“I’d say that 80 percent of the boats I’ve locked through this season are pontoons,” offered the lock tender. “This has to be the ‘tooning capital of the Midwest.”
“This” being Alanson, Mich., along the Crooked River segment of the Inland Water Route—also known as the Inland Waterway—that cuts across the tip of the mitt-shaped lower part of the state from Lake Huron west to Crooked Lake.
The scenic, 36-mile waterway includes three lakes (Crooked, Burt and Mullet) and three rivers (Crooked, Indian and Cheboygan) and two locks, one at Alanson and another at Cheboygan. Over the centuries, the waterway has been used by Native Americans, explorers, trappers, lumbermen, fishermen and pleasure-boaters to navigate the region via a protected water route. Alanson is a delightful riverfront village that provides a popular stop along the western stretch of the waterway, due east of Crooked Lake along the narrowest—and some say most scenic—part of the Crooked River that leads to Burt Lake. The second weekend of each August, the town celebrates the Alanson Riverfest, this year on Saturday and Sunday, August 10 and 11, making the eighth month of the year a great time to visit the pontoon playground.
A Tight Fit
The Crooked River Lock & Weir operates just upstream of Alanson to maintain water levels between the two basins, and on a sunny summer weekend the lockmaster said that she might accommodate more than 100 pontoon boats and their passengers plying along the popular waterway—in addition to countless other craft, from kayaks and personal water crafts to trailerable-size cabin cruisers. It’s a small lock, measuring nearly 18 feet wide with a clearance of only 15 and a half feet under the gate, so it’s a small-craft-only affair.
“We don’t see too many sailboats,” the lock matron continued with a grin. “And if your boat drafts more than two feet, you just may hang up on a few shallow spots along the river.”
The Right Fit
That makes the Inland Water Route a perfect cruising ground for pontoon boats—a point that has not been lost on local residents and visitors alike. We counted ourselves among the latter recently when we spent a long August weekend boating in and around Alanson. We rented a comfortable late-model 22-foot Crest pontoon boat, complete with 40hp Mercury Bigfoot outboard, tow line and tube, delivered to our dock from Northern Michigan Boat Rentals and stayed at a boat-friendly, riverfront resort that was so new, the grass was still coming up on the broad lawn between Stafford’s Crooked River Lodge and its namesake waterway.
From our balcony at the lodge, we watched as a steady parade of pontoon boats passed the day- use docks provided by the resort. Guests’ boats are docked at one of several marinas nearby, and each morning of our extended-weekend stay we anticipated another day of exploring the water route as we made the short drive from the lodge, to where our rental pontoon was docked. Admiral’s Point is just five driveways north of the resort on US 31.
The Right Of Passage
From there, we could cruise up-river into Alanson, passing under the swing bridge to Two Loons Lagoon, where we’d pick up a picnic lunch at the deli there and proceed through the Crooked River Lock, where you purchase a $10 per day pass ($30 for the season) for unlimited passages. From there, it’s a short ride to Crooked Lake, where an improved, multi-lane public launch ramp is located. Crooked Lake is also where the closest fuel docks to the Crooked River Lodge are located—at Ryde Marine—and just down the shore at the Windjammer Resort Marina. The walleye and pike fishing can be very good at Crooked Lake, and adjoining Pickerel Lake, and there is a broad, shallow sandbar right where the river leaves the lake at navigation marker 87 that is a popular gathering place for boaters.
One Stop Shopping
Passing through Alanson, you can stop and tie-up at the free, first-come, first-served municipal docks just downstream and river left of the swing bridge. We noted that low profile pontoon boats may be able to pass under the span with their Bimini tops down, but most boaters wait for the span to be opened by the bridge tender every 15 minutes or so. Alanson has several antique shops, restaurants, a hardware store and other businesses within an easy walk up River Street from the docks. A notable stop along the route is the Inland Water Route Museum, operated by the local historical society, and open 10 am to 2 pm Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Downriver from the Crooked River Lodge and Admirals Point dockage is a scenic stretch of the Crooked River leading to Burt Lake. Heading southeast across the open water, boaters following the inland water route pick up the entrance to the Indian River, pass under Interstate 75, and follow the flow northeast to where it enters Mullet Lake. Boaters cruise the length of Mullet, from south to north, to catch the outlet creating the Cheboygan River, which leads to the lock and dam at the entrance to Lake Huron. Most boaters turn around before locking through and head back up the waterway—unless they’ve started their route at Cheboygan, in which case they are done!
Full Day Of Fun
The entire 70-plus-mile round-trip from Crooked Lake to Cheboygan and back includes a mix of wake-free zones in the rivers and wide-open-throttle cruising on the lakes. It takes between six to 10 hours to cover the round-trip route—and there’s no better way to enjoy it than from the deck of the most popular boats around.
To Follow In Our Wake
Stafford's Crooked River Lodge
6845 US 31, Alanson, MI 49706
Northern Michigan Boat Rentals
Launch and Dockage
Two Loons Lagoon
Launch ramp, Dockage, Pontoon rentals and Deli
7768 Lagoon Drive in Alanson
Dockage $20 night; $10 launch
Boat Fuel, Dockage, Rental and Service
Boat fuel, Dockage, Rental, Service and Ice Cream Cones
Inland Water Route Museum
6217 River St. Alanson, MI 49307
Northern Michigan Travel and Events Info
Top O’Michigan Outboard Marathon National Boat Races
The Top O’Michigan Outboard Marathon National Boat Races will be held at the Inland Water Route on Saturday and Sunday, August 17 and 18, a week after the annual August Alanson Riverfest. The 87-mile marathon was first run on the Inland Route in 1947 and has taken place almost every summer since. The event is famous among boat racers, who have traveled from as far as Canada, Japan, Bermuda, South Africa and Ecuador to compete.
The course covers the entire route from Cheboygan to Conway over two days of racing. Although the rivers are closed to pleasure boats for the two hours daily from noon to 2 p.m. while the race is taking place, the lakes are open. A large number of boats like to congregate near the river entrances for viewing the race. Great views are enjoyed by spectators all along each of the rivers as well. Being a “marathon,” the race is held in all conditions for the small (10- to 13-foot) wooden runabouts that participate in the event.
Challenging course conditions make for an exciting race for participants and spectators. This is also why the Top O’ Michigan Outboard Marathon is among northern Michigan’s most popular August events. For more information, visit www.alansonriverfest.com.