Kayak Camping on the Manistee River

With a full inbox and a million other things I should have been working on, I hopped into my car, gleeful for a weekend escape. I hadn’t planned the trip, I wasn’t responsible for the trip–all I had to do was show up and be responsible for myself. Going with established hiking buddies instead of strangers who had signed up for a hiking meet-up added to my sense of ease. I had never been on a kayaking trip where camping was involved, and I had never paddled the Manistee River, but the forecast for Saturday was beautiful late summer weather, and I had a new hammock that I hadn’t had a chance to use except in my backyard, and the knowledge that a Michigan winter would soon be upon us was plenty of motivation to go.

Friday night, Brandi, her son Fox, Joe, Jeff, and I camped in the Manistee National Forest off of a seasonal road, which allowed us to get an early start in the morning Saturday. We were basically car camping, which made things easy. The following morning, it was a little more of a challenge to figure out how to pack things so that they wouldn’t get wet in the kayak, and then could transition to backpacking when we reached our take out point. I used two 15 liter SealLine dry bags for my clothing, top quilt, under quilt, and hammock, fit in my hiking shoes and a few other odds and ends around them in the cargo hold of the kayak before sealing its rubber lid, and wrapped my empty 44 liter Gregory backpack in a plastic contractor’s bag and bungied it to the deck of my kayak.

After leaving our kayaks at Hodenpyl Dam, we staged cars at Red Bridge on Coates Highway, setting ourselves up for about 11 miles of paddling. The plan was to do most of the kayaking Saturday, find a dispersed campsite along the river, finish up the paddle Sunday morning, and then hike the North Country Trail Sunday, and camp if the weather cooperated. 

Saturday’s paddle was a perfect late summer day. A few trees were just beginning to turn, and the breeze lifted leaves that fell into a gentle waltz down onto the river. The river was slow and easy in part, with obstacles and turns here and there just enough to keep things interesting. Hardly anyone else was paddling. We saw a few hikers on the trails that ran along the river bluff, and passed fly fisherman wading in the river. Flocks of mergansers took flight when our path disturbed them, and we spotted a heron or two standing quietly in the shallows. 

At a sandy turn, we stopped for lunch and I took a swim while Fox splashed with me in the river. We watched a group come around the bend in white water kayaks, practicing Eskimo rolls like they were the simplest thing. After munching on some GORP and a granola bar, and drying out a bit, I was ready to get back into my boat. 

The rest of the afternoon was idyllic, and as it began to draw toward its end, we scoped out camp sites along the river. It was clouding up, and rain was in the updated forecast for later in the evening, so we wanted to be well established by the time the weather turned. After a few false starts, we found a campsite with a river view, enough breeze to ward off bugs, and a big log to sit on. Joe landed first, and dragged his kayak up a steep embankment to check out the campsite in earnest, and found an easier landing place for the rest of us.

After hanging hammocks and pitching tarps and tents, we settled in for dinner and a few cold beers. I heated water for my ramen noodles, and doctored them up with some peanut butter, soy sauce, chili sauce, and powdered coconut milk, in addition to the chicken flavoring packet they came with. After dinner, we gathered firewood, and in doing so, discovered an incredible array of mushrooms, some bright yellow, and others so squat that they looked as though they came from a cartoon. We lit a campfire, and Jeff was dozing off in his chair in no time. By the time it began to sprinkle, we were all ready to call it a night.

During the night, the rain fell and the wind picked up, but we were so well protected by the forest that it was more background noise than something to worry about. I had brought a large silnylon tarp in case of rain, and had staked it out with little loops of shock cord at the end of each line, and the give provided by the elastic kept the tarp from being noisy in the rain. I woke up intermittently, as the rain stopped and started and the wind picked up and died down, but it was a restful night, and the rain stopped by morning. I woke up around 6:00, and made a cup of coffee in the dark. Jeff, who is also an early riser, kept me company and we caught up on each other’s lives.

As the sun subtly lit the morning, everything took on a lush, saturated look, with every shade of green represented in the reeds, trees, and reflections on the river. The sky was overcast, mist rose up from the river, and everything was so still that the droplets of water occasionally falling from the trees seemed like random drum beats. 

We packed up camp, and took off slowly down the river, hoping to make the last mile or so of the trip last. It was still except for the occasional sound of a paddle lapping into the river, and ourselves, as we pointed out birds and other sights.

Too soon, the bridge and boat launch were in view, and just as we drew near, it began to rain. After pulling our boats up on shore and loading up gear, Jeff, Brandi, and Fox took off for home. A check of the radar showed that hiking and camping on Sunday would have been a fool’s errand, so after dropping me back at my car and helping me load my kayak, Joe and I went to brunch before calling an end to our adventure.

Published by lovesmichiganoutdoors

Hiking, backpacking, kayaking, stand-up-paddle boarding, sailing... exploring Michigan is my passion!

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