Fall Color Kayak Adventure on The Pine River, Manistee National Forest

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I never knew what an adventure we would encounter on the first weekend in October this year. If you would have asked me before the trip, I would have told you that I was just going to get some awesome photos of the colors changing. I never would have contemplated needing to become a MacGyver of sorts, getting paddling tips from an author, breaking out the climber in myself, or becoming someone’s hero. Yet, the items I just listed became a reality in this two day escapade.

A very good friend of mine since high school, Adam Hofmann, had contacted me over a month ago to congratulate me on starting my blog, and to let me know how much he really enjoyed reading my stories and adventures. He said that it brought back memories of his own outdoor experiences like paddling with the Madhatter’s Canoe Trip and camping trips with his family growing up. He suggested that we should do a kayak trip soon, and the plan started to come together almost immediately.

I suggested that I could start planning where we should go as well as handle the details since this type of thing was right down my alley, being the outdoor enthusiast that I am. I knew that we should head up north this time of year to see the amazing colors Michigan offers up. I was searching for some place that was not too far away, where we could spend the majority of the weekend we had available to enjoy it and not have to spend too much time driving there and back. I remembered how much fun my wife and I had eight years ago paddling The Pine River in Manistee National Forest, and figured this time of year was post-season, which would mean a lot less traffic (other paddlers), quicker current, and more active rapids.

After locking down the destination in the plan, I began researching outfitters to contact for transportation of our vessels and which parts of the river we wanted to tackle. I sent out emails to the few outfitters, liveries, and rental businesses that offered services on The Pine where I received a few responses, but one stood out. I received an email from Mark, owner of Bosman Canoe Rental.  His email was short and to the point, but he also called my phone and left me a voicemail offering his assistance with not only the kayak transportation, but also his suggestions on planning the trip.  Mark seemed genuinely interested in making sure that we would plan a great trip.

At this time, I also received a response from another kayak rental company, but it stated that the part of The Pine we were looking to explore wasn’t in his area, but he got me in contact with a gentleman by the name of Doc Fletcher, author of many paddling books, and stated he would be of great help for our trip and pointed me in the direction of Doc’s website, canoeingmichiganrivers.com.  Here is where I noticed that Doc actually wrote one of his books specifically on my river of choice.  I had to purchase a copy of Paddling Michigan’s Pine: Tales From the River for myself.  I read the book, and all the details he described of his venture on this magnificent watercourse, and he seemed to know every detail, every curve, every mystery hidden on the banks of The Pine.  I wanted to get in contact with him to help me put together the plan.

As soon as I finished reading the last page of the book, I excitedly sent Doc an email introducing myself, and letting him know my idea for the weekend trip, and requesting his insights as to specifics of where to drop in and take out, where to stop for camp, what sights to look out for, etc.  Doc quickly responded, and I could sense his willingness to offer his services and suggestions were genuine.

With both Mark and Doc on my team of planners, I knew this was going to be exciting.  Doc suggested for day one to drop in at Lincoln Bridge and paddle to Coolwater Campground, which was about halfway for his suggested two-day portion of the river, which would be the most exciting stretch, offering one of the quickest flowing river routes in the lower peninsula with both class I and class II rapids (one of the few class II rivers in this part of the state).  The Pine drops at an average rate of 12-14 feet per mile, which makes it manageable for amateurs, but exciting and adventurous for all.  Day two would take us from the Campground to Low Bridge, just before Tippy Dam, where it spills into Tippy Pond.  Doc assured us that this is the portion of the river that we would definitely want to take on.

I then contacted Mark again, from Bosman Canoe Rental, and told him of Doc’s idea and our plan.  Mark agreed that Doc knew what he was talking about, and suggested that we first drive up directly to Coolwater Campground, set up camp, and he would meet us right at our campsite to take us and our kayaks to the drop in point.  This would allow us to not have to worry about setting up camp and bringing all of our gear with us on the river, and be able to end our paddling right where we would stay that night and not have to worry about pitching the tent before it got dark.  He would then have us follow him the next morning, after packing up camp, to Low Bridge, where we would take out at the end of the trip, load up the kayaks in my truck, and head straight home from there.

The plan was set, and all I had to do was get more and more excited about what adventures lie ahead in the next few weeks (well of course besides the camping checklist of things to bring and planning the food portion).

Day One

I awoke at 3:30am on Saturday, October 7th, wide eyed and bushy tailed, mostly packed already from the night before.  The coffee pot was ready to brew, and filled the kitchen with such a great aroma as I quietly tiptoed through my house, trying not to wake my wife or my two little girls, getting myself ready and gathering a few last minute items.  I left the house at 4:30, and drove to Adam’s house to stuff his few bags into the already loaded up backseat of the truck cab.  The two kayaks took up the entire bed of the truck and stuck out the back.  So I wasn’t able to keep anything else back there with the tailgate down.  Adam was awake, and eagerly awaiting my arrival.  We had about a four hour drive ahead of us, but since the two of us hadn’t hung out in a few years, it gave us plenty of time to catch up and laugh our heads off (you would understand if you knew our personalities).

I could feel the transition from the metro area to “up north” as we drove.  The smell of the air changed, the sounds changed, the views changed.  I always love driving up north and getting that feeling of getting away from my daily routine.  It was noticeable that peak fall color was pushed back some because of the warmer than usual weather we had recently this time of year, but we still had gorgeous views with pops of yellow, orange, and red among the sea of green ahead of us.  It kept getting better and better the closer we got to our destination.  Light rain followed us the entire drive, which gave me the feeling that we would be wet on the river our first day.  However, I just kept saying that kayaking is a water sport anyway, right?

When we arrived at the campground, the rain slowed and stopped just for us as we started unloading the tent and the screened in canopy.  We were able to quickly set up the tent.  However, when we got to the canopy, it was a different story.  Now, I have to tell you that I got this canopy, the Coleman Insta Clip Screened Canopy, from my father.  He had owned the canopy for some years, and it did him very well, but he had upgraded, and offered this one to me since I did not have one of my own.  He advised me that one of the poles was bent, and that I should be careful when setting it up.  When we pulled the canopy out of the bag and began to put it all together, it wasn’t as simple as I thought it would be, and the bent pole ended up snapping right in the middle and would not hold together, so I just packed it back in the bag and continued getting lunch packed along with the items we would need on the river packed into the dry bags to fit in the back of the kayaks.

Mark showed up right on time for the transport, loaded up our kayaks into his trailer, and we were off to the river.  The rain almost completely halted for the entire trip on the river, with just a few very light sprinkles here and there, which made it a very enjoyable trip, as I was expecting the rain anyway.  The temperature was a very comfortable 68-70 degrees.  This part of the river only had class I rapids, and not very many, making it mostly a float for us, but Adam and I found our own excitement by searching for challenges.  We found low hanging trees hanging over the river where we could meander around and lay down low in the kayak to try and get underneath.  We kept an eye out and located underwater trees and rocks, just below or just above the water level that we attempted to jump over.  It didn’t always work out as expected, but it was exciting, and we made the best of it.

About halfway through our day’s river travel, I noticed an embankment that didn’t seem too steep to climb, and I wanted to get some shots from above, looking down over the river.  So, I pointed it out to Adam and he agreed to stop off.  What he didn’t really realize was that due to the rain, it made what appeared to be sand to actually be soft, deep mud.  As soon as his vessel reached the river’s edge, he quickly hopped out and his foot sunk deep in the mud, almost all the way up to his knee.  He almost screamed like a little girl (sorry Adam) out of pure astonishment, as he did not quite expect that to happen.  I couldn’t help but crack up laughing, almost to the point of tears.  He decided at this point to stay down with the kayaks while I carefully stepped out of my kayak and climbed the embankment for a breathtaking photo opportunity.  It was worth it, at least in my eyes.

The photos I took turned out amazing, and I was able to get the colors I was in search of during this expedition.  It felt amazing being in nature, where I belong, away from the city.  Not a soul beside ourselves were in sight.  It was a great time for reflection and calmness, allowing me to let go of all the things that bring me stress, and just enjoy Mother Nature’s bounty.

We were on the river from 11:00 am, and arrived back at the campsite around 5:30 pm.  Perfect time to set up the portable camp grill and cook up some burgers, baked beans, and my specialty Frank’s Red Hot Cheesy Chicken Dip.  Even though the weather held out for us while on the river, it wasn’t so forgiving at this time.  As I was about to put the burger patties on the grill, the rain arrived.  It came on quick and heavy.  Remember my dilemma with the broken pole on the canopy?  Well, it came back to haunt me.  We had to do something, quickly, or we would just be having lunchmeat sandwiches, cold beans from the can, and potato chips for dinner.

I’m not trying to boast here, but Adam and I are pretty smart guys.  We swiftly turned into MIT graduates, and found an area of our site that had four trees spread apart almost perfectly, where we could tie the strings attached to the fabric part of the canopy to keep it lifted enough to create a shelter.  However, the middle of the canopy hung down low where we couldn’t really move inside it.  Adam came up with the genius idea of using one of the L-shaped poles to clip the middle part of the fabric to.  And thank the lord that I brought a roll of duct tape so we could attach the pole to one the trees.  It wasn’t very pretty, but it did the job.  We were able to pull a wooden picnic table under one side of the screened sides to put the portable grill on and cook our dinner.  Flashlights lit up the small room we created.

We couldn’t stop laughing, as we were thinking about what the other campers were thinking about our MacGyver shelter.  About every five or ten minutes we had to stop what we were doing and push out the water that pooled in a few different spots of the roof since the rain was relentless the entire evening.  We even thought up a commercial slogan for the canopy; The Coleman Insta Clip, now with Auto Drain – It’s better than nothin’.  You had to be there.

Dinner was awesome, and the dip was a huge hit.  What a day, and what an adventure that evening.  We enjoyed laughing and joking and sharing stories that night, and made sure we got to sleep in our mostly water-free tent to be ready for day two.

Day Two

Not sure how I didn’t remember waking up and shutting off the alarm, I slept in a little longer than I wanted to, as we had planned a time to meet up with Mark again after cooking breakfast and packing up camp to take the truck to our take out spot.  However, we had just enough time to make an awesome campfire breakfast of Pigs in the Hole in the cast iron pan, enjoy the heck out of it, pack up camp, make lunches, pack the dry bags again, and meet up with Mark.  By the way, I decided to retire the Coleman Insta Clip (with auto drain) to the dumpster on our way out of the campground.  Hey, it was better than nothin’.

By the time Mark dropped us off back at the campground where our kayaks waited for us, after parking the truck at the end of where our journey would take us, the sun was peaking out and the sky began to clear.  It was bound to be a gorgeous day, very different than the day before.  We were looking forward to the more exciting and active part of the river that awaited our arrival.  Not far downriver from the campground, the water seemed to run quicker.  The rapids were much more intense and exciting than what we had encountered the day prior.  I didn’t really get any good photos of the bigger rapids, as I was too excited to wrestle the rapids, and didn’t want to ruin the excitement by trying to take my phone out of the waterproof bag.

One of the things that we planned to do, and at least Adam agreed to since it was a dry day, was to climb the embankment when we came up to Peterson Bridge, as we noticed it driving over the bridge that morning.  Luckily, it was sandy, not muddy.  So when we arrived, we quickly hopped out of our kayaks, beached them, and began the sandy climb up.  This one was twice as high as the one I had climbed the prior day which gave us an amazing view.  You could see for miles from up top, but it wasn’t without some work getting up top.  It was breathtaking in more than one way, if you know what I mean.  I definitely had to take a few minutes to catch my breath after the climb, once reaching the summit.  It definitely made me feel my age, nearing 40 years old.  I’m not quite as agile as I used to be.

The sky was so bright blue, it looked like we were inside a cartoon or a hand-painted art piece.  Not a cloud in the sky.  Seventy five degrees, and the sun was smiling down on us.  It felt like a dream.

The next part of our journey would take us on a route unexpected.  I just have to say one thing; if you ever get the chance to be a hero, do it. The feeling you get is incredible.  Adam and I were coming around one of the many tight bends in the river.  Up ahead, we noticed in the distance what looked like 2 people who had beached their water craft for a break.  As we got closer, they started waving their arms and yelling “help us, please.”  We are good people, so we pulled our kayaks up to the bank where they were.

The couple, about my parents age, told us that they were in a canoe and hit a fallen tree underwater that tipped them.  The woman got pinned between the canoe and the tree but was able to get free after receiving a few bruises and scrapes.  They were able to grab most of their belongings but the canoe floated downstream upside down.  They had been sitting there about twenty or thirty minutes after their canoe left their site around the bend up ahead.  They asked if we knew where we were and how far we were from the next landing.  Speculating of course, I guessed that we were about 4 miles downstream from the last landing and about 2 miles, at least, from the next.  We were in the middle of the National Forest and not a clue how close we were to any main road either.

They stated they had no phone service to try and call anyone, and neither did we.  Location services were not even working on our phones to try and pinpoint where we were on Google maps.  It was a good thing that I brought my handheld GPS.  I offered to set a waypoint for their location, paddle downriver to the landing at Low Bridge, and contact Horina Canoe Rental, where they rented from and let them know about the unpleasant, misfortunate event that transpired for Fred and Pam Haw, while they started hiking with all their gear along the river banks.  I would have taken them aboard if I wasn’t in a one person kayak.

At this point, they were beginning to calm down a bit.  Adam suggested that he paddle down a bit just to see if their canoe possibly got caught up on a sharp bend in the river.  As we watched him turn the corner, I decided to stay back with Pam and Fred for a bit to make sure they could get all their gear safely up the steep embankment they were on.

About 15 minutes later, Adam came back around and yelled “I found it.”  It got caught on a tree hanging over the river a couple bends down.  They were elated, overjoyed, and you could see it spilling out of them.  I advised them to hike around as it wouldn’t be easy for us to bring the canoe upstream with the speed of the river current.  I went on ahead to meet Adam at their tipped canoe.  I was able to beach my kayak on a close embankment, hop into the river, and get over to where their canoe was upside down, caught on the tree hanging over the river.  You can actually see Pam and Fred walking with their gear above the embankment in the photo below.

Adam and I each grabbed a side, and flipped it over. It was full of water, so we had to lift it and dump it to get it all out.  We waited for about fifteen minutes for Fred and Pam to catch up hiking, but as they neared, I heard them start to laugh and almost cry with excitement and relief.  They kept calling us their heroes.

We were delighted to be able to help in this situation.  I couldn’t imagine how they felt, stranded in the middle of a National Forest, no cell service, no clue as to where they were, or which way to go to get to civilization, having to carry all their gear for who knows how far.  Plus, they weren’t as young and agile as us.  They climbed back into their canoe and took their time gathering everything they had with them and getting themselves settled in and calmed down.  With a warm sense of accomplishment and humanitarianism, we waved to Fred and Pam, and continued on our journey for the remainder of our trip.

When Adam and I finally arrived at Low Bridge where my truck was parked for us to take out and end our adventure, we had to take a moment to relax and reflect on our journey.  We looked at each other, laughed, and the main thing we remembered was our heroic act.  Not even a few moments later, we hear hooting and hollering coming from upriver.  It was Pam and Fred in their canoe.  “Our heros!  We made it!”

They pulled up in their vessel and immediately ran up to us to give us a big hug and to relay their thanks for saving them.  They insisted on inviting us back to their campsite for an amazing spread of homemade barbecued wings, chili, hot dogs, homemade taco dip, and freshly made Hawaiian bread with spinach dip.  We gladly accepted their generous offer, and reminisced about the wild adventure before hitting the road to head back home.  I won’t ever forget Pam and Fred Haw and the amazing feeling of being a real hero.

What an amazing amount of excitement that ensued over the course of that 48 hour period of time.  We created memories that only true good friends could.  We saved lives, created solutions from necessity, laughed until we cried, shared stories, reflected on ourselves as men, overcame obstacles, and truly enjoyed nature and what the newly born season of Autumn brought for us.  I won’t forget this adventure.  Yet another one for the books.

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