Like a favorite old song that always conjures up good memories, the Pine River in Manistee County falls into that category for me.
The clear, cold waters tumble through deep forests underneath high banks supporting towering pine and hardwood trees. You can go miles without seeing any cottages. The Pine’s pristine condition, coupled with its swift current – one of the fastest flowing rivers in the Lower Peninsula – long ago made it one the state’s most popular paddling rivers; sometimes too popular.
Much of the river flows through national forest, and in 1978 the National Forest Service implemented a watercraft permit system on the river that flows through its borders. Prior to the permit system they would typically count over 2,000 canoes – this was before kayak popularity grew – per week during the height of the summer season. Misuse and overuse was taking a toll on the river’s health and natural beauty. The river has stabilized in the last 34 years and is in good shape today thanks to that decisive action.
Between May 15 and September 10, all watercraft paddling the river between Elm Flats and Low Bridge must display a permit. Permits are available at the six liveries that service the Pine as well as the USFS offices in Baldwin, Manistee and Cadillac. And, they do patrol to check for permits along the river throughout the summer. Plan ahead, because they frequently run out of permits, especially on weekends. You can reserve permits ahead, and you also need a parking permit or a Senior Pass when parking on forest service land. The most popular sections of river are those flowing through the national forest.
My favorite section, from Dobson Bridge down to Low Bridge Landing, is the feistiest portion of the river. It’s about a 13-mile, five-hour paddle. From Dobson on down below Peterson Bridge – another takeout – the river runs fast with lots of light rapids and scattered bushel sized and even larger rocks that require some quick maneuvering. Bedrock ledges create small standing waves that are fun to shoot through. A few may break over your bough. I’ve had more than few lapfuls of cold river water dumped in my lap.
From Peterson on down to Low Bridge, streamside cottages almost disappear and high banks line much of the river. Hardwoods and pine predominate. The narrow chutes created by the bedrock ledges become more numerous. Coupled with occasional large boulders in the middle of the stream it will keep you on your paddling toes. This section is also great for spotting hawks and eagles soaring overhead. Eagles also will often be perched high in trees along the river searching the waters for a quick snack.
I’ve also encountered kayakers and canoeists along this section, walking the banks and looking for Petoskey stones. Apparently after heavy rain and high water, it’s a great place to find them, according to people I’ve talked with. Some will make a day out of it.
The Pine is not recommended for beginners. Jerry Dennis, in his book “Canoeing Michigan Rivers” says, “I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone without at least basic paddling skills, but beginners often float it and often come away telling stories that serve to enhance the Pine’s reputation for being a difficult river. The potential for disasters certainly exists for careless or inexperienced paddlers.”
For those that want the experience of paddling the Pine on a little more relaxed stretch of river, try floating the section from the put-in at the end of Five Mile Road in Lake County down to the DNR access site just below Walker Bridge. It flows through state land and no permit is required for this section. The river is not quite as fast and the rapids more relaxed. It’s a beautiful section with small stream quality. The river is often only about 25 to 30 feet across. You still need some basic paddling skills.
This link provides livery information for Michigan rivers.