Heres a rundown on some of our favorite rivers in the region, based on hours of exploring fun. Needless to say, there are many others worth exploring: the Platte, the Bear, the Fox and the Grass rivers all come to mind. But these will get you started:
The Betsie River -- Benzie County
The Betsie is noteworthy as a wildlife river: chances are good that youll see deer along the route, and certainly many birds and wild flowers.
Theres a place to put in on the Betsie at the bridge just down the hill on River Road to the west of Benzonia. You can spot your car about three miles downstream at a parking lot where the river crosses another bridge. Its a short enough stretch by road that you can pedal a bike back to the launching area.
If you wish, you can paddle farther on to Elberta; but be forewarned: hefty kayakers may get stuck in the shallow mud flats just before the harbor... Bonus: a side-trip to Gwen Frostics fabulous print shop on River Road.
The Boardman River -- Grand
There are two great options for paddling the Boardman, which is the river that literally built Traverse City back in the lumber era when saw logs were floated downstream to the towns lumber mills.
Option one: Jump off from Ranch Rudolf, located 12 miles southeast of Traverse City. The rustic resort offers canoe trips, with put-ins available upstream where the river is at its wildest and most scenic.
Option two: Put in at the Keystone Road parking lot on the Boardman near Chums Corners in TC. Be sure to wear a helmet and have your wits about you, because heavy rapids and dangerous rocks lie just 100 yards downstream. Beyond that, however, its smooth paddling all the way across Boardman Lake to downtown Traverse City and West Bay. Be prepared to portage around three dams, and possibly wade for a bit across one of the shallow sections just past the rapids. A shorter alternative is to put in at Sabin Dam.
The Crystal River -- Leelanau County
A jewel of a river and a fun option for friends and family who want to enjoy one of the many restaurants in Glen Arbor for an after-paddle get-together.
Take a right turn off M-22 on the road just north of Glen Arbor and follow the winding river about a mile to a put-in parking lot near a small dam.
The Crystal provides a beautiful, serpentine paddle back to the north end of town, with a good exit point being the landing across from the Shell station. Its shallow waters provide its shining crystal appellation (but may also necessitate some wading in spots). There are three short portages along the river, but you can bypass one of them by shooting a tunnel that provides a whooping slide under the roadway.
The Manistee River -- Wexford County
Opportunities for camping present themselves on the broad Manistee, which is Northern Michigans longest river. A good jump-off point is just south of the rest stop on US-131 (the former Chippewa Landing). Paddle west for fabulous views of the bluffs which tower for hundreds of feet along the north bank. There are designated campsites along the route, but some choose to simply pull in wherever looks good (although you run the risk of encountering teenage partyers who wander down the two-tracks to the river). A good place to exit the river is the parking lot on Summit City Road, southeast of Kingsley.
The Sturgeon River -- Cheboygan County
The Sturgeon is the fastest-flowing river in Northern Michigan, dropping an estimated 17 feet per mile. Put in at the park in Wolverine and hold onto your hat for a wild ride all the way to the town of Indian River.
Be sure to steer far clear of the many log jams along the river banks: kayakers, especially, can be swept into these traps and pinned underwater. And bring a change of clothes in a waterproof bag, because chances are good youre in for a dunking. A more stable option is paddling the Sturgeon in a canoe.