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The Tittabawassee River is one of Michigan's main river systems, draining lands in the Northeast and East Central Michigan regions into the Saginaw River and eventually Lake Huron. The entire main branch of the river is 91 miles long. The four reservoirs referred to as the Tittabawassee Lakes are all within a 36-mile stretch. Secord Lake, Smallwood Lake, Wixom Lake and Sanford Lake are the storage reservoirs of four hydroelectric dams built along the Tittabawassee. The first three lakes are in Gladwin County, with Sanford Lake just over the county line in Midland County. The entire river system flows through wooded acreage, parts of which are located within state forest boundaries, imparting an up-north 'feel' to the entire river system. The river slows and widens where it courses through the reservoirs, creating easy paddling, great fishing, and room for the enjoyment of water sports. The lakes themselves are home to a large number of cottages and year-round homes. Located within several hours of cities such as Detroit, Flint, Saginaw, Midland and Lansing, the lakes have become popular recreation destinations and receive a large number of visitors each year.
Because the lakes are formed from a succession of dams quite close together, each lake extends nearly to the next dam upriver, connected only by short stretches of slowly moving river. A few public parks exist along the lakes, such as Sanford Lake Park. All of the lakes provide a public access boat launch, and numerous private campgrounds and RV Parks exist for visitors who wish to sleep close to nature. Residents enjoy water skiing, power boating, jet skiing, swimming, pontooning and sailing on the wider portions of the lakes, but canoeing and kayaking generate much of the lake traffic. Canoe rentals and tours operate regularly-scheduled canoeing and kayaking runs along the 36-mile stretch, helping their patrons portage the three dams and transporting them and their watercraft back to their cars. The Au Sable Canoe racing team practices along this stretch of the river, but the river itself is seldom over-crowded. It is not unusual to see bald eagles nesting along the quiet stretches of the river, and a wide variety of wildlife and birds call the Tittabawassee River and lakes home.
All four of the lakes are considered good fisheries. Subject to stocking for over 50 years, the lakes support walleye, yellow perch, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, sunfish, black crappie, white crappie, white bass, bluegill, pumpkinseed, rock bass, plus northern pike and muskellunge, both of which are fighting game fish favorites. Sanford Lake even has a constructed pike marsh maintained by the state Dept. of Natural Resources where young pike and muskellunge are reared for stocking. A barrier-free fishing dock near the Sanford Lake dam offers fishing access to the handicapped and is a favorite with children. Ice fishing on the bays and inlets is popular but usually not safe on the main river portion of the lake. Water quality is relatively good, but there are fish consumption warnings posted against eating more than a small amount of fish from the lakes.
Because the lakes are mostly private and because it is hard to determine where the lakes end and the river begins, statistical information for the four lakes is hard to find. Official DNR maps for each lake do not list total acres or depths, but it is known that depths to about 40 feet do exist. Most of the waterway is between 5 and 30 feet deep. Sanford Lake is the largest, with 1429 acres, followed by Wixom Lake with approximately 1142 acres. Smallwood and Secord Lakes are smaller at 371 and 399 acres respectively. Several stretches of hiking trails exist along the river, and hiking clubs arrive regularly from the larger cities to take advantage of this natural area. Efforts are underway to continue the hiking trails to eventually connect the outlet of the Saginaw River at Lake Huron with the Straits of Mackinac. The translation of the Indian word Tittabawassee means "the water that follows the trail." Two hundred years later, there is a coordinated effort to make those words again true.
The hydroelectric dams on the Tittabawassee were all built in the 1920s, with the Sanford Dam being completed in 1925. Now under the ownership of Boyce Hydro Power, the small company sells electricity to Detroit Energy. The private owner has been unable to afford to upgrade the generating plants to qualify for the Renewable Energy Credits granted to most electrical power generators in the state, and has not had sufficient funds to maintain the aging dams and other structures. In 2011, Sanford Lake water levels declined due to a leaky embankment. Because Boyce Hydro Power had already spent funds to repair the dam, the owner insisted that he could not afford to repair the embankment. Eventually, property owners created an association which raised the $80,000 for needed repairs, and the lake is back to normal. This situation highlights the importance of funding for dam repairs throughout the state in order to maintain lakefront property values and preserve tax revenues.
The four Tittabawassee Lakes welcome visitors with bountiful flora and fauna, great fishing, and refreshing water. Lodgings in the form of private lakefront rentals, many guest cottages, and small motels can be found in the area. The sparsely-populated countryside holds thousands of acres of state land, with plenty of hiking, horseback riding and snowmobiling trails. The small communities around the lakes provide grocery stores and camping/fishing supplies. Nightlife in this area consists of a campfire on the shore or neighborhood camaraderie at a local tavern; tourists are always welcome. Real estate is often available, many times on the lakefront or with lake views. The Tittabawassee's four lakes are well worth a visit, be it a day's worth of fishing or a week's worth of hiking. Secord, Smallwood, Wixom and Sanford Lakes are waiting your discovery. Let's not keep them waiting.
*Statistics listed are for Sanford Lake only.
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