By Mike Terrell
The new 1.5-mile-long Bear River Valley Recreation Area, which splits
Petoskey down the middle, is a natural beauty.
Located just two blocks from the citys famed Gaslight District, the
expansive 36-acre park features steep terrain, unpaved and paved trails,
boardwalks, forests and open meadows. You can bike, hike, fish, picnic,
nature watch and go whitewater rafting or kayaking in the newly created
Whitewater Park on the Bear River. Its a real boon for area outdoor
The Bear River has the biggest drop of any river in the Lower Peninsula
over the last mile. It drops nearly 80 feet as it rushes from the
highlands to Little Traverse Bay. It made a perfect environment for a
whitewater park. Managed as part of the Petoskey Parks System, the park
was created with the help of a whitewater park design firm and officially
opened this spring. It has drops and rapids from Class I to Class III and
over a dozen features to challenge the paddler, according to Northern
Michigan Paddling Club president Gary Hunter.
Its like a section of rapids that could exist in West Virginia or
Colorado, he enthused. If youre into paddling this will be a big
reason to come to the Petoskey area. Theres only one other whitewater
course currently in Michigan, and its not as long.
The lower section of the course is designed for walking, which will allow
a paddler to easily carry the kayak upstream to run sections again and
again, Hunter explained. The further up you go, the larger the drops
and rapids. For those new to the sport it allows them to run the easier
rapids several times before heading on upstream to tackle the harder
The largest features and toughest rapids are located just below parking
area 5 located off Franklin Street. The first third of the of the
whitewater park, which starts from River Bend Park off Standish Avenue,
flows through a natural area that gradually picks up speed through a rock
garden before hitting the larger drops below Bridge Street. Total
distance is 1.5 miles from River Bend and one mile from the parking area 6
off Sheridan Street.
Avid paddler Sara Cockrell of Traverse City, who has participated in a
number of Au Sable Canoe Marathons, said its a great training tool for
those that aspire to run rapids.
Overall its an amazing whitewater course for Michigan paddlers, but its
not for everyone, she advised. Dont haul your tandem canoe or
recreational 10 or 12-foot kayak up there. If you dont have a whitewater
canoe or true whitewater kayak with a neoprene spray skirt, dont try it.
The river will eat aluminum canoes and Old Town Loons.
She suggests renting Duckies, one and two-person inflatable kayaks from
the local outfitter in Petoskey, Bahnhof Sports. They are pretty stable
with the ability to bounce off rocks. Weighing a little over 20 pounds
they can be easily carried upstream for multiple runs and the open boat
can be easily exited in the event of a tip-over and at take-out. A
one-person Ducky, including paddle, wetsuit, PFD and helmet, rents for $58
for three hours.
For hikers, the recreation area offers a 1.5 mile walk from River Bend
Park down to the park on Lake Street, and you will see little of the
town. You can sometimes hear it above, but along the valley floor
especially along the river it remains pretty pristine. A wide paved
trail that passes a couple of picnic shelters runs from the park on Lake
Street to Sheridan Street, but it doesnt always get as close to the river
as other natural trails. If you start from River Bend the first half-mile
is only natural trail.
HUGGING THE RIVER
I preferred hiking the non-paved trails when I hiked through the valley
recently. They often hug the riverbank offering great views of the wild,
tumbling river, and, if youre lucky, some kayakers attempting the
The North Country Trail, which starts along the New York/Vermont border,
blazes a path through the park. Just follow the blue paint marks on trees
and signs. They will guide you along a scenic, mostly natural trail, with
great valley and river views. Follow the NCT through the Bear River
valley or to the middle of North Dakota if you like. Thats where the
4,400-mile-long trail ends.
For years the Bear Rivers natural beauty had been obscured by industry
and dams that had altered the flow of the river. A few years ago
residents started cleaning up the site, removing some of the dams,
restoring the natural flow of the river and valley. The Bear River Valley
Recreation Area is the result, and it is a gem of a park offering lots
of activities and a beautiful natural area for all seasons.
Bear River Whitewater Park and Northern Michigan Paddling Club
Bear River Valley Recreation Area
Bahnhof Sports Ducky rentals
or call 800-253-7078.