Inland Waterway: Cheboygan to Conway

Accounts of trips taken in Boston Whaler boats; organization of rendezvous for Boston Whaler boats
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Inland Waterway: Cheboygan to Conway

Postby jimh » Tue Nov 14, 2017 4:54 pm

Inland Waterway: Cheboygan to Conway

The inland waterway extends from Lake Huron at the mouth of the Cheboygan River, thence upstream into Mullet Lake, thence through the Indian River into Burt Lake, thence through the Crooked River to Crooked Lake and Pickerel Lake, ending at Conway. The total distance is probably more than 75-miles round trip. Many parts of the waterway in the rivers are limited in speed to 5-MPH. On the open water of the lakes you can go as fast as you want. I am familiar with all of this route and have transited it many times in my 24-foot outboard boat.

There is an organized power boat race event that takes over much of the inland waterway. I think they are usually scheduled for the first weekend in August. It would be best to avoid that weekend for making a calm peaceful cruise on the waterway.

This waterway is a natural pathway that provides an inland water course around the Straits of Mackinaw, connecting Cheboygan, on Lake Huron, to Conway, near Little Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan.

The waterway begins at Crooked Lake, an inland lake whose present level is about 17-feet above Lake Michigan. Instead of flowing about two miles west into Lake Michigan, Crooked Lake flows north and east, into the Crooked River, into Burt Lake, into the Indian River, into Mullet Lake, into the Cheboygan River, and finally flowing into Lake Huron, about 40-miles away.

A small dam and bypass lock maintains Crooked Lake about two-feet above the Crooked River. The level of the Crooked River, Burt Lake, the Indian River, and Mullet Lake is not blocked by any dams or locks. A large dam in the Cheboygan River at a commercial plant holds back the river, maintaining Mullet Lake and the other upstream lakes about 15-feet above the level of Lake Huron.

Historically, the water way was used by Indians as a way to travel across the northern tip of the lower peninsula. In the 1600's it was used by French fur traders. The dam on the Cheboygan River was built in 1846 at the site of a rapids to provide power for a sawmill. A bypass canal and lock was built in 1869 to enable navigation around the dam and rapids.

The original course of the Sturgeon River was to drain into the Indian River, and its flow created a sand bar. The course of the Sturgeon River was altered in 1877 to make it flow into Burt Lake, preventing the creation of a sand bar. This project and other dredging enabled the floating of timber logs on the route.

By the 1880's the construction of railroads in the region reduced the importance of the waterway in commercial transportation. By c.1900 the route began to be used by excursion steamers carrying passengers and picnickers on pleasure cruises. In the period 1956 to 1958 the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) improved the waterway, creating the present day system of channels and markers and a minimum depth of five feet.

A very comprehensive pamphlet is available on-line at


The waterway has several obstacles:

--a dam and lock separates the upper and lower Cheboygan River; passage through the lock is on demand and costs about $6. Watch for very strong inrush currents on the upper side of the lock when it is filling; there is a very substantial height difference, varying with the lake levels but usually about 15-feet. You pay both ways. Days and times of operation decrease in the fall. See the schedule.

--several bridges of fixed height cross the waterway; if your boat is taller than about 9-feet, you should investigate this further; the lowest bridge is probably the fixed highway bridge in Cheboygan at LINCOLN AVENUE. There is a SMALL CRAFT CHART BOOKLET available for this waterway; it will have details on vertical draft and bridge clearance; the 2017 edition shows 9-feet vertical clearance at the Lincoln Ave bridge, and this is likely to be controlling vertical draft. You can work around this by just launching upstream of this bridge, at THE FORKS (see below).

--a very small lock separates the Crooked River south of Alanson from the two lakes above. The height difference is only about a foot. Generally I would not recommend travelling past this lock unless you really want to go to the very end of the waterway and return. Passage through the lock is about $5. You pay both ways. Times of operation are often limited; check their schedule carefully so you don't get stuck above the lock after it closes.

The waterway typically has at least 5-feet of water. The height of Mullet and Burt lakes and most of the Cheboygan and Indian rivers is controlled by the dam in Cheboygan.

The waterway is well marked along the river passages. There are navigation marks at the ends of the lakes guiding you into the rivers.


BEST WESTERN RIVER TERRACE HOTEL (231) 627-5688. If you take a room there, you can moor your boat to the seawall along the river at the hotel. You can also leave your boat trailer parked there, too. There is ramp nearby. When making a reservation with the hotel, tell them you are a boater and want to use the seawall and also leave your trailer there.

There is also another motel on the river: Fleetwood Inn and Suites. It is just upstream of the Best Western.

I have never stayed at the hotels mentioned, but they get good reviews; see Google. There are other accommodations along the waterway, some including docks, particularly along the Indian River on the east side.


There are two good launch ramps in Cheboygan:

--a large ramp and parking lot at the mouth of the river on the west bank, just north of town;

--a small ramp with less parking on the river, just upstream of the dam and lock

There is also an excellent ramp facility south of Cheboygan at "The Forks" which will be useful if you cannot transit under the Lincoln Avenue fixed bridge. The name "The Forks" refers to the confluence of the Cheboygan and Black Rivers just south of the ramp location.

On Mullet Lake there is a Michigan-DNR ramp on the west side at the north end. The ramp is into very shallow water and you must be very careful about draft when approaching the ramp. Not recommended in any sort of wave action. There is a ramp at the State Park at Aloha.

There is a new, decent ramp in the village of Indian River on the river, east of the highway bridge.

Ramps on Burt Lake are almost non-existent; there is a ramp at the State Park near Colonial Point on Burt Lake on the far western shore. You must have a Michigan State Park pass or pay for entry.


The waterway is most scenic in the Fall when the foliage is changing colors. However, there is a problem to travel the waterway at peak Fall color:

--because the trees along the lakes and rivers are near warm water, they do not change color until quite late in the season;

--because of the late change in color along the waterway, you may find that while the rest of northern Michigan trees are in brilliant fall color, the ones along the waterway are still in their summer green stage or at the earliest stage of color change;

--if you wait for the leaves to change color along the waterway, the air temperature will probably be very cold; we have started a "Fall Color Cruise" up there with air temperature in the 40's.

--the perfect cruise is one that occurs on an Indian Summer day, following a week of much colder temperatures.

In the absence of fall color foliage, the waterway is still relatively scenic; you will pass hundreds of beautiful lakefront homes worth millions, travel through preserved marshes and wetland forests, and have a chance to stop for lunch in several places (the villages of Indian River, Alanson, and Conway). You will also see a lot of other boaters in pontoon boats and PWCs.


--PIER M33, which has plenty of dock space for boaters; it is in the southern part of the Cheboygan River, not too far from Mullet Lake; the food is really top notch. This is not just a place on the water, it is a very good restaurant.

--HACK-MA-TACK INN--rustic and traditional, has a seawall for boats; an old-style up-north place; lots of atmosphere.

--THE INN BETWEEN--in Indian River at the highway bridge; it is a bar, serves bar food; a good place to stop on a fall color tour when you are cold and hungry; no website; look them up on Google and get reviews.

--ALANSON DEPOT RESTAURANT--in Alanson, a short walk up from the river and free docking (if there is an open slip). This is a decent place, not fine dining. Has room for big groups of noisy boaters.

--BOB'S PLACE--in Alanson. They don't seem to like big groups. Maybe okay if you are just a small party. It's been around forever.

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Re: Origins of the word Cheboygan

Postby jimh » Tue Nov 14, 2017 5:45 pm

The origin of the English word "Cheboygan" is thought to come from the Annishinaabe (Ojibwe) word zhiibaa`onan, meaning a channel or passage for a canoe. I don't know the exact pronunciation of Ojibwe zhiibaa`onan, but I presume it probably was taken into French and then perhaps to English to become Cheboygan.

The Cheboygan River was perhaps so named because its original state permitted passage only in a canoe.

Cheboygan may be adapted from the French spelling. I notice that in Wisconsin, the same word is spelled in an more English manner as Sheboygan.

When I was a youngster and our family was renting a cottage on Mullet Lake, I heard a story about the history of Sheboygan/Cheboygan:

An Indian Chief was hoping for a daughter to be born, but his wife seemed only to produce male offspring, Upon the birth of a new child, the Chief would inquire with the other women attending the birth as to the gender of the child. The string of girls continued, each time with a reply "She a Boy, Again."

This is also cited in a University research project:

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Re: Indian Words Related to Cheboygan

Postby jimh » Tue Nov 14, 2017 9:18 pm

Curiously, one on-line translation says that the English equivalent for Zhiibaa`onaning is KILLARNEY, another place with a narrow opening suitable for a canoe. Cf.:

Also see:
which again cites Killarney as an example:

Zhiibaa'onaning = Killarney, Ont. (lit.: at the channel for passage with a canoe)
Three parts:
    zhiibaa= >> go through ...
    ='onan >> be ... with a boat/canoe
    =ing >> locative

zhiibaa'onan (vai) = be a channel for passage with a canoe

Here are other example of other ='onan words:
    * ina'onan (vai) = be a passage (channel, strait, etc.)
    * gakiiwe'onan (vai) = portage across a point of land

Here are some other zhiibaa= words:
    * zhiibaabizo (vai) = drive/fly through
    * zhiibaayaabanjigan(-an) (ni) = binoculars, spy-glass, telescope
    * zhiibaayaanimad (vii) = be drafty

One of Killarney's promotional pages claim that the city's Anishinaabe name means "safe canoe channel."

I think it is specious to suggest that the translation of Ojibway Zhiibaa`onaning is a specific place named Killarney. The name of that Ontario, Canada, village is taken from a town in Ireland, in County Kerry. It is extraordinarily unlikely that the name Killarney for this small village on a narrow water passage in northern Georgian Bay was formed by transliteration of the Ojibway word Zhiibaa`onaning. On the other hand, the name Cheboygan can be easily construed as coming from some interpretation into French and then into English of Zhiibaa`onaning, a term that the native Indians in the area perhaps used to describe that location.

Also, the term Ojibway is an anglicization of Ojibwe. A Wikipedia article gives more details. The term Anishinaabe seems to be preferred now as a descriptor of the native people in preference to Ojibwe.

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Re: Inland Waterway: Cheboygan to Conway

Postby moabelite » Wed Feb 14, 2018 10:41 pm

My family and I have enjoyed the Inland Waterway for five summers. Our tradition has been to camp at Aloha State Park located on the east shore of Mullet Lake in order to take advantage of the boat wells located there. From there we've used out 2006 Montauk 170 to travel southwest through the waterway all the way to Crooked Lake and also northeast through the waterway to Lake Huron. The ability to cruise for a very long day ,in relatively protected waters, with fuel, food and fishing amenities in abundance delivers a very unique and enjoyable experience.

On September 25, 2015 my brother and I departed Harbor Springs on Lake Michigan in my Montauk 170. We were accompanied by close friends in their Dauntless 16. Leaving the protection of Harbor Springs we rounded the peninsula into Lake Michigan and headed north along the coast. After crossing Sturgeon Bay, we rounded Waugoshance point and the lighthouse there into what were forecasted to be waves of one-foot-or-less in the Straight Of Mackinac.

Unfortunately, the winds had kicked up and we were greeted by waves in excess of three feet. After a long slog through the straight and under the Mackinac Bridge we fueled up at Mackinac municipal marina. In order to avoid the strong easterly we crossed the straight and traveled along the south shoreline of Bois Blanc Island. Nearing the east end of the island we crossed back south over Lake Huron and into the municipal marina at Cheboygan.

We took slips in Cheybogan for the night and walked up the road to our hotel for the night. In the morning we headed into the inland waterway and up the lock on the Cheboygan river. After navigating up the Cheboygan river and into Mullet Lake we made a brief stop at Aloha State Park and then headed into the Indian River for lunch at the "Inn Between".

Bellies full, we cruised out of the Indian River, through Burt Lake and then into the Crooked River. It was there, on the 26th of September, that we were greeted by a host of Boston Whalers heading in the opposite direction. The fall rendezvous, I thought happily, as we continued past strangers who were also clearly friends. Our trip ended as we headed through the clam locks into Crooked Lake and over to the Crooked Lake boat ramp. There we were retrieved by an associate from Bay Harbor who brought us back to our tow vehicles and trailers.

After loading out of Crooked Lake, we headed home - all the happier for the journey. I'm not sure when I'll have the opportunity to make "the loop" again, but I sure am glad we did it. The old dogs at the Cheboygan Municipal Marina could hardly believe we'd come all that way in our little Whalers and that made us all the more pleased with the journey.

Thanks for reminding me how much I love the inland waterway, Jim!

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Re: Inland Waterway: Cheboygan to Conway

Postby Dutchman » Wed Feb 21, 2018 1:58 pm

We also enjoy the Cheboygan-to-Crooked lake inland waterway trips and wished there was a lock and connection to get to Petoskey. These protected fresh inland water way connections are so much nicer than the Inland Waterway out East and down South we think.

When we don't have a full day and still want to make a trip we do the Coldwater Lake to First Lake inland waterway trip as that is 10 to 11 miles going either south to north or visa-versa depending where you want to put in. You can do more than 20-miles easily in a day putting around and taking in nature and the scenery.

Coldwater being close to I-69 and First Lake (Quincy) being close to US-12 are easy to reach and both have good launches and parking--something to keep in mind for us southern Michiganders or northern Indiana or Ohio small boaters.

Another great inland water traveling area is the New York Finger lakes. And best-and-not-least the Georgian Bay area and Thousand Island areas.
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Re: Inland Waterway: Cheboygan to Conway

Postby jimh » Thu Feb 22, 2018 9:35 am

DUTCH--Perhaps you can start a new thread to discuss each of those other waterways you mention that are not the Inland Waterway Cheboygan to Conway. If the scope of this thread were to expand to include all other possible waterways, I am afraid it would be a diversion from the initial topic.

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Re: Inland Waterway: Cheboygan to Conway

Postby jimh » Fri Feb 23, 2018 7:17 am

Dutchman wrote:...wished there was a lock and connection to get to Petoskey.

The Crooked Lake end of the inland waterway is at the high point in the water system. To have a canal and lock into Lake Michigan would mean a vertical difference of about 17-feet. Every lock cycle would remove a large volume of water from Crooked Lake. It is doubtful that enough water is flowing into Crooked Lake to support operating a lock there. Crooked Lake is a small and shallow lake, and it does not hold a large volume of water.

Downstream from Crooked Lake, the waterway has many more water sources flowing into it: the drainage basins of Burt Lake and Mullet Lake, which hold a very large volume of water; the outflows of the Sturgeon River and Black River and Black Lake. All those water sources create enough water volume to enable the dam and lock on the Cheboygan River to have enough water to easily operate the lock there, as well as a hydro-power generating plant. If you drained off Crooked Lake into Lake Michigan via a canal and lock, you'd probably have problems maintaining the water level at that end of the system. Note that there is a small dam and lock in place now at Crooked Lake to help maintain its water level as high as it is now.

If a canal and lock system were built into Lake Michigan from Crooked Lake, perhaps the direction of flow in the system would have to be split, with Burt Lake perhaps becoming the summit, and water flowing out of Burt Lake in two directions; one toward Lake Michigan and the other toward Lake Huron.

Conservation of water in a canal and lock system is essential. The canal and lock system has to be designed to conserve water. Some good examples are found on the Trent-Severn system. At Peterboro there is a very large vertical distance between sections of the canal. Instead of a lock, a lifting system is used. This saves a tremendous amount of water in the upper canal. Another example can be seen on the Rideau Canal. There all the locks have the same dimensions, and when large differences in height must be overcome, a stair step arrangement of locks is used. When a boat passes down the stair step locks, it really only uses a small volume of water. Each lock drains into the one below, conserving water.

Also see these articles on water use in locks and water-saving basins:

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Re: Inland Waterway: Cheboygan to Conway

Postby Oakley » Fri Mar 09, 2018 4:22 am

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