Float Away on the Manistee

I’m late. A person isn’t supposed to be late for a date with a river—a river being one of those timeless kind of things—but here I am on a hot Saturday in June, at the end of a line, 14 aqua-socked customers long, inside a Grayling Subway sandwich shop. The air is ripe with the salt-sweet summer perfume of salami and Coppertone.

I meant to be on the Upper Manistee yesterday. My plan was to shove off at 10 a.m. for a leisurely four-day kayak trip where I’d have nothing more to do than fish, swim and stare at the watery cyclones swirling away from each pull of my paddle. Maybe, if I felt like it, I’d contemplate the meaning of life. Or poke at stuff floating by.

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But the night before launch, I got caught up with work and packing, coordinating the feeding of my cat, the taking out of my trash, the e-mailing and photocopying of maps and itineraries to my parents and boss and boyfriend, none of whom would be joining me. And I got a little nervous. Not about trekking alone. About knots.

You see, in anticipation of my solo voyage, I sprang for a one-woman camping hammock. No humdrum, cargo hold–hogging two-person tent for me. I wanted petite. Exotic. Airborne suspension above potentially murky ground. Mosquito netting. A camping hammock is all of these things—if, indeed, you can reliably tie knots in the ropes that secure the hammock to the trees. And I can tie them. Just not reliably.

So I spent several hours yesterday and a few more this morning studying knot-tying demonstrations on YouTube, then standing in the woods behind my house, nervously practicing what I learned. And now I’m late. There are only six hours until sunset. I have 15 miles to paddle. And I’m ordering a meatball marinara on wheat.

Time, on the Manistee, is relative. This river has flowed through centuries. Along its banks archeologists have uncovered ancient Indian burial grounds and evidence of camps dating back as far as 8,000 B.C. Explorer Henri de Tonti and Father Marquette are thought to have floated its length in the late 1670’s. And though early 1800’s settlers and loggers didn’t own its forested banks, they chopped willy-nilly until the U.S. Navy raided in 1850 to “suggest” they buy the land they were looting. Many did. By 1900, more than 95 percent of the Manistee’s forest had vanished.

These days, the river landscape is born again, cloaked in dense stands of aspen and evergreens that line up on the steep banks like shadowy rows of choirboys. A fitting arrangement, because this place is a voyager’s sanctum. The river water is clear and flickers with trout. Miles of state forest and several campgrounds stretch along its nearly 232 miles, so overnighting along the way is easy.