It had been a year in our thoughts, the opportunity to paddle the whole Manistee River. In the fall of 2011, my sister Dana, brother Jan and I had a very successful three-day paddle on the AuSable River. Jan paddled his inflatable boat and Dana and I took my Bell North Wind red canoe. It was this trip that inspired a longer journey on one of our favorite rivers, the Manistee.
The first week of October 2012 was selected to paddle more than 142 miles of the Manistee. We wanted to start as far up the river as we could -- the Deward Natural Area near Mancelona. We realized early on that time wouldn’t allow doing the whole river; so ending at Red Bridge in Manistee County was our plan. As a guide, we used Jerry Dennis and Craig Date’s book, “Canoeing Michigan Rivers.”
The time had come. Having done many adventure trips all over the U.S., I couldn’t help being especially excited about this trip, being so close to home. It would eliminate a lot of travel time and extra planning.
Although I have canoed all my life, this sport has become one of my favorites. I wanted to increase my time, do more multi-day trips, and be self-contained. We would spend eight days on the river starting September 29, 2012.
Joining us were Jan’s friends Teresa, Bert and Jim. Much to my disappointment, my paddle partner and sister, Dana, couldn’t come.
The first day couldn’t have been more beautiful. My husband Bill was gracious enough to shuttle us all to the river. The start at the Deward Natural Area was a few miles down a gravel road and then a portage of a quarter mile.
The river is beautiful and undeveloped here. It is crystal clear with a sandy bottom, much narrower than other portions that I’ve paddled further down. It is not difficult, being shallow and slow moving, but there are many bends and lots of vegetation to get tangled in.
Teresa was my partner the first two days while I was in the stern, or back of the canoe. My skills are limited, and being used to the bow, we ran into a few trees; but not too horrible I hope, because Teresa and I are still friends.
The day was sunny and cool; the maples were vibrant with color, reds, oranges, florescent pinks, yellows, mixed in with many cedars and evergreens. We couldn’t believe our luck and how fortunate we were.
With only eight miles to paddle that day we mostly floated and gave thanks for such a wonderful life and opportunity! Our destination was to a “paddle in” only campground -- the Upper Manistee River State Forest camp.
We knew that evening would be special -- a weather forecast for clear skies and a full moon rising.
That night is a memory that will always be unmatched. We sat around the campfire on a cold fall evening with leaves in full color falling around us, and watched the big full orange moon rise. I can see it all now, Jan and Teresa dancing together on the forest floor, me on the sidelines in my own pleasurable dance, all to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” (So happy Jan brought his iPod!) We listened to many other great songs, dancing into the night -- so peaceful, so lovely -- a remote and wild place, the river always quietly flowing -- practically in my own back yard! How I love my home, Northern Michigan!
Our first big day of 20 miles! We woke to a gorgeous fall morning, bright, sunny, crisp. After coffee and breakfast we were off. Our destination was the CCC State Forest Campground.
This section was much more populous with the crossing of M-72. With many homes and it being Sunday, we ran into other paddle groups that day. But the colors were spectacular and we saw many herons and hawks. Funny how some of the simplest things in life turn out to be the most spectacular!
The river widened, making for much easier paddling than the narrow bends of the day before. We arrived at the campground just before sunset, scurrying to set up camp and to pack up Jan’s inflatable boat and send our goodbyes to Teresa who had to work in the morning.
I silently gave thanks that it wasn’t me who had to go home. I had six more days on the river with no cell phones, alarm clocks, no obligations or deadlines. We had just the river, the sun, the moon, the campfires, the canoe and the quiet – the calm spirits of my comrades.
It was another beautiful, still evening with a big moon and sounds of coyotes in the night. I couldn’t help but feel I was in a remote place; it was so quiet and there was no cell phone coverage on most of the Manistee, which really surprised me.
We woke to a chilly 28 degrees with frost and the sound of a huge logging rig of some type passing by on the dirt road. A sign of civilization!
The forest floor was a red carpet with many leaves that had come down during the night. We felt a little like children, laying down in the leaves, the feel, the smell, the joy of newly fallen leaves! It was another sunny morning with the river and coffee cups steaming, we sat and watched the river flow by.
This section of the river was very quiet with few homes. We met only one other paddle party that day near Sharon Bridge in Kalkaska County, where we stopped for lunch. I was just getting over a cold and the day was clouding over, so it was a good time for a steamy cup of hot soup.
Our destination was below Smithville Landing in the Fife Lake area to stealth camp that night. After passing Smithville, we started looking for a site.
We scouted several spots, and then, coming around a bend, a large eagle flew over a high site. It was the perfect spot: hardwoods, birch and hemlock and high on a bank facing east. We could watch the moon rise again!
It was another magical night in the quiet woods, with moon, river, and stars, dancing to some of our favorite songs. Actually, I was the only dancer that night, but I am sure the three others were dancing in their hearts.
The eagle sighting reminded me of another trip I had just taken in August to the Boundary Waters in Minnesota. It was a very windy fourth day of our paddle, crossing Fourtown Lake; the waters were choppy and rough. We needed to find an available camp spot or backtrack, which we most certainly didn’t want to do. Suddenly a pair of eagles with a fledgling flew over. I thought, “Is it a sign?” Then around that point, the most beautiful open campsite appeared. We all rejoiced greatly, how cool to feel such a connection to our natural world!
Our plan today was to paddle another 20 miles to the closed Chase Campground, but we were hoping to possibly go further to the Old 131 State Forest campground. There was a reason for this -- my husband Bill was going to be waiting there with beer and pizza!
This part of the river was very familiar to me, having paddled it several times. We had lunch at Rainbow Jim Bridge where we again ran into other paddlers who were going fishing.
Someone in our group commented that we should change Jim’s trail name to “Rainbow Jim.” We laughed. When a person does a long distance hike he is given a trail name and Jim’s was “Raven Jim.” It was given to him several years earlier in the Grand Canyon when a raven stole his whole bag of food. Not surprising, he didn’t want his name changed.
We got to Chase Camp at about 4 in the afternoon, the old camp was a mess, having hosted several parties where no one took the garbage out. It was very unappealing, so we were sure we could paddle another two hours to 131. Also, I was motivated to see my dear hubby and not have to cook dinner.
The 131 camp was a beautiful sight and greeting us was Bill, still in his scrubs from work. He was so wonderful helping us pull in canoes and unload gear. We did 28 miles that day, our longest day!
After setting up tents and settling in we devoured two large pizzas and some Oberon beer. The day ended with our usual routine of sitting around a campfire and listening to hooting owls.
We woke up to another crisp morning. Today was going to be easy, paddling from 131 Campground to Baxter Bridge State Forest Campground. We hardly paddled -- just floated most of the day. This section south of Kingsley is very familiar to me, having paddled it numerous times, but never on such an adventure. It’s a great section, being mostly state land with high banks all along. The North Country Trail follows the river along the high banks.
We arrived early to camp and could see rain was threatening so we set our tents under some white pines. Jan had brought some tarps and we immediately strung them up. After a nice hike on the North Country Trail we got back to camp just in time for a lovely dinner under the tarps while it poured, having barely escaped the rain on our hike.
While enjoying our dry, luxurious living room sitting on fresh pine needles, we missed our campfire. Jan, priding himself on making a fire in any inclement weather, built us a beautiful fire in the rain several feet away. So you can imagine how sweet an evening that was. This kind of weather could not dampen our spirits, only enhance it!
Our plan this day was to stealth camp again. It was another 20-mile day with thoughts of possibly camping in another closed campground, Indian Crossings in Wexford County.
Again, much to our disappointment, the camp was dirty and run down so we pushed further on to find a sweet spot on the north side of the river. The spot was clean but had hosted many campfires in the past.
Awake and ready for my first cup of coffee… but where is my sweet camp French press? Darn if I didn’t leave it at the Baxter Bridge camp! I am sure you coffee drinkers know what a tragedy this was.
Thankfully Bert brought plenty of instant coffee so I wasn’t too traumatized.
Today, with about 18 miles to go, we would be starting to reach the backwaters of Hodenpyle Dam in Manistee County. Our destination was the Northern Exposure Campground, back to semi-civilization.
It was early afternoon as Jim and I approached a lovely bend in the river when my senses were jolted. I saw a man pointing a gun at the river, shooting at some target and he appeared unaware of our approach.
I began to scream “canoes on the river!” He didn’t appear to hear and kept shooting. Thankfully, he walked away before we were on him. I breathed a sigh of thanks for our well-being. I was also very grateful for my “salsa red” Outdoor Research raincoat.
It was time for lunch when we crossed under the M- 37 bridge. A little beyond the bridge we stopped to eat and I called to check on my family, having cell coverage here. After this we found ourselves in Hodenpyles backwater, with a strong west wind. We slowly made our way and arrived at 6-ish at camp.
What a beautiful campsite that night! We were wind-blown and exhausted after a very vigorous paddle. It was cool but sunny and it appeared all the maples had just dropped their bright orange leaves.
We set up camp on fresh leaves and inquired from the hosts on firewood. It was Saturday and the last weekend the camp was open. The hosts generously brought us plenty of firewood without charge in their golf cart. It would be a cold and clear night. Such goodness and kindness from the few people we met on the river!
It didn’t stop here. When I was going to collect water, a couple in a motorhome asked me about our journey, having seen us arrive by canoe. They were amazed with my story and even offered to loan us their truck if we needed any supplies at the nearby store. Also three miles down were showers!
I thanked them but being late and cold, it would be another Wet Wipe bath tonight. I told them the only thing we were short of was wine; there was none of our boxed wine left. This greatly interested the gentleman. Later after dinner he arrived with a bottle of some of the most delicious homemade wine I’ve ever tasted.
Last day! Today we planned to paddle 14 miles to Red Bridge, crossing the pond and portaging over the dam owned by Consumers Power to complete a swift 10-mile section from the dam to the bridge.
It was much colder and wasn’t supposed to warm up, so we bundled up with winter hats, warm gloves, Smart Wool and down undercoats for the first time. We tried to leave earlier to avoid the strong west winds, but as usual we left about 10:30 a.m.
It was a challenging paddle. We paddled into the wind and the pond was very choppy. One minute the sun was out and the next it would be blowing sharp bits of ice and snow into our faces.
It was glorious though! The dark menacing clouds, then rainbows and sun rays, water everywhere and brilliant fall colors on the shoreline. I felt I was in another world, yet I kept battling the elements.
Finally, the dam was in sight. Fearing we were going to get sucked into it was ungrounded as it had very good signage to the portage area.
Lunch, then the last sweet 10 miles and we would be done.
I had mixed feelings of never wanting to return. I wanted this trip to last forever! It was probably good that the day was cold and that we had a peek of winter weather.
And there is no match for having someone who loves you waiting at the end, my lovely husband Bill! There he was when we arrived. He helped us load the boats onto Jan’s Highlander. We all packed into the car, soaking warmth from the heater, worn and tired, thankful for the comfy seats, ready to go home to family and friends.
Kim (Ealy) Steffes is a Traverse City native, wife, mother, grandmother, and RN who loves an adventure and is passionate about being in the outdoors.