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Twenty miles south of the Straits of Mackinac is the ancient inland waterway from Lake Huron to Lake Michigan. This series of connecting lakes and rivers extends from Lake Huron to within a very few miles of Lake Michigan. One of those lakes is Burt Lake. This beautiful lake has been a popular tourist attraction for many years and has only become more popular since Interstate 75 now travels a short distance away. The ease of getting there has opened the joys of Burt Lake to an entire new group of lake lovers.
The lake is fed by the Maple and Crooked Rivers on the west shore and the Sturgeon River on the south. Other water sources include the Little Carl River, Hasler Creek and a few un-named streams. The Little Carp, Maple, and Sturgeon Rivers are designated Michigan trout streams. The main outlet is the Crooked River, leading to Crooked Lake.
Although the shoreline is heavily developed with homes and cottages, there are still long stretches of undeveloped land, much of it under protection and open to the public, including the Chaboiganing Nature Preserve, the Colonial Point Memorial Forest and Seven Springs Nature Preserve. Burt Lake State Park has over 2,000 feet of sandy beech and Maple Bay County Campground and Beach provides both rustic camping and a swimming beach. The marina at Indian River-the only village on the lake-provides every service a boater could want, including rentals and repairs, transient slips and permanent facilities. As the Inland Waterway can accommodate boats up to 60 ft in length, the Indian River marina is the main supply point for boaters along the waterway.
Fishing is, as usual, the main event on Burt Lake. The prey varies, with walleye a favorite, but sturgeon, brown trout, rainbow trout, rock bass, yellow perch, ciscoes, smallmouth and largemouth bass, muskellunge, northern pike, rock bass all caught depending on season and bait offered. The area between the Indian River and Sturgeon River is known as Walleye Alley, but Scotty's Landing, Colonial Point and Greenman's Point all provide excellent fishing. Boaters love the Maple Bay area as the sheltered bay provides warm shallows for swimming and sailing. The sandbar just south of the Maple River is a favored hangout in summer. An active watershed protection group carefully monitors water quality and lobbies for further protection of the watershed. The lake is clean and clear, with most underwater vegetation found at the shallower north end of the lake.
In the beginning, the lake was called Chaboiganing, or 'Passing Through' in the Native American language. First used by Native Americans, then French trappers, followed by lumbermen and finally settlers, the inland route avoided the treacherous rapids at the Straits farther north and Waugoshance Point on Lake Michigan. The inland route cut many miles off the trip up Lake Huron and over to Lake Michigan. Its waters were the main form of transportation for lumbermen and visitors with the building of a lock near Cheboygan and dredging of the river to accommodate small steamers. Eventually, the lake itself was renamed Burt Lake in honor of the surveyor who first surveyed the northern Michigan area.
Archeological evidence along the Inland Waterway shows the area had been inhabited by native people for nearly 3000 years. For nearly three centuries, a small band of Ottawa/Chippewa Indians lived in a village on the small point of land now known as Colonial Point. Through a series of treaties, the group believed, perhaps erroneously, that they have been given their land as a reservation. On some occasions, some members of the band paid property taxes and others didn't. Unfortunately, their home was becoming more valuable as lumbering in other areas around the lake was exhausted. In 1898, their area was sold for unpaid taxes and the buyer tried to evict them for over a year. One October morning in 1900, while the men were all in Cheboygan collecting their paychecks, the local sheriff and several of his men came to the village and moved all of the residents' property into the middle of the street and set fire to the houses. The small band was forced to migrate in part to Cross Village; others found local lodging with a couple of Native American families who lived on Indian Road. Since that day, the band has attempted to settle the disagreement through the Michigan and federal courts but has been hampered by the lack of federal designation of their tribe, both due to their mixed heritage and their displacement. Their legal fight continues.
Rental cottages are available on Burt Lake, and homes occasionally come up for sale. The area is popular because of the wide variety of recreational opportunities near the lake, including the famed Inland Waterway. Beginning in Cheboygan on Lake Huron, the waterway includes Cheboygan River, Mullett Lake, and Indian River to Burt Lake, then up Crooked River to Crooked Lake. The route consists of 150 miles of shoreline. Dredged to 5 feet deep with a width of 30 feet by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, the route is completely laid out with channel markers. River entrances are marked with flashing lights. The route is accessible from I-75, M-27, M-33, and U.S. 31. There are ramps with varying water depths available all along the waterway. The waterway can handle boats up to 65 feet long (18 foot beam), with up to a 5 foot draft. The Route features two locks: a 15 foot gate lock in Cheboygan and a 2 foot clam lock near Alanson. The longest distance between gas stops is 10 miles.
Both the Seven Springs Nature Preserve and Colonial Point Memorial Forest provide a handy nature experience, with the Memorial Forest a unique stand of old growth red oak and red pine. It is adjacent to the Chaboiganing Nature Preserve.
South of Indian River the Tomahawk Trail offers nearly 100 miles of off-road trails for the ORV enthusiast. The area also provides over 500 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, most of which are accessible from the area motels. Snowmobiles can be rented locally for an enjoyable winter experience. For cross-country skiing, Wildwood, just south of Indian River, has several miles of well-marked recreation trails that are perfect for viewing wildlife.
The village of Indian River has all of the necessary amenities a visitor would want, and includes several unique shops for the discerning visitor to peruse. There are several motels and plentiful restaurants, mostly reasonably priced. Burt Lake is about 260 miles from Detroit and 390 from Chicago. Come, spend a week in Indian River or at a Burt Lake cottage as your home base. Between fishing forays, you can cruise the Inland Waterway, visit the Straits of Mackinac and enjoy the bounty of wildlife and nature in this beautiful area.
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