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Black River in Michigan

Trip Overview

Near the top of Michigan's lower peninsula there is a fan-like array of navigable rivers, well known to paddlers, offering a variety of paddling challenges. The Black River starts near the top of Montmorency County and runs north to Black Lake.

In 2007, my California paddling buddy Don Potter and I took on the challenge of paddling the Manistee River from its source north of Grayling to its end on Lake Michigan, a distance of 165 miles. It was quite an adventure, taking 6 days, hauling gear for riverbank camping, and portaging around two damns. We made the trek during July when there was a good water level and the only annoyance was occasional biting flies (black and deer).

According to Don, the 2010 paddling trek would be quite different. Instead of a long paddle down one river, this one would involve one-day paddles down six of Michigan's fastest rivers. Because of their proximity to each other, the plan was to establish base camps from which we could drive to the rivers. This had the advantage of allowing us to canoe without hauling our camping gear. The plan was for an August trip, but as it turned out, Dons wife Marilyn had back surgery so the trip was postponed until September. September was arguably more desirable because the summer vacation season was over and the parks were empty. Moreover, there was no heat to contend with and no annoying insects. Our only minor concern was the water level in the rivers because late summer had been dry.

On Tuesday, September 14, we drove east to Onaway and then south to our put-in at the bridge where South Black River Road crosses the Black River. Our plan was to paddle several miles upriver to the bridge on Clark Bridge Road and then float back. In our earlier paddles we had used all our paddling strokes: draws, pries, sweeps, back paddles, braking, and bracing in dealing with the obstacles we encountered. However, the upriver paddle of the Black River required the use of another technique: poling. Furthermore, you should know that it is a technique that punishes your triceps.

Along with the graphite paddles, Don had taken the precaution of bringing an old wood paddle, as a spare, lashed to the thwarts. We knew that during the first part of our upriver paddle we would encounter rapids and for awhile we were able to make headway by crossing from eddy to eddy. However, we were soon in rapids too shallow for decent paddle strokes. That is when I exchanged my graphite paddle for the wooden paddle and began using it to pole the canoe ahead.

The going was hard because of the strength of the current but slowly we made progress up the river. On a few occasions the water was so shallow we had no choice except to get out and track the canoe to deeper water. The rapids were much longer than we anticipated but we managed to endure until the river finally deepened and the bottom changed from stones and rocks to sand.

What a relief. We were finally able to make easi"er" upriver progress. We stopped for lunch and regained our strength on the lawn of an unoccupied cottage. Although we were in the center of the Pigeon River State Forest there are a few private properties along this part of the river. After lunch we paddled a couple more miles before we came upon tree falls that completely blocked the river. We could have portaged around the obstacle but we were exhausted and felt that we had covered most of the distance to our planned turnaround, so we turned around and paddled back.

When we reached the rapids we discovered that we were able to glide through them because the water, although too shallow to paddle upriver, was deep enough to float the canoe downriver. We did, however, have to dodge a lot of large rocks. It had been an exhausting paddle, but highly gratifying. We had met the challenge of a tough upriver paddle, overcoming shallow rapids and a strong current. And we now have a special fondness for the Black River.

That night we celebrated by having dinner at Sheila's Village Cafe in Millersburg. Two pork chops, choice of potatoes, with coleslaw and a large roll of delicious homemade bread. All for $5.99.


"Canoeing Michigan Rivers" by Jerry Dennis

  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)
  • Group Rates: No

Locations on this Trip