Paddleboard Camping on the Au Sable River in Northern Michigan

A tribe of Great Lakes surfer women are the happiest campers when they head to the Au Sable to paddleboard, rest and repeat.

This story is featured in the August 2018 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy. 

Last summer, surf photographer Beth Price pitched the idea of a paddleboard camping trip down the Au Sable to a few likeminded friends. The crew didn’t hesitate for a minute. Ella Skrocki, the put-the-boys-to-shame surfer who runs Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak in Empire; Lindsay Simmons, the well-traveled surf instructor with a steadfast devotion to being on the beach; and Leda Olmsted, the accomplished paddler and stand-up paddleboard Yogi. These women met in the water, and constantly reunite on the water. When you spot another woman surfing on Lake Michigan in a sea of neoprene men, an instant bond is formed.

The Au Sable is the best-known river in Michigan, and one of the finest trout streams in the Midwest. It stretches 114 miles between Grayling and Oscoda in Michigan’s northeastern lower peninsula. Not only is the river ideal for fishing, it also provides for a phenomenal overnight paddling adventure. The stretch of Au Sable River chosen for this trip flows through the Mason Tract, a 1,500-acre plot of pristine river country. The land was donated to the state by the family of George Mason after his death in 1954, under the condition that it be preserved and kept wild forever.

George Mason was a prominent figure in the automotive industry and spent free time at his secluded property in the northwoods. The rewards of the river inspired him to forever guard the place he loved. The only recent development along the river is a campsite for overnight stays. The rich history, accessibility and bountiful beauty make this piece of land an exceptional place to pitch a tent.

If you go … Canoe Harbor State Forest Campground offers rustic sites ($15; recreation passport required) on a first-come-first-served basis. 

 

This is their story …

We rose before sunrise and loaded up two vehicles; one to park at the beginning of our trip (Chase Bridge), and one to leave at the end, (Connors Flats). With our boards resting on the bank of the river, we packed our dry bags with snacks, layers of clothing, and camping supplies. We strategically strapped our gear to the front of our boards, ensuring that the weight load was even. Each of us had about 30 pounds of gear, which adds a challenge to maneuvering tight bends in the river, especially when the water is swift. As we pushed ourselves away from the bank of the river, the current quickly corrected our boards, guiding us along with the flow of the water. We were mindful not to let ourselves go sideways, and to allow the current to move our boards naturally.

Fighting against it almost always results in an overturned board, and for this reason and the fact that no one is stoked about a soggy sleeping bag, drybags are a must on the river. A general rule of thumb to truly keep a drybag dry is to roll the top of the bag at least three times before buckling it down. As we paddled through tree tunnels and light rapids, we could feel the energy and history of this place.

Our first day was long yet rewarding. The air was crisp, and the sun came and went with the passing clouds. We began to flow with the river, allowing our boards to smoothly transition through bends, rapids, and around rocks and submerged logs. The Au Sable is between 50 and 100 feet wide and winds through dense coniferous forest. With the energy of a new adventure fresh within us, we made our way past sandy bluffs, wetlands and cliffs, anticipating each vista around the next bend. Ella cast her fly in hopes of turning our pre-planned dinner of veggie tacos into fish tacos, Lindsay laughed while narrowly escaping downed trees, and Leda playfully practiced her headstand on her board.

A couple of hours into our paddle we stopped to look for Durant’s Castle, a structure built during the late 1920s with the fortune of William Durant, president of General Motors. Unfortunately, before he could move into his personal palace, the massive building burned to the ground. As we climbed the small footpath up from the river, fragments of foundation began to appear and led us to an open plot where the castle once stood.

Downriver, rain clouds started to form in perfect timing with our approach to an open-air chapel perched high on the riverbank. The chapel has stood since 1957, in dedication to George Mason. It’s intended to provide fishermen, hikers, and paddlers with a place to reflect on the nature of our lives amid the depths of the woods and holy waters of the river. The chapel was a perfect refuge.

While rain poured down, we fueled up with tuna, multigrain crackers, dried figs, celery, apples and homemade nut butter. The meals we packed were based on efficiency: lightweight and high in nutrients. The light lunch sustained our energy levels much more than a heavy, carbo-packed midday meal. Back on the river, the clouds parted, and we finished the day’s float without another drop of rain.

The sun was just above the tree line when our boards kissed Canoe Harbor State Forest Campground. We pulled our gear up onto the shore and giddily explored our home for the evening. Canoe Harbor is a grassy open plot of land with over 40 campsites; we were surprised to have the entire grounds to ourselves.

After the long day of paddling, we took a welcome dip into the crisp river water. We let the breeze dry our skin while we propped our tents and individually started settling in. Lindsay gathered sticks and logs from the forest floor for a fire. Leda cooked up veggies, black beans and corn on the camp stove. Ella started a raging fire to warm our bodies, as well as our tortillas. There is a different kind of satisfaction that comes with preparing and enjoying a warm meal next to a fire. To our group of women, this is the finest dining there is. After dinner we sat fireside conversing about future adventures and inspirations. We stayed awake just long enough to witness the full moon appear above the canopy of the forest, then tucked ourselves away to rest up and rise with the sun.

Waking up to the sparkle of a dew-covered forest and the mist rising off the river was surreal. We made a hearty breakfast of oats, cacao, coconut, and berries as the fog lifted from the river. We took a morning plunge then geared up, ensuring our supplies were centered and secure for our final stretch. This time we set off at a slower pace, to soak in every ounce of sun and serenity. Just one day into this journey had inspired our bodies to slow down and surrender to nature’s rhythms.

The river carried us through tall grasses where birds and ducks swooped in and out to catch their food. While the current was still strong we came across a large tree blocking our route downriver, resulting in an exciting portage. Eventually the river widened and allowed us to paddle easily, through gentle turns and fewer obstacles. For the final leg of our journey, we were accompanied by a group of friendly fishermen cruising along in their hand-made canoe. They had more success with fishing than we did and carried a bucket of trout for their families.

Our boards touched land for the final time. We sat down and reflected with gratitude that we found such a spectacular place to spend time together. The river reset us. The movement of the water allowed us to trust the journey; each stroke bringing us a little more life, each inhale a little more peace, and each exhale an inspired presence. We were tired—and refreshed—in the best possible way.

Beth Price takes photographs that reflect her passion for a healthy, active and adventurous lifestyle. She is based in Traverse City. bethpricephotography.com

Holy Waters

The legendary Au Sable starts north of Grayling and flows for more than 100 miles before meeting Lake Huron. Paddlers of all kinds (including, yes, paddleboarders) cherish its scenic serenity. The cool, clean, ultra-stable stream supports some of the best trout habitat in the country, and outdoor enthusiasts flock to it as a fly-fishing mecca. At Burton’s Landing, find the start of a nine-mile, strictly catch-and-release section dubbed the Holy Water.

A must-stop on these wild waters is the Mason Chapel (pictured above), built in honor of outdoorsman George Mason. He loved the Au Sable so much that he and his family donated to the state 14 miles of shoreline along the South Branch of the Au Sable with the stipulation that there could be no development. This simple stone and wood temple nestled into the forest invites quiet contemplation of a preserved-forever place.

Rent a Paddleboard

Best bets for your own easy-going adventure: a river with a sleepy current and few obstructions (try the Au Sable in Grayling, the Platte River near Honor or Victoria Creek in Cedar) Lake Michigan beaches for easy put-ins, and calm inland lakes (just paddle clear of jetskiers and waterskiers). Whether on the big lake or a lazy river, always wear a life vest and a leash that connects to the ankle via a Velcro strap and then fastens to the base of the board. (The leash keeps the board with you if you fall in, but no worries,
it’s a cinch to hop back on.)

Many Up North outfitters shops rent or sell. Here are a few:

Bahnhof Sport
1300 Bay View Rd., Petoskey, 800.253.7078
This Petoskey-area shop is within paddleboard-carrying distance of Little Traverse Bay.

Crystal Lake Adventure Sports
214 South Benzie Blvd., Beulah, 231.882.2527
Get your gear at the shop or stop by the rental kiosk one block from Lake Michigan in downtown Frankfort.

Sailsport Marine
13988 S. Robinson Road, Traverse City, 231.929.2330
Check out their SUP page for a great Buyer’s Guide for help in choosing the right board and paddle for your needs.

Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak
10228 W. Front Street, Empire, 231.326.9283
One of the first SUP shops in the North, SBSK rents by the half and full day.


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