with light variable wind, leaving at the civilized hour of 10 a.m. and entering the Black River harbor breakwall a bit before 6 p.m.

The Black River Harbor office at the fuel dock, with boat launch in foreground.

The only trick to entering the harbor is to keep well to starboard once inside the breakers. The boulder-infested shallows to your left can easily be spotted when the sun is positioned properly. We found a full house on this Friday in early July 2004, with three sailboats and local sport fishing boats occupying most of the fixed dock, a long, side-tie pier. There are 32 total slips and eight transient slips; boats drawing more than five feet should not venture beyond the boat launch.

 A friendly Washburn sailor guided us into the floating wooden dock closest to the entry, motioning us safely ahead of a nasty spot marked by a white shoal buoy near the fixed pier. Satisfied with the depth as well as the sturdiness of dock construction (flimsy floating docks can lead to all sorts of problems), we walked Chips to the far end, where depths were 7-9 feet, to ensure room should another boat come in for the night. Leaving space for others is proper cruising etiquette and we always appreciate boaters who do us the same favor.

The meandering Black River offers a full spectrum of recreational opportunities.

Accessible by car as well as boat, Black River Harbor is part of the Ottawa National Forest Recreation Area. It is best known for its picturesque suspension bridge and a fabulous set of waterfalls accessible by the North Country National Scenic Trail. There’s a sand beach on Lake Superior, a 40-site campground, and a beautifully manicured picnic area with nearby restroom facilities in a quaint fieldstone pavilion. There’s a cute office that serves concession stand goodies, including ice cream, and a gas dock with a credit card-operated pump adjacent to the launch. Shallow-draft boats may look for additional dock space on the pier beyond the launch. Rafting up is permitted and encouraged on the fixed dock.

Black River Harbor dock services are provided by the non-profit Ottawa Interpretive Association. Office/store hours vary by season. All profits are recycled back into recreation area projects. There’s a marine radio in the office, but we didn’t hear any responses to vessels hailing all weekend and no one answered our call as we approached. For inquiries you may phone the Bessemer Ranger District at 1-906-667-0261. Or just do what we did and holler for guidance once in shouting distance of the docks.

A sign directed us to register at the office – when it is closed, fees are paid on the honor system. The charge for a 32-foot on the floating dock was $12.80 per night. A slip with electricity on the fixed dock costs a couple bucks more. Our solar panel and wind generator were doing a fine job so we didn’t plug in. If we’d felt the need we could have run a longer extension cord to the first stanchion on the fixed dock. That’s what the cabin cruiser that pulled in behind us on the floating dock did. By dark, two more sailboats had rafted up on the main dock. The crowd spent a peaceful night with only loon calls and lake surf breaking the silence.

The putt of outboards and grind of generators signaled morning. Black River was home to a fishing community back in the 1920s, when the trout fishery was reportedly nothing short of magnificent. Fishermen in these parts still take their angling seriously, going out on the big lake early and often for trout and salmon. The charter business was brisk during our visit. Other visitors were also trying their luck at the many prime fishing spots along the river.

Captain Scott at Rainbow Falls

Deciding to rise and shine ourselves, we inhaled a big breakfast of cheese and mushroom omelets with corned beef hash, and then worked it off on a hike to Rainbow Falls across the charming suspension bridge spanning the river and leading into a forest of hemlock and old-growth pine. Many of the trunks are too big for a full-grown man to hug all the way around. Downed trees, the victims of lightning, insect invasion, erosion and decay, have found second lives as host to ferns and soft swatches of moss. In shafts where sunlight manages to penetrate the deep boreal shadows, we spotted columbine, lupine, wild peas and thimbleberry bushes. The first in a series of five waterfalls, Rainbow is only ¾ of a mile up the well-trod hiking trail. It’s not a super strenuous hike, but climbing the steps to the elevation of the first falls reminded me of a Stairmaster workout. I was definitely using some muscles that I hadn’t used in awhile and would feel it the next day! The ever-closer sound of the falls urged us along. We were not disappointed. The main falls, formed by a merging myriad of rivulets and miniature streams, thundered in a foaming, misting plunge down a sheer rock precipice. At this time of year, many Upper Peninsula waterfalls have subsided to a mere trickle. Who would have guessed that such gorgeous waterfalls were right here in our own back yard?

Chip Ahoy secured at the floating dock in Black River Harbor. Depths were more than adequate, save for a shoal at the end nearest the fixed pier.

For several minutes we simply absorbed the sight and sound. Waterfalls are an excellent example of nature’s ability to simultaneously calm and energize. Upstream, we picked our way along the narrow, twisting riverbed, taking care to avoid slipping on wet bedrock and boulders. There have been accidents, including two fatalities, when people attempted to ford the river or swim near waterfalls. Neither activity is advised. There are designated safe viewing areas at each of the five falls: Rainbow, Sandstone, Gorge, Potawatomi and Great Conglomerate.

Saving other waterfalls for future visits, we retraced our steps and followed another well-marked path down to the beach. With air temperatures in the 60s and water temps in the high 40s, swimming was not an option for us, but seven crew members on a Minneapolis sailboat took the plunge. Their captain said it was a necessity, as they’d been out for a week without hot showers and “the boat wasn’t smelling too good.”

We wandered back to the docks, where boaters were lolling in the sunshine, napping or reading. A splendid wedding party, complete with beautifully gowned bride and tuxedoed groom posed for photos on the suspension bridge. Shore fishermen tried their luck off the south rock jetty. To the north, a mother merganser played follow-the-leader with her babies, who kept trying to hop on her back. Parents and grandparents unpacked picnic coolers as their little ones explored the playground. Captain Scott hauled out his guitar to serenade the idyllic scene. In Chip Ahoy’s cockpit with the plastic dodger “walls” zipped in it was possible to shed flannel shirts and socks. I treasure our “sun porch.” The ability to be outside but out of the weather greatly increases our cruising enjoyment on this coldest and largest of the Great Lakes. Lake Superior boaters must be prepared for unseasonably chilly weather at all times. It’s not uncommon to resort to a heavy jacket and even gloves in the supposedly hottest months of the year.

Fifteen miles north of Bessemer, Michigan, Black River Harbor is a wonderful family destination offering something for every interest: hiking, rock-picking, beachcombing, swimming, fishing and camping. There’s easy access for trailer sailors and other pocket cruisers via County Road 513, a designated scenic highway. If you haven’t considered this stop on Lake Superior, by all means go for it!

Rainbow Falls, one of five beautiful “water shows” accessible from the hiking trail
The author on a hike through the old-growth forest.

Cyndi Perkins is a freelance writer and full-time cruiser traveling with her husband, Scott, aboard their 32-foot DownEast sailboat Chip Ahoy. The couple completed America’s Great Circle Loop – a nine-month, 6,000-mile journey - on June 4, 2004. Since returning to their Lake Superior homeport in Houghton, Michigan, they have been visiting and revisiting favorite destinations on the lake. Cyndi will be sharing other top northern and Midwest destinations with readers in her regular “Cruiser’s notebook” feature.