A Weekend on the River
"You know how to canoe, right?" my friend Andy asked me a few weeks prior to our trip.
"Of course." I responded over the phone, "how hard is it to canoe?" Although I hadn't paddled a canoe on anything remotely resembling a river since 6th grade camp, I considered myself an expert lake canoer. And really how much different could it be?
I now found myself in the front seat of our 2 man canoe( I wisely yielded the back seat to supreme canoe master Andy) rocketing down the upper stretch of the Manistee River, in the Northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Our plan was to spend 3 days on the river, 2 nights camping. Rounding out the trip was our other friend Ben, who lost the ro-sham-bo and was plugging along in our 1 man canoe.
The upper stretch of the river is fast flowing, narrow, with cold, clear water that continually winds through forest and swamps. It takes constant action to keep our canoe clear of log jams, sweeper trees and submerged logs and rocks along the way. As a credit to Andy's canoeing prowess, not only is he skillfully piloting us down this river, he is also somehow managing to find time to roll and smoke his hand rolled cigarettes.
“DRAW STROKE!” Andy suddenly yells out. I have no idea what this means, but drawing upon my vast knowledge of golf, and the fact that the current is rapidly taking us directly at a huge log, I quickly deduce we need to go left, fast. After a few stressful moments and some strong left to right strokes, disaster is averted and we continue our journey.
After about 8 miles the river begins to have a broader feel, and the current slows. We spend the rest of day one just cruising, taking in the scenery, and keeping an eye out for a campsite, which we find at a perfect spot along the river, up on a small bluff overlooking a river bend.
Day 2 is a Saturday, and in Northern Michigan, in July, that means the tourists are out in full force. The river is full of canoes, kayaks, even a few tubers. And many surly fly fishermen who I am pretty sure are genetically predisposed to hate everything in the river except trout. However today we are all business as we need to cover some serious distance, about 15 miles. Everyone is hungover from last nights festivities, and as luck would have it, it's my turn in our little one person canoe. Which tracks about as well as a barge.
Everything is going smoothly until just before dusk when we need to start finding a campsite. Andy had assured us that this stretch of the river was all state land, and we can camp anywhere along the banks. However all we are finding is a river lined with cabins, and no trespassing signs everywhere. Heading into the sunset, and while trying to scan an uninhabited swamp for a suitable campsite, I pull a Titanic and run smack into a submerged log, dumping me and everything in my canoe overboard. Fortunately, thanks to my catlike reflexes I managed to save all the gear, but now I am soaked, its getting dark, and we have nowhere to camp.
As the sun starts to set we realize we are going to have to find something fast. We spy a nice area that rises up from some low lying swampy forest. We distance ourselves from a few groups of kayakers and make our move. Pulling up the canoes from the bank and lying low as the kayakers go by we settle in as outlaw campers for the night.
Its now dawn of day 3, and its a hot one. The high today is in the mid 90s. Multiple times we stop to take a dip in the river, which is continually stream fed and stays frigid year round. As the morning wears on we pass through many more groups of tubers accompanied by their flotilla of empty beer cans. There is a livery nearby that pumps as many tourists into the river as possible for a short tube trip.
After about 50 just-one-more-bend's we finally come around a corner to see a highway overpass ahead, our marker that our pullout is near. Sunburnt, hungry, and sore, we pile out of the river and find our drop car. We bike lock the canoes to a tree, cram into Andy's Honda Civic Hatchback, and make the hour plus drive back to the start of our journey, where our other two cars are located. After heading back down to the finish again, we load up the gear and canoes and head into town for some much needed beer, burgers and talk of our next trip.