5 Days Paddling the Manistee River (Camping + Fishing Tips, Too)

A mom, dad, two kids and two of their friends load up the canoes for a five-day paddle on the iconic Manistee River. Upshot: easy paddling, no people, a healthy dose of nature, and time to reconnect in the flow. Find more vacation ideas in the July 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine


When we pull our canoe-laden pick-up truck off the dirt road at Harvey’s Bridge (19 Rd.) and walk down to the Manistee River for a first look, we stare in disbelief, our mouths falling open. The stream looks like it’s alive. It moves swiftly past the bank without making a sound, like an enormous chocolate-colored creature. It spins, swirls, doubles back on itself in eddies as if it forgot something. The river’s voice is nearly mute, except where a log splashes as it bobs up and down in the current, dipping to touch the water then righting again, over and over, like a person prostrating in worship. Any river that moves at such an accelerated rate clearly has a mind of its own. Our paddle trip is going to be quite a ride.

The Manistee River travels for 190 miles, angling southwest across the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan. The waterway is considered to be one of the best trout streams east of the Rockies and has a stable flow of clean, cold water year round … perfect for paddling.

The course of the Manistee east of Mesick traces something like the blue line on an EKG graph, but of a heartbeat gone a little crazy. My family and friends plan to cover over 100 miles from outside Smithville on M66 west to Mesick (M115), but because of the multitude of river curves, the journey is a lot shorter via road. We will paddle three canoes carrying our son and daughter and their significant others, spending five days on the river and camping out four nights. After we leave a car at our intended take-out spot, we shuttle up to M66 and proceed to fill the boats with camping gear and coolers of fresh food. By the time we see the car again, we will have a whole slew of memories burned onto the emulsion of our brains, images unknown at this point.

The Manistee is a river with a mission: get to Lake Michigan as quickly as possible. As paddlers, we will have to rudder as we manage its wild, rowdy nature, then paddle in the slower sections. We point our crafts into the flow like floating leaves, giving ourselves over to a force far greater than our boats.

With the Manistee’s murkiness, we don’t bother peering into the depths of the river as a source of entertainment like on so many rivers we have traveled in the past. The river is disclosing no clues of what lurks beneath—turtles, water snakes, fish. We hear it has just rained a lot recently. The Manistee is certainly not flooding nor is it swollen, so it is not dangerous to be on it, but it is muddy and moving. When you travel halfway across the country like we have from Pennsylvania, to make a Manistee River memory, you take what the river gives you.

We paddle on and find the river curves are so sharp that the stroker in the bow of the canoe must draw the paddle in and pull the canoe out of the force field of the eddy, lest the current propel us onto the far bank. When the boat is at the apex of a hairpin curve, you can see up the river from where you came and down the next stretch, which lies ahead.

During our trip, we experience the Manistee as a river of solitude. Rope swings dangle, lifeless, longing for a child to swing from them and make them come alive. The riverbanks and backyards of the river homes are also devoid of people. We see nobody on the water. Why aren’t the locals playing like we are on this beautiful June day? We pretty much have the Manistee to ourselves, sharing only with the eagles and ospreys, kingfishers and herons, beavers and muskrats, whitetail deer and turkeys, and turtles and ducks. Turtles bask on logs, their rear legs splayed open behind them like puppies on a floor. A new family of ducks floats by, the youngsters in a single line peeling off mama duck’s rear, except for one duckling, who sits on her back, not a drop of water wetting his feathers.

My son, Bryce, cannot contain his desire to pull over and slide down the steep sandy banks that empty right into the river, but the current sails us right on by.

Otters do their share of sliding, evident by the compressed grassy banks, otter trails that give rapid access to the water.

There are appealing spots everywhere to pull over and take a break. You can tell where other paddlers stopped and hiked up the bluffs—hillsides decorated with thick evergreen trees, cedars, pines, and hemlocks. The bluff-tops deliver spectacular views of the river and send an invitation to meander along the North Country Trail high on the Manistee’s banks. This 4,600-mile National Scenic Trail, marked by 2-by-6-inch blue painted blazes, travels from eastern New York to North Dakota. The NCT traces the Manistee for many miles, and we stretch our legs along its path multiple times in our paddling journey. We make plans to return to the Manistee’s banks in the near future, next time to hike along its shoulders.

In these beginning miles, the narrow river is like a tightly wound corkscrew, like a youngster full of piss and vinegar, but offering few clear landmarks. If it were not for the occasional iron bridge that the river ducks under, it would be a challenge to determine our exact location.

The person in the bow powers the boat and scouts, while the rear keeps the boat straight by ruddering and paddle assist. Although there are no rock hazards in this river, we don’t often see the occasional submerged log until we are literally on top of it. Haphazard tipping is a real danger, so we can’t get too comfortable on the Manistee.

When the river is muddy like this, it is a bit more dangerous. We have our PFDs (personal flotation devices) cinched tightly, strong swimmers and not. We keep our cameras stashed in dry bags. Swirling whirlpools look like spinning dervishes. Who knows what lurks beneath the surface causing the water to react so disturbingly. Judging by how high debris is stuck in the trees, the river rises considerably higher than today’s flow. Usually we see just sticks and limbs floating by or an occasional wooden dock that dislodged and floated down, but here is a shocking first—a drowned deer wedged on a branch, pungent and bloated, water logged and sad-looking.

When a violent thunder and hail storm builds in ferocity, we angle our boats toward shore to throw up our tent for quick shelter. Two feet from shore, our boat hits a submerged log and tips us over. Because we have the gear secured with webbing and straps, we lose nothing, but in my attempt to scramble ashore, my Canon SLR camera, stowed in my fanny pack, gets wet. Although I have a dry bag, I neglected to put the camera away after we saw and photographed a close-up bald eagle and then hurried to get off the river before the storm hit.

The gift of the current is the distance it allows us to cover, nearly effortlessly. We originally planned on doing approximately 25 river miles a day but with such a swift current, we cover 35 miles without much effort. After our first day or two, the narrow river finally calms down, slows and straightens itself out a bit. The water widens as other tributaries feed in, build the flow, and carve a more direct path.

We watch for connecting creeks, swivel our heads backward where a break in the bank indicates that a stream could be entering—a reference point to give us an idea of where we are in our course. It is a good thing to keep track of milestones, so you do not miss anything and get to know the river.

We find the designated campgrounds and the potable water, indicated on the pocket river map, which is important to secure for your trip. But most of the land along the way is public and camping is not an issue as there are so many choices. Consult the map for opportunities.

All four nights that we spend on the Manistee, we enjoy gorgeous campsites, perched above the river on bluffs. Some of the sites are designated state forest campsites with a convenient water pump, others are on wild public land, and we rely on our gallons of water we transported in our canoes. We securely tie up our three canoes and carry our dry bags and coolers up to the flat. There we find magnificent bird’s-eye views of the river as it turns and changes its mood and color while the sun sinks in the sky. Up on the bluff, we are able to catch a steady breeze to keep the evening mosquitos away.

We gather firewood for ambiance and additional mosquito control. Before retiring, we share what each day meant to us. My daughter Sierra was recently at an Outward Bound leadership week, and they use the evening ritual, “A rose, a bud and a thorn” to share feelings about the day. A rose was something that happened that was wonderful and you found enjoyable. A bud is something on the horizon for tomorrow that will hopefully turn into a rose. A thorn is something you did not particularly enjoy and hope it will be better. In this way, we all came to appreciate our day on the river a little more, seen through the eyes of our paddling comrades.

On our last day, we paddle from Harvey Bridge to Glengary Bridge for a total of 15 miles. We spot duck boxes and riverside irises and trees chewed by beavers. We pass dirt roads that dead-end on the river, and tents and trailers parked high on the bluffs, but still see practically nobody. The river begins to slow under the influence of Hodenpyl Dam as it moves closer to the backwater pond. Pine plantations sprout up, and tall grasses on the flat land by the river’s edge are reminiscent of coastal waterways. A doe sits in her bed of soft grasses on the riverbank and just watches us float on by, unblinking, confident we are no threat.

That’s when we see our first humans of the five-day paddle. Two country boys sitting back in their parked skiff, sipping beer, music turned up on a fitting Brad Paisley tune … “Well I love her, but I love to fish/I spend all day out on this lake/And hell is all I catch.”

“Where are the rods, boys?” I ask.

“Too muddy to fish. But can’t let a little mud get in the way of an enjoyable day on the river.”

“Is it always this muddy?” I ask.

“No, not always, but a lot.”

A fish would have to smell the bait in this muddy river because it would not be able to see what is in front of its nose. At that moment, a large fish goes airborne out of the murky depths, no doubt frustrated from the lack of sun. It is so close, it nearly splashes the rodless fishermen, and we erupt in laughter.

A paddler could return to the Manistee at another time and find it running clear and a tad slower. A river changes its moods, like a living creature. One thing the Manistee promises is that it will deliver the memories, as only a paddling adventure can.

Tips & Tricks

Secure a map from Michigan Maps—Manistee River Map & River Guide—River Corridor from C-38 to Lake Michigan. It includes the Little Manistee and Pine Rivers in addition to the main stem of the Manistee. Public access points, campgrounds and trailheads, road access, etc. are included. 231.264.6800, MichiganMapsOnline.com.

Outfitters

Fishing

The Manistee River is known for its run of king salmon in late summer and early fall, as well as a steelhead run in late fall through spring. The river also has an excellent population of walleye, smallmouth bass and trout and is billed as a four season fishery.


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