AuSable River Dams
A world-famous trout stream and popular northern Michigan canoe destination, the AuSable River runs about 120 miles from Grayling to Lake Huron. Along the river’s eastward flow, Consumers Energy operates six hydroelectric dams: Mio, Alcona, Loud, Five Channels, Cooke and Foote.
The hydros were built between 1911 and 1924. Together, they can generate 41,000 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power a community of about 20,500 people.
How it Works
When Consumers Energy pioneered the development of hydroelectric power along the AuSable, the land was ravaged by decades of logging. Between the mid-1920s and the 1950s, Consumers Energy planted millions of pine trees along the river to stabilize the banks for the six dams. The AuSable (the name means “River of Sand”) now provides excellent fishing, canoeing, kayaking, additional outdoor recreation and wildlife viewing from Grayling to Oscoda.
Much of the river frontage is Huron National Forest land managed by the U.S. Forest Service or land owned by Consumers Energy. Consumers Energy owns about 3,500 acres and leases much of its property to public or private operators of canoe rental companies, swimming areas or campgrounds.
Aspen, oak, maple, pine, balsam, spruce and cedar trees provide shelter and food for deer, wild turkey, ruffled grouse, snowshoe hares and other animals. Bald eagles nest along the river.
Portages are available at each Consumers Energy hydro, to allow recreation-seekers to canoe or kayak down the winding river. The AuSable is also known for the AuSable River International Canoe Marathon, North America's Toughest, Richest Canoe Race and the World's Toughest Spectator Race!
The AuSable River hydroelectric projects are also included as “watchable wildlife” viewing areas in Michigan’s Wildlife Viewing Guide. Consumers Energy works with the USDA Forest Service and other entities to build and maintain these areas and assist in providing viewing opportunities.
Wildlife habitat efforts on the AuSable River were first certified by the Wildlife Habitat Council in 1999.
Consumers Energy manages hundreds of acres of wildlife habitat around its six hydroelectric dams along the AuSable. In addition to meeting all of its licensing requirements, the company manages important wildlife initiatives at its AuSable River facilities, including programs that monitor bald eagles and ongoing efforts to reintroduce the familiar trumpeter swan.
The company helped reintroduce 14 native trumpeter swans to the area in 1997-1998. During December 2003, the Iosco Audubon Society counted 138 trumpeter swans on Consumers’ Alcona, Cooke and Foote reservoirs.
The company also maintains nesting structures for wood ducks, purple martin colonies, bluebirds and ospreys along the AuSable River.
Canoeing Info: Mio Dam is the 3rd night suggested destination for AuSable River canoe rental paddlers. Portage Mio Dam just right of the dam, using the steel platform to step up and over the concrete face. Watch for a black-and-yellow “barber pole,” the portage sign used on impoundments throughout the entire AuSable River. The landing and campground is located on the left side of the dam.
With a capacity of 4,900 kilowatts, the hydro was built between 1914-16 and is the company’s hydro furthest upstream (49 miles from Grayling) on the AuSable River.
Named after the nearby city, Mio was the first hydroelectric plant to use a conduit or under-sluice spillway. Before this, all dams had included a massive above-ground concrete spillway that typically included a system of gates to pass excess flows. The under-sluice spillway was built into the powerhouse foundation and eliminated the need for the above-ground structure. The under-sluice spillway was invented and patented by William W. Tefft, a Consumers civil engineer and vice president.
Tefft’s innovation reduced tailwater erosion during spill operation, increased the plant’s power production and reduced construction expense. It was refined and used at subsequent Consumers’ projects including thre Alcona Hydro on the AuSable River.
Oscoda County Park is the perfect place for scenic views of the Mio dam and watching bald eagles soar above the forest, with 153 campsites in a quiet forest setting on the Mio Hydro pond.
Canoeing Info: Borchers suggests Alcona Park as the 4th night destination for AuSable River canoe rental paddlers. Alcona Dam is a short distance from the park and can be portaged on the right.
Capable of producing 8,000 kilowatts, the hydro was originally named for a nearby road called Bamfield. Work began on Bamfield Dam in 1917, but the project stalled due to unstable sand and World War I. Construction resumed in 1923, and Alcona Hydro, named after the county where it is located, began commercial operation in 1924.
Alcona Park, on the Alcona Hydro pond, is an 1,100 acre outdoor paradise with more than 450 campsites and many special features.
Canoeing Info: Portage the dam on either the right or the left. The right portage is a 250-yard carry down a gravel road. The left portage is much shorter but very steep; take out at the steel platform to climb over the concrete dam fence.
Capable of producing 4,000 kilowatts, the hydro was completed in 1913. It is named for Edward Loud, who had done extensive lumber business along the AuSable and bought up most of the cut over AuSable lands between 1900-06, then later partnered with company founder William Foote and others to build the Au Sable hydros.
Five Channels Hydro
Canoeing Info: Portage the dam on the right at the ledge platform. There is a steep climb down to the dockside of one of the paddle-wheel excursion boats AuSable Queen. There is good access and parking below the M-65 Bridge on the left.
Capable of producing 6,000 kilowatts, the hydro was completed in 1912. This hydro is named for the nearby location on the AuSable River where there were once five distinct river channels. The site of the workers’ camp built to support construction of the dam was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on March 13, 2002. It is an early American example of incorporating worker safety and health provisions into construction site living, drawing heavily on lessons learned in the building of the Panama Canal.
Canoeing Info: Portage Cooke Dam on the left. The river below is lovely. The water remains crystal clear, and the current is strong and steady as it opens into channels and bays with beds of weeds that offer over cover for large numbers of bass and pike. Many good campsites can be found along this undeveloped stretch.
With an original capacity of 9,000 kilowatts, the hydro began generating electricity in December 1911, making it the first of the six AuSable River hydros. Cooke is named for banker Andrew Cooke, who helped secure financing for the project.
Cooke Hydro was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on Aug. 2, 1996. The honor recognizes the hydro’s transmission of 140,000 volts, 125 miles to Flint, establishing a world record. Innovations included three-legged windmill-like towers that supported the transmission line and advances in insulator design. Cooke Hydro is also part of the River Road Scenic Byway and listed in the National Scenic Byways Program.
Lumberman’s Monument, a 14-foot bronze statue dedicated to Michigan lumbermen, is the centerpiece of a major Forest service visitor Center located on the Cooke Hydro pond. The site features interpretive displays, along with a panoramic overlook and staircase leading down to the pond.
Canoeing Info: Old Orchard Park is in the mid-section of the pond. This would be the last night on the AuSable River before getting out at Oscoda. Portage Foote Dam on the left. To the right of the dam is Foote Site Village, where supplies are available.
With a capacity of 9,000 kilowatts, the hydro was completed in 1918. It is located 9 miles upstream from Lake Huron and is named for William A. Foote, the founder of Consumers Power, which later became Consumers Energy.
In 1896, Foote took a side trip from Kalamazoo to Allegan, where he conceived the idea of a hydroelectric plant along the Kalamazoo River. In Foote’s mind, that plant and others would power the industrial centers throughout the state.
The AuSable River Queen on the Foote Hydro pond offers a unique paddlewheel boat cruise that combines spectacular scenery with the history and lore of the Au Sable.
Old Orchard Park on the Foote Hydro pond, operated by Oscoda Township, is a popular destination with 500 campsites and many amenities.