Head to Wellston, south of Traverse City, for an unforgettable paddling trip this winter that ends around a cozy fire. Plus, how to book your adventure.

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A blue canoe paddle marked our destination: Pine River Paddlesports Center in Wellston, about an hour south of Traverse City. We drove up to the wide property, scattered with blue rafts and home to a cozy lodge, smoke curling up from the chimney. Enveloping the scene was the Pine River, which we would be rafting today.

During this guided voyage, we would float the placid surface of the Pine with Jacob Miltner. A family affair, Pine River Paddlesports Center was founded by Jacob’s father, Mark Miltner, in 1971. Today, it’s operated by Jacob and his wife, Alaney. As we exited our vehicles, Jacob paused from pumping up rafts to greet us. After the initial paperwork, we assembled in a semi-circle for a safety briefing. Alaney doled out life jackets, along with hand-frosted sugar cookies. The company mascot and hairiest employee, Hoxey the husky, lay in the snow, eyeing the proceedings nonplussed.

Two river raft boats in winter

Photo by Andrew VanDrie

It was a glorious morning. A light dusting of snow from the night before blanketed the boughs of pines and the rake-thin limbs of cedars. The sun shone golden and soft through the knitted canopy, uninhibited by a single cloud. Our two rafts were lowered into the murmuring Pine and, one by one, we carefully boarded.

We shoved off from shore and our rafts were embraced by the steady current. Slow and shallow, the river meandered unhurriedly through the hunched shoulders of the river valley. Our rafts were sturdy and surprisingly comfortable as we sat perched on the edge. Jacob even stood up in the rear to effectively prove the boat’s stability. The water was blissfully calm, the surface stilled to glass in the deepest pools and stirred to dimpled rivulets over rock shallows and around tree roots. The uncharacteristic winter sun had cheered the spirits of the river’s wildlife as well. Chickadees sang a rosy song as they flittered among the cedar boughs. Jacob expertly maneuvered our raft with a few deft paddle strokes, slipping us beneath encroaching tree limbs. Along the banks, icicles cascaded among the dangling tendrils of grasses and sedge like crystalline chandeliers.

Group of four in a paddle boat

Photo by Andrew VanDrie

Similar to the fleeting sun on this winter morning, our venture was over too soon. Having arrived at Lincoln Bridge, we nestled against the bank and climbed from our raft. We had a choice to hike the scenic Silver Creek Pathway back to the put-in, but we opted for a van ride on this chilly day. Waiting for us at the lodge was a warming, popping fire.

Our trip was in late February, and those precious rays of sunshine had hinted that spring wasn’t too far away. But as we stood with cheeks warming, I gazed at the Pine River gracefully waltzing around the next bend, and wished perhaps winter would hold on just a bit longer.

Group with dog in a river raft boat

Photo by Andrew VanDrie

How to Book Your Winter Rafting Trip

To schedule your own winter rafting trip, call Pine River Paddlesports Center at 231.862.3471. They offer two rafting trips per day, seven days a week, so there are plenty of opportunities to get out on the river. For more info on guided trips, visit thepineriver.com.

Tip: Layer up for the weather! Wear heavy wool socks and your winter coat and snow pants for outer protection. Don’t worry about having waders, as the guides will pull you close to the bank for loading/ unloading.

Dog with waterproof paddle bags in snow

Photo by Andrew VanDrie

Photo(s) by Andrew VanDrie