4 Rivers. 4 Adventures. Go!
Kayak trips for every level of paddler
By Todd VanSickle | June 12, 2021
Northern Michigan is a kayaking mecca — and for good reason. The region’s myriad waterways offer a variety of adventures for all levels of kayakers, and an opportunity to rent one of these boats is as ubiquitous as it is to buy. (A visit to your local Meijer or sporting goods store is often all it takes to nab one for general use on inland lakes, while specialized retailers — The Outfitter of Harbor Springs, Northbound Outfitters in Grayling, and Backcountry Outfitters in Traverse City to name just a few — are the go-to for those eager to up their kayak game with higher-mileage destinations in open water.
For a relaxing ride with more scenery than waves (and minimally sore shoulders), steer your hull to one of the region’s rivers. Typically, an 8-to-10-foot boat with a wider hull is ideal for just about any river in lower Michigan, though many folks make do with shorter vessels. Whichever you have handy, make sure to carry a lifejacket wherever you paddle. Although it’s not required by law to wear one while kayaking, there has to be one aboard the vessel or you’ll face a fine. (For safety’s sake, we recommend wearing it just in case.)
Once you have a kayak and your PFD, you’re ready to set out on a river adventure. Here are four to pick from:
CCC Bridge to Three Mile Bend: 2.5 hours
There are numerous kayak launches along this 191-mile long river that stretches from the south of Otsego County to the shores of Lake Michigan in Manistee County. The river is perfect for the beginner. The average depth varies from one foot to four feet, depending on the section of river. Although winding, the Manistee tends to be wider and slower moving. For most paddlers, a good starting point is at CCC Bridge State Forest Campground (7184 Sunset Trail SE, in Fife Lake). There is a kayak ramp, making launching easy, and all along the route several spots to pull over and swim. In fact, a shallow bend about five minutes into the paddle is a perfect spot to take a dip. For a longer paddle, head to the Sharon Road access, which makes the trip about four to five hours. Expect to see plenty of wildlife and an occasional angler. Leave the radio off and let nature provide the music.
Graves Crossing to Webster Bridge: 3.5 hours
This Jordan River, flowing through Charlevoix and Antrim counties; not the legendary one in the Middle East — is for the more experienced kayaker, especially its upper portion. Unapologetically swift and winding, the river is especially challenging in spring, when fallen trees and high water converge to complicate its narrow passages. By summer, it’s less treacherous but still somewhat challenging and worth the ride if you’ve got the skills for some thrills. The banks of the river are lined with old cedars, which provide a welcome respite from the sweltering summer sun. There are numerous places to pull off to have lunch and take a swim. About an hour into the trip from Graves Crossing (M-66 & Graves Crossing, Mancelona), kayakers will reach Old State Road Bridge, which is a better access spot for those looking for a less active tour. The culverts and small whitewater rapids, previously a bit of a wild ride that overturned many a kayak, have been re-engineered and somewhat tamed, making the area a nice spot to stop for a snack or to launch into calmer waters. From here, the river starts to widen and mellow, allowing to shift their focus from steering to tanning.
Wolverine City Park to Rondo Road: 3 hours
Warning: This is not a beginner’s kayak. The Sturgeon River is the fastest-flowing river in the Lower Peninsula, with an average descent of 14 feet per mile. It is also a technical paddle, with some white water portions and strong currents that put kayakers in a tailspin when navigating around sharp corners. Don’t just take it from us. According to according to RiverFacts.com, the Sturgeon River has an 80 percent tip-over rate in a flat-bottom kayak. With these kinds of statistics, wearing a PFD and stashing your belongings in a dry bag is a very, very good idea. (Personal note: I lost an iPhone on this river after hitting an overhanging branch that capsized my boat.) A good cup holder is also a necessity, because the river demands full attention for navigating around protruding rocks, logs, and … herds of folks in slower moving but far less steerable float tubes. A good spot to stop for a breather — and lunch and a cool one — is the Thirsty Sturgeon Restaurant on the bank of the river. Don’t be deterred from taking on this river, just come prepared and experienced. The scenery will not disappoint.
Scheck’s Campground to Brown Bridge Landing
2 hours) — The river starts near Kalkaska and 28 miles later empties into Grand Traverse Bay. Start at Scheck’s Place State Forest Campground (6069 Brown Bridge Rd.), where there is a flat grassy area near the parking lot that makes for an easy launch into the shallow but slightly swift-moving river. This kayak trip is suitable for the novice. The first half wends through a leafy forest with few houses. The second half of the kayak trip is a winding paddle amongst high sandy banks that block out the horizon but give a sense of seclusion except when an occasional runner or walker is spotted along the ridges. During the right time of year, wildflowers dot the high gravelly banks. The final stretch used to be Brown Bridge Pond, before the Brown Bridge Dam was removed, draining the pond, in 2012 and the area was re-engineered to allow it to return to its natural state. Before reaching the old pond area there is a footbridge that spans across the river, which is part of the Brown Bridge Quiet Area. The trip goes quick, so make sure to linger a bit on the sandy shores and enjoy the clear, cool flowing water.