Northern Michigans best paddling adventures
By Mike Terrell 8/10/09
Summertime and the paddling is easy in Northern Michigan. One of the best ways to beat the heat and crowds at local beaches is to take a float on one of the many fine paddling rivers that lace the northland.
Canoeing has a long, rich history in northern Lower Michigan. Two of the more famous rivers the 150-mile Manistee and 120-mile AuSable provided the first link between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Theres a portage of about 15 miles between the rivers upper reaches north of Grayling. Early European settlers and Native Americans before them used this link to traverse the bog-laden hinterland between the Great Lakes.
Today these two rivers and numerous smaller ones provide fine experiences for a new generation of recreational paddlers. Many waterways have been protected from development through the Wild/Scenic River designation, and are still as scenic and beautiful as our forefathers found them.
Some of the more popular rivers, in addition to the Manistee and AuSable, are the Boardman, Jordan, Lower Platte and Pine. These rivers are normally not bad to paddle midweek during the summer, but weekends can be very busy to the point of being like bumper boats as you float downstream. The Pine actually has a permit system, which you have to obtain from National Forest Service offices from mid-May through Labor Day.
There are numerous rivers that arent as well known. Some dont have liveries serving them so you need to supply your own shuttle. Ive spent the last 30 years paddling Northern Michigan rivers, and heres a selected look at some of my favorite lesser known paddling gems.
The upper Platte River is one of my favorite floats on a hot, summer day. Much of the upper portion flows through tall, heavily wooded hills. The river is narrow through this section and offers lots of shade. The river moves along at a swift pace offering an exhilarating paddle. The quick current, coupled with the narrow stream, logjams and sweepers that you have to work around, keeps you busy. Youre not up a lazy river; or going down one. Its a hands-on-paddle.
You put in at Veterans Memorial State Forest Campground on US-3, about five miles east of Honor. If you have your own equipment and will be spotting vehicles with friends, you will want to take out where the North Branch of the Platte crosses Deadstream Road west of Honor. Riverside Canoes (231-325-5622), located on the Lower Platte River where it crosses M-22, services both sections of the river. This is where they will have you spot your vehicle if you rent for a trip on the upper portion. The Trading Post (231-325-2202) in Honor also rents canoes, kayaks and tubes for upper Platte River trips with a takeout at Deadstream.
Buds Service (231-325-3891) in Honor also rents canoes and will provide a shuttle for those that have their own canoe or kayaks, and you can take out in Honor at a place just before you reach the US-31 Bridge in town; about a seven mile float from Veterans. Its about a nine mile float to Deadstream Road, and below Honor the river slows to a crawl as you approach the takeout.
I dont recommend floating the Platte in mid-September and October, because of intense fishing pressure for salmon making their way upstream. Youll be bumping fish. Salmon runs can be heavy at times and so can fishing pressure.
Another spirited river that I really enjoy is the swift-flowing Sturgeon River. One of Lower Michigans fastest-flowing rivers, its beautiful and challenging. Much of the river flows through scenic, heavily forested state land. The fast current combined with constant, tight turns, narrow passages, sweepers and an occasional obstruction require some knowledge of at least basic paddling skills. Not recommended for beginners.
Most paddlers put in at the city park in Wolverine. You can do floats of anywhere from four to 11 miles down to Fisher Woods Road. Other takeout points are Rondo Road, Midway Bridge and White Road Bridge.
The river quickly sets the tone. Just downstream from the city park it flows over an old dam with about a two-foot drop into a standing wave that will likely dump water into your watercraft. Within the first half-mile you run into more standing waves where a couple of narrow chutes create some light rapids. For the next six miles youre busy negotiating tight turns, avoiding sweepers, leaning trees and logjams. Its a fun, wet ride.
A couple of liveries, Big Bear Adventures (231-238-8181), located in Indian River, and Henleys Canoe & Kayak Rental (213-525-9994), located in Wolverine, service the Sturgeon River. Henleys will also provide shuttles for those with their own equipment.
A great getaway, where you will need your own equipment, is the upper portion of the Manistee River above CR-612. Its small-stream quality, which is atypical for this large river. However, its not serviced by any livery. You need to provide your own shuttle.
The river that we see below M-72 is a wide river that sometimes stretches up to 100 feet across. From the old ghost town of Deward down to CR-612 much of the stream averages only about 30 to 40 feet across. The river is barely large enough to navigate where you put in, but that quality is its charm. Flowing through large sections of state land, its small, meandering, clear and beautiful. You see few cottages along this section.
To reach the put-in at Deward follow Manistee River Road (dirt) north of CR-612 for a little over four miles. You will see a binocular sign for wildlife viewing where you pull back to park. It requires about a quarter-mile carry down to the river.
The Betsie River, floating from Long Road (dirt) down to County Line Road with Thompsonville in the middle, is another favorite section of river I enjoy paddling. The Betsie retains small stream quality about 25 to 40 feet across through much of the seven mile float from Wallin down to Thompsonville. The current remains quick and the countryside is largely undeveloped alternating between meadows and hardwood forests; very scenic. You even have three quick, short rapids with standing waves at the site of an old washed-out dam near the village of Thompsonville.
Below the village, the 11.5-mile stretch of river down to the County Line Road takeout, alternates between a more moderate current and quick, shallow riffles. Frequent, sharp bends, submerged logs and thickets of tag alders along the banks require that you remain vigilant.
Betsie River Canoes and Campground (231-378-2386) rents canoes and kayaks for river trips from Wallin down to County Line Road, and they will also provide shuttles for those with equipment. They are located just west of Thompsonville right on the Betsie. It also makes a great place to camp and spend a couple of days floating the river.
For more information on area rivers and access to a large number of organized paddling events you might consider joining the newly formed Traverse Area Paddling Club. Check them out at traverseareapaddlingclub.org. An individual membership is only $15. The information and camaraderie are priceless.