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Clarkston man's camping odyssey sinks into deadly nightmare

Greg Sutherland's first night at Big Island Lake Wilderness in Hiawatha National Forest was also his last

Lying injured at a lakeside campsite, Greg Sutherland was in the middle of nowhere.

There were no trails or roads, no electricity or phone service.

The only way to reach him was the way he had come, canoeing along a series of lakes deep in the heart of the Hiawatha National Forest in the Upper Peninsula.

Sutherland, 29, of Clarkston had been setting up camp in September when he somehow cut the back of his thigh, said police.

It was the first time he had camped by himself but he was deeply prepared — if anything, overprepared, family members said.

In the end, it didn’t matter. Despite his readiness, the cut had severed a major artery. He died within 10 minutes, a coroner said.

His first night in the wilderness was his last.

“It doesn’t make sense,” said his wife, Amanda. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Stay-at-home father

Greg Sutherland poses in a canoe with his son, Finn. Greg died in a freak accident during a canoe trip to the UP.
Greg Sutherland poses in a canoe with his son, Finn. Greg died in a freak accident during a canoe trip to the UP.
Sutherland family

Sutherland was a talker.

He would chat with anyone, friends said. He might run on a bit long but people liked him. He was quick to smile and make people laugh.

He couldn’t drive by a stranded car without stopping, his family said. Some motorists rebuffed him, intimidated by the hulking 300-pound stranger offering to change their tire.

Working a dozen years at Kroger, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a regional produce specialist.

He was popular with customers and coworkers, frequently sending messages to see how they were doing, said Lacie Stogdill, who worked with him.

“If there was an award for most selfless and amazing man, I’d have volunteered him for it,” she said.

When Sutherland became a father in 2017, he left Kroger to become a stay-at-home dad.

Amanda made more money as a nurse, and child care would have cost much of what he was making at Kroger.

Truth was, he loved being a dad, relatives said.

A friend joked that Sutherland had always acted like a dad in high school, looking after people, making sure they didn’t drink too much at parties and got home OK.

His father was an alcoholic who had left the family, so Sutherland resolved he would be a different type of parent.

He read to his son, Finn, several times a day, took him to the park and loved to explain new things to him, like gardening or sign language or how to make a funny face.

“It was amazing to see Greg with Finn,” said Mandi Hotchkiss-Legris, one of his closest friends. “Making Amanda his wife was just the start of seeing Greg exactly where he wanted to be.”

Time for a break

After two years of taking care of Finn, Sutherland needed a break.

He loved to fish, family members said. As a youngster, he had fished all over Michigan. When Finn was born, the two fished together at their apartment complex pond.

Last year, Sutherland read a Facebook post about Big Island Lake Wilderness, which is part of the Hiawatha National Forest.

Greg Sutherland fishes with his young son, Finn. Greg died in a freak accident during a canoe trip to the U.P.
Greg Sutherland fishes with his young son, Finn. Greg died in a freak accident during a canoe trip to the U.P.
Sutherland family

The wilderness area comprises 23 lakes surrounded by rolling hills of maple and white birch, about 2 1/4 hours west of the Mackinac Bridge. The lily-pad-covered waterways boast bluegill, yellow perch and northern pike.

Best of all is the solitude. The area doesn’t draw many visitors, who need a canoe to reach most of its 5,300 acres. The nearest town is 18 miles away.

Such seclusion would be so peaceful and soothing, Sutherland told others. It would be just him and the wild.

“He explained last year how he had found this camping spot. It was remote, relaxing,” said his sister, Toni Sutherland.

When he began preparing for the trip, he talked about it every day, family members said.

He planned to just sit in the canoe, stick out his fishing pole and chill, they said. To help the time pass, he would listen to audio books. At night he would sit beside a campfire, cooking whatever he had caught that day.

He was going to take lots of pictures of the night sky because, with the absence of artificial light in a forest, the stars would be wondrous.

“He couldn’t wait to relax,” Amanda said.

'I have everything'

The wilderness area comes with a warning.

A section of its website is entitled: Is the Wilderness Experience for You? It describes how the area differs from most nature spots with an absence of basic amenities like roads and electricity.

The key to enjoying a visit to Wilderness is to plan a trip that matches your experience and expectations, according to the website. Sutherland had little experience visiting such an isolated spot, but made up for it with preparation.

It said people interested in roughing it might prefer more accommodating sites that offer developed campgrounds or maintained hiking trails.

“The key to enjoying a visit to Wilderness is to plan a trip that matches your experience and expectations,” according to the website.

Sutherland had little experience visiting such an isolated spot, but made up for it with preparation.

He began planning a year earlier, compiling pages of notes about the wilderness area, relatives said. He followed a half-dozen Facebook pages about Michigan outdoors activities, joining two, Michigan River Rats and Michigan Kayaking/Canoeing.

In his preparation, Sutherland had done everything you’re supposed to, said the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He made a plan, plotted his route and shared it with others, letting them know where he would be and when he was expected back.

“What he did is typical. It’s good for the agency because it gives you a spot to start looking,” said the DNR's Lt. Jerry Fitzgibbon.

Experts also recommend that campers in remote spots pack a safety alert device. Sutherland brought a watch that could send an emergency message to his wife’s phone.

Sutherland began buying things 11 months before the trip and didn’t stop until the day he left, said family members. The only things he wanted for Christmas were stuff for the excursion.

He got a tent, sleeping bag, hammock, propane stove, five-gallon food bucket, fishing pole, tackle box, tarp, rope and three knives.

Amanda, the dutiful nurse, assembled a first aid kit that included everything she could think of.

By the time they were done, the backpack was four feet long and weighed 60 pounds.

Sutherland even brought his pillow.

Amanda Sutherland holds her son Finn, who lost his father Greg Sutherland in an accident while canoeing in the U.P.
Amanda Sutherland holds her son Finn, who lost his father Greg Sutherland in an accident while canoeing in the U.P.
Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

Jeff Taylor, a family friend who had nurtured Greg’s interest in fishing by taking him around Michigan as a youngster, was suggesting things to bring to the U.P. when Greg stopped him.

 “He said, don’t you worry, I have everything,” Taylor said.

Sutherland joked that experienced campers would laugh over all the things he was bringing. But the way he saw it, the trip would show what stuff wasn’t necessary and he would pack lighter the next time.

He planned to make the pilgrimage to the wilderness area every year.

'Too much, too soon'

When Sutherland left for the four-day trip, he emailed Amanda a map showing where he would park and where he would camp. He included a list of phone numbers for the ranger station.

When he reached the Mackinac Bridge, he posted a message on Facebook teasing his mom and sister for worrying so much about how isolated he would be.

“On my way to the wilderness see you Sunday ... maybe. Lol,” he wrote.

Sutherland wouldn’t arrive until evening, so he likely spent the first night in his Chevrolet Equinox, said family members.

The next day he crossed four lakes to reach his camping spot. He was as strong as an ox, but it took a lot of effort to travel that far in a short time, Taylor said.

Because of the heavy weight, his own and the gear’s, the canoe likely rode low in the water, making it harder to paddle, he said.

The lakes are connected by footpaths, including one over a steep hill.

Sutherland, who is diabetic, would have had to make several trips to lug all his stuff between the lakes, one for the canoe, one for the backpack, possibly a third if anything remained, Taylor said.

One reason people travel in pairs is so they can share the load, he said.

Sutherland was supposed to go on the trip with a friend, but the buddy backed out after getting a job.

Taylor wondered if his protege had been a bit too ambitious in his solo sojourn.

“I didn’t realize he would go so far in there,” he said. “I think he bit off a little too much. He attempted too much too soon.”

A fatal slip

McInnes Lake
Google

When Sutherland reached McInnes Lake, he found a rudimentary campsite with a site post, metal fire ring and rustic pit latrine.

It was raining as he set up camp, pitching a tent, laying out insulin, cutting cord so he could hang the food bucket from a tree, according to investigative reports by the DNR and Michigan State Police.

While slicing the rope, he apparently slipped in the wet conditions and fell on the knife, surmised investigators. The knife was later found near the bucket.

He wrapped an elastic bandage around his upper right thigh before using his belt as a tourniquet.

Seeking help, he apparently used his pistol to make a distress call, firing three rounds of three shots apiece, said the state police. Investigators recovered six of the nine shell casings.

Sutherland had brought the Ruger because the wilderness area was known to have bears and bobcats.

But it’s unlikely anyone heard the shots. It was late in the camping season and few, if any, people were in the wilderness area, which doesn’t require permits.

To stem the bleeding, Sutherland propped his leg on the red canoe as he lay on the ground, his hands behind his head, according to the DNR. And that’s how rangers found him.

He looked like a man relaxing on a beach.

One mystery continues to bedevil Sutherland’s family.

The accounts of the DNR and state police suggest he died Friday evening, Sept. 20. That would have been the first night he had set up camp. The fire pit was never used. None of his food was eaten.

But the death certificate listed the time of death as the following day at 8 a.m.

Dr. George Krzymowski, a Marquette pathologist who performed the autopsy, declined to discuss the case. Two months after Sutherland’s death, he hasn’t yet filed the medical report.

Annette Borg holds a photograph of her late son Greg Sutherland, as his wife Amanda Sutherland and son Finn react on Sunday, October 27, 2019.  Greg Sutherland died in an accident while canoeing in the U.P.
Annette Borg holds a photograph of her late son Greg Sutherland, as his wife Amanda Sutherland and son Finn react on Sunday, October 27, 2019.... Annette Borg holds a photograph of her late son Greg Sutherland, as his wife Amanda Sutherland and son Finn react on Sunday, October 27, 2019. Greg Sutherland died in an accident while canoeing in the U.P.
Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

Wife travels to U.P.

After not hearing from Sutherland Sunday, the day he was due back, his wife began texting him.

He had told her to call authorities if she hadn’t heard from him by 8 p.m., which she did. Amanda and a friend then drove all night to the U.P.

The women went to a state police post in Manistique, where a captain said someone would come to provide an update on the search for Greg.

As she waited, a man walked into the building, introduced himself to an officer as the chaplain and said he had heard that something had happened.

It took Amanda a minute to realize he was referring to Greg. That’s how she learned her husband was dead. She ran screaming into a cold dawn.

Later Monday, after Greg’s body had been recovered, Amanda received a message on her phone. It was from Greg.

“I need emergency help,” it read.

He had sent the message earlier but there was no phone service at the campsite. It wasn’t until the rangers returned Sutherland’s watch to his family that the alert finally came through.

Grieving loss of 'our little rock'

The three women who were central to Sutherland’s life deal with his absence in different ways.

Toni Sutherland lost not just a brother but a best friend.

“He was the center for each of us, our little rock,” she said. “We’re lucky that we had Greg in our life.”

Greg’s mom, Annette Borg, experiences the singular pain of parents who outlive their children.

She didn’t want Greg to go to the wilderness area. It was too remote, she said. He didn’t have anyone to help him if he got into trouble.

His upcoming trip had reminded her of “Into the Wild,” the 2007 movie about a man who hiked alone in the Alaskan outback and died after eating a poisonous plant.

She couldn’t stop thinking about the movie, she said, and then it happened to her son.

In the convoluted way that pain works, she blames herself. She was the one who had put those negative thoughts into the universe.

“How do you stop your kids from doing something?” she asked. “He was so excited. You can’t take it away from them.”

As for Amanda, she would like to visit the campsite one day.

It might help explain what happened on a desolate lake in a big forest.

As a nurse, she usually has answers, she said. With this, she has only questions: How did he die? When did it happen? What was he thinking when he realized help wasn’t on the way?

She read the police report but it offered little relief. She tried to get into Greg’s phone but doesn’t have the pattern code. She had hoped it would show how he had spent the last day of his life.

“Not knowing is killing me,” she said. “Maybe it would let me paint a picture in my head, help me come to terms with it.”

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com