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 salty-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.

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 1670s. 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.

As for skills? You don’t need much. The current keeps to a not-too-swift, not-too-sluggish 3 to 4 mph. An ever-widening surface and snaky curves—not narrow hairpin turns—are the norm. And except for the odd 10-foot swimming hole, the depth keeps between knee and chest high. Finally, there are only two places to portage: Hodenpyle and Tippy Dams. But those are in the Lower Manistee, nearly 50 miles and three days farther than I’m going. My plan? About 60 easy miles on the Upper.

Following a sprint from Subway to the launch at M-72 west of Grayling, I’m stroking furiously through a miles-long corridor of riverfront cottages, using my knees for leverage while I try to paddle with one hand and, with the other, unwrap and raise my sandwich to my face, swat away gnats and fumble for bug spray. As I bump from bank to bank under the pitying eyes of dads manning grills and kids with water guns, the buzz of lawn mowers onshore is suddenly broken—by the techno beat of my cell phone, boogieing somewhere deep in my kayak’s cargo hold.

Disgusted, I slap the sandwich down in my lap. This is the same frazzled chaos of my daily commute, only I’m playing with a paddle instead of a radio tuner. I take a deep breath, visualize the moment I’ll float beyond cellular range, and exhale. Then I stroke. Slowly.

Despite the languid pace of the ensuing miles, I make it to the CCC campground before the sun sinks. But instead of hauling my boat ashore and setting up camp as planned, I keep on paddling.

Maybe it’s the magic of the Manistee or the pull of rivers in general, but the scene around each bend outshines the last, and I hate to quit before the light does. The last hours have revealed armies of ducklings, a dive-bombing kingfisher, and the heart-shaped copulation of dozens of dragonfly pairs, glinting emerald and sapphire as they somersaulted through the air around me. Across one deep hole, I even saw a doe and fawn swimming—something I’d chalked up to Northwoods myth, until today.

But as the lemonade light of early sunset dissolves into dusk, I start to sweat. I need to find a place to camp. Paddling harder, I eye the banks ahead. They’re choked with tag alder. An open stretch comes eventually, but when I step out of my boat, black muck swallows me up to my shins. Night’s coming quickly, birdsong giving way to the drone of crickets and the muddy gulps of frogs. Should I paddle back to the campground? The throb in my shoulders screams against the upstream option. I shove off downstream, rejecting one bank after another. Too steep. Too murky. No trees. Poison ivy?

Paddling in the dark now, I curse myself, thinking guiltily of the question my worried father posed before I left: “If a daughter falls in the middle of a forest, how will a dad hear the sound?”

Finally, the sharp angles of a manmade structure emerge in the darkness. I squint. A boat landing. I give a victory whoop, yank my boat ashore and scramble up the wooden stairway behind it. Up top, a small clearing is visible in the moonlight. On its fringe: the unmistakable shadows of trees. Ten minutes and two perfect figure-eight knots later, my hammock is hung. With a triumphant cackle, I slither inside its envelope of mosquito netting half-eaten meatball sandwich and dark chocolate bar in hand—and wiggle into my sleeping bag. Swinging there under the stars, I devour the dinner of champions.

The sharp caw of a blue jay wakes me at dawn. Another answers, and soon a cavalry of squawkers organizes in the canopy above me. I lie there, cupped in my suspended heaven, relishing their shrill concert as I watch sunbeams trickle across the forest floor. When I head down to the river to get water for tea and oatmeal, my bliss is broken by the sight of a small carved sign: No Camping. I groan and run back to the hammock to gather my gear.

Standing knee deep in the water minutes later, cramming my sleeping bag into the kayak’s hold, I hear the crunch of tires on gravel. The grey head of an old man peeks over the top stairs. “Up early?” he calls.

“Oh, you know,” I say, casually as possible as I slap down the hold’s lid.

He says something else, but I can’t hear over my splashing and thumping as I clamber into the cockpit, legs fighting to arrange themselves around my tackle box, lifejacket, and several free-rolling bottles of sunscreen, bug spray and water. “Okay,” I yell over my shoulder, as I lurch away, “have a great day!”

Two minutes later, I’m out of sight. I munch on a bag of granola, green beans plucked from my garden, and a wedge of cheddar—the latter two kept nicely chilled on the floor of the kayak’s water-cooled hull. As the hours pass, the sun beats hotter and the river bottom rolls by like an underwater filmstrip. It slides into view a tranquil green-gold scene of gravel and sand, then zooms in and zips by fist-sized rocks and boulders big as basketballs. The accelerating current sails me past open countryside, two kids snorkeling a beaver dam, and trees whose gnarled octopus roots cling to banks that the water has chewed but not yet licked.

Eventually I come upon a shady stretch where a boy, maybe nine years old, slumps on a dock, his sandaled feet dangling just above the water. A dark cottage hides in the cedars behind him.

“Too shady for swimming?” I ask.

“I went yesterday,” he says, straightening for a second. Then the weight of gloom settles again on his shoulders, and he adds, “We’re leaving soon.”

Ah, weekenders. “Bummer.”

“Yeah,” he says, nodding. “Bummer.”

As my days meander on toward my final takeout at Chippewa Valley Campground in Manton, the river widens. Its banks soar higher, some exploding with birch and maples; others only sheer sandy faces shaved by wind and rain, and log chutes of a century ago. Over the last few days, my body has melted into a weightless calm. The rise and fall of my chest moves in tandem with the long, slow stroke of my paddle.

Everything finds its rhythm. Each day I lunch on grassy islands that shimmer in the river like oases. Every evening I arrive at low-slung sleepy meadows well before dark. I swim, fish, eat, swing myself to sleep, then wake up and paddle some more. Sometimes I do poke at stuff as it floats by; other times I bank the boat so I can stand still in the current and catch its drifting curiosities in my hands. I have not yet figured out the meaning of life, but as I untie my hammock from two cedars on the last morning of my trip, I contemplate it.

When my boat is packed, the sun has nudged up over the trees, highlighting a cool mist over the river. I push off into its glow. I’m in no hurry for my trip to end, so when the nose of my boat catches a whisper of current, I lift my dripping paddle and coast, ruminating on a question as timeless as the river itself.

I suspect its answer has something to do with the way a river flows, knowing when to paddle and when to drift and—when it’s time to come ashore—knowing how to tie a knot solid enough to let you hang around awhile, swinging beneath the stars.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I hardly mind. I’ve still got some miles to go.

4-Day Paddle Itinerary

Here’s an overview of my itinerary, which was inspired and guided by the book Canoeing Michigan Rivers, written by Traverse City’s own Jerry Dennis and Craig Date.

Note: I highly recommend getting this book and photocopying the first four pages of the section on the Manistee River to take along with you (in a Ziploc bag, of course) on your trip. I read and re-read mine roughly 12 times a day—more frequently as night grew nearer and I grew increasingly panicky about where to set up camp. They proved invaluable for peace of mind.

Day 1

M-72 to (a non-sanctioned campsite) somewhere beyond the CCC Campground: 16ish miles

I parked my car and put in at the M-72 Bridge (downstream side of the bridge) in Grayling. From here it’s 14.5 miles (5 to 7 hours) to the CCC Bridge, where two campgrounds await on either side of the bridge. While both were easily accessible by low banks, and boasted nice open flats for setting up camp, I was in love with the river scenery, which had changed from cabin-edged to green-tree wilderness, so I kept paddling, pulling up some distance later—a mile or two, maybe?—at a no-camping put-in point (marked by a small, desktop-sized platform on the river, below a steep set of stairs leading up a bluff).

I don’t recommend camping here given the “No Camping” sign, but my excuse was that it was dark, and I was desperate. Had I had it to do all over again, I would have kayaked a little ways past (20 minutes-ish), where, the next morning, I was treated to the sight of about two dozen more accessible banks backed by more appropriate open camplands. Live and learn, I guess.

Day 2

From somewhere beyond the CCC Campground to just beyond M-66 Bridge: 20ish miles

By late morning I’d already hit Upper Sharon Bridge—the river speeds up just before, which is great fun—and as the river widens, bigger and bigger islands appear in the river’s center. I found myself wishing I had camped on one of them but placated my yearnings with the next best thing: lunch. I pulled up on a giant island oasis that comes just before a sharp river bend to the right. Here, the low island had a sandy shore and shallows that suddenly dropped to nearly four feet deep. It was perfect for picnicking, wading, swimming and fishing, which explains how I spent nearly three hours here, very happily.

After lunch, I hit Lower Sharon Bridge, coasted a lot, fished some and, because last night’s last-minute campsite had me nervous, recalculated my planned stopping point about 3 billion times.

Mostly, I planned to take out just beyond the M-66 bridge where a former state forest campground waits, but I made it there well before dark so decided I could paddle on a wee bit farther. It was a fabulous decision: The river sped up, miles of grassy banks dotted with trees were around every bend, and by 6 p.m. I had found a beautiful spot with a slightly high bank but a sweet swimming/fishing hole. I set up camp; no houses or cabins were in sight.

Day 3

Just beyond M-66 Bridge to somewhere between Coster Road and Lucas Road Bridges: 14ish miles

I remember this stretch as pretty darn quiet, ever slowing and serene. The banks grow steeper and higher, and it feels much of the time like you’re in the valley of a canyon. Along the way, just before the Coster Road Bridge, some homes and cottages appear, then a public access site, and then all goes quiet and peaceful again. Somewhere along here I set up camp on a peninsula-like bank that jutted out into a severe bend in the river, thinking I would be able to watch the river come and go on both sides from my hammock view.

It was a great idea, until the sky opened up, and I had to toss a tarp over the line strung above my hammock. Of course, then I started worrying about being struck by lightning, seeing as I was dangling between two trees on a mostly open bank, so I got out in the rain, untied and retied my hammock farther inland under the shelter of cedars … and then it stopped raining. Surprise.

Day 4

From somewhere between Coster Road and Lucas Road Bridges to Chippewa Landing canoe livery and private campground: 8ish miles

Being as it was my last day, I took this stretch especially slow. Saw a pair of bald eagles (have never seen a pair before!), steered more often than paddled, stopped to swim, and still, I arrived at my final takeout at Chippewa Landing in about 4 hours. Sigh.

Anyway, I definitely recommend taking out or, for that matter, putting in here. The folks who run Chippewa Landing were beyond nice, allowing me to have my car parked and waiting for me (two friends picked it up at M-72 and deposited here for me a few days before). Not a lot of liveries are so kind unless you’re renting their boats.

If you don’t have friends as kind as mine—folks who are willing to schlep your car from put-in to take-out point so you can indulge in a multi-day trip down the Upper Manistee—Chippewa Landing will still help: you can drive your car to Chippewa Landing, and the livery will port you and your rented boat to several put-in points upstream of the landing—M-66 Bridge, Sharon Bridge, CCC Bridge or M-72—depending on how many days you want to paddle. Call for rates, 231-313-0832, chippewalanding.com.

My Kayak Expedition Essentials

The Kayak

Mine is about 8 to 10 feet long, with a cargo hold, purchased used for about $200 several years ago. I have no idea of the brand name. Be on the lookout for one of these used beauties. Devoted kayakers are notorious gearheads, and they will continue to upgrade throughout their lives, looking for thrifty folks like you and I to take their perfectly good kayaks off their hands for a couple hundred smackers, so they can get some fancy boat that does the exact same thing, only maybe weighs less and has a softer seat. As long as it floats, it works for me.

Paddle

Go as light as you can, your shoulders will thank you. If you’re savvy, talk your kayak seller into throwing in one as your free gift with purchase. It may be a wee bit heavier than their super-duper hi-tech paddle, but they ALL feel heavy after you paddle a couple hours. Think of it as body sculpting.

Kayak Rack

I was astounded to find, after scoring my el cheapo kayak, that the racks to port it cost about twice what I paid for the boat. Surprise. My solution? Skip the rack; stuff the big ol’ boat into my hatchback until it reaches the windshield; tie that hatchback down really, really tight; tie a scrap of an old T-shirt on the back; and drive really, really carefully.

The Hammock

I bought this special from Beyer of Maine. I did a heap of research on hammocks of all kinds and makers, and ultimately went with Beyer’s “Moskito Traveller” camping hammock because it packs down super small, weighs only 16 ounces (great for future backpacking trips), has the suspended-but-enveloping mosquito-netting to keep the bugs out, and was rated highly on lots of backpacker forums. It was also less than $50. Try buying a tent for that!

Note: You will have to buy rope—I bought two 5-foot lengths of 1/2-inch nylon rope on sale at Gander Mountain for cheap, as well as two carabiners, also cheap, from which to hang my hammock’s ends to trees. Kind of annoying this stuff doesn’t automatically come with a hammock, but hey, cheaper than the fancy rope-accessory stuff sold separately from Beyer.

An additional note: Sleeping in a camping hammock is totally comfortable. The key is to lie diagonally in the hammock—Brazilian style—so your body can rest flat, not in a U-shape (which I think of as Gilligan-style). As a belly sleeper, I found this diagonal method flat and fabulous.

Food

One of the best parts of kayaking is you don’t have to carry any weight on your back, so, as long as it fits in the cargo hold, it can go. (Read: feel free to bring bottles of wine.) Likewise, because the hold and hull of the boat are sitting low in the water, kept naturally cool by the river, you can place somewhat perishable items in there without worrying too much about spoilage (avoid finicky perishables like eggs, milk, mayo, of course). In the bottom of my kayak’s hold, I kept a few ziplocks full of green beans, strawberries, cheddar cheese, dried figs, a couple bars of dark chocolate, and a bean-and-veggie spread I made. In my general food bag, also in the hold, I stuffed some wraps, several packages of vacuum-packed Tuna Creations by Starkist (which are small, require no can opener and are quite delicious when stuffed in the wraps with slices of apple and cheddar for lunch). I also toted the typical oatmeal, granola, crackers, tea bags and freeze-dried camping dinners—Mountain House are my faves—for breakfast, snacks and dinner fare. I like to eat a lot.

Dry Bags

Don’t buy them unless you’re doing some hardcore kayaking that will likely/possibly entail flipping your boat, riding waves or capsizing—all of these are highly unlikely on the peaceful Manistee. Thus, I used a couple Hefty garbage bags: one for clothes, another for food, a third for trash.

Clothing

Layers are king: fleece jacket, convertible shorts/pants (nerdy, but a great invention), a wicking long-sleeve shirt, a short-sleeve shirt and bathing suit were all I brought. I mostly lived in the bathing suit, just pulling on shirts as it neared night. Oh, also a towel. It was nice to sit on because my kayak seat is not a plush one, and also for drying off post swim.

Other Essentials (most of them obvious)

Polorized sunglasses, hat, sunscreen, bug screen, chapstick, fuel and portable camping stove (I have an old school MSR stove that packs down into a cereal bowl-sized sack; but I recommend the stove my boyfriend owns, the MSR Pocket Rocket Backpacking Stove, which is about the size of a couple granola bars and less than $40.), portable water purifier (again, I have an old school PUR—they don’t make them anymore, but you can get sweet new ones for $60+, and they last about 100 uses before you even have to change the filter), a Nalgene bottle with a wide mouth (for pumping your purified river water into), life vest (they have fancy short ones made for kayaking; I borrowed a non-fancy vest from my dad’s Sea Doo gear pile; it worked fine), sleeping bag, camping pillow, headlamp, matches for lighting stove, camera (in Ziplock), fishing pole, bait and tackle, and whatever other goodies you like to ensure a good time on the water.