Bright leaves frame weathered Rawson's Mill and a clear blue sky as our canoe slips into Nottawa Creek. The small, winding stream is part of Michigan's first Heritage Water Trail, a 50-mile network along the Nottawa, Portage River and St. Joseph's River systems in the quiet southwestern corner of the state. The trail links the tiny towns of Mendon and Colon and flows through pretty, peaceful countryside known for its inns and Amish farms.
Geff Clarke, owner of the Mendon Country Inn in Mendon, drove us upriver and dropped us off for what seemed like the ideal way to spend this cool fall day together. It is. The views that slip by are as peaceful as the water. My wife, Bridgit, paddles in front while I steer from the back. Behind us, water spills over the dam, as it has since the mill was built in 1836 when settlers started arriving in this area. Earlier, three Indian nations ruled the region, and great pioneers-Hennepin, La Salle, Marquette-plied these waters. Just down from the mill, we pass level ground where the Potawatomi tribe once lived. We paddle on as trees alight with autumn reds and golds close in around us. In the silence, we almost feel like we've floated into the days before asphalt and airplanes.
A few hours later, we drift into Mendon and pull our canoe up on a bank behind the inn, not quite ready to return to the present. We don't have to. The inn, a former stagecoach hotel built in 1843 and rebuilt in 1873, has been renovated, but its old-time character endures. Aromas waft from the kitchen, where Geff creates dishes that draw on fresh ingredients and his own origins. He and his wife, Cheryl, South African transplants, landed in the area almost by accident and grew to love it. Tomorrow, we'll paddle to another of Geff's favorite spots, the 1887 Langley Covered Bridge on the St. Joseph River, now the centerpiece of a park-perfect for a picnic and another foray into the past.