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Little Manistee River in Michigan

Trip Overview

As a teenager in the 70's, I'd enjoyed a few outings on the Little Manistee. My recollection was of a narrow, twisty river, challenging but passable. Several families would head north for a weekend; set up in one of the National Forest campgrounds and the kids would paddle the river one day, the grow-ups the next. Great fun and I'd long wanted to return.

On Wed, June 23 and again on Thurs, July 1, accompanied first by my wife, Amy and later by my river buddy, Jon, I finally got back. I don't think it will take me another 30 years to return again. In fact, I hope to head that way often.

The Little Manistee river basin lays between the Pine River to the North and the Pere Marquette to the south. With such well noted paddling rivers so close by, the Little Manistee is easy to overlook. That would be a mistake.

The river rises east of the village of Luther then flows in a north-westerly direction towards Irons and Stronach before emptying into the the Big Lake at Manistee. The watershed mostly lies within the Manistee National Forest and the water runs clear and cold. Wildlife is abundant and frequently sighted, both on shore and in the river itself. In two days on the river we spied many deer and kingfishers as well as a mink, a beaver and an eagle. Below us, the shallow, crystal clear water provided little cover for the biggest trout I've ever seen outside a hatchery. Ironically though, there was a lot more development along the river way out here in the National Forest than is seen along many river in my native SW MI. Fortunately virtually every one of the cabins and houses stood empty as we passed on our midweek expeditions.

There are 3 National Forest campgrounds along the Little Manistee: Old Grade, Driftwood Valley and Bear Track. Old Grade, the furthest upstream, is located on M-37, north of Wolf Lake. Driftwood Valley and Bear Track are both west of Irons; Driftwood is off 10 Mile Rd with Bear Track farther down stream off 11 Mile. Both are well marked with directional signs, at least when approaching from the east (Irons).

Amy & I camped, along with our two large dogs, at Driftwood Valley the evening of June 22. It's a typical National Forest campground 20 sites, primitive camping, vault toilets, no electric.
Note: there is no water pump at Driftwood, campers must bring their own. We had been pre-advised of this so were prepared.

Amy & I had the pick of the entire campground since we were the only ones there. We selected a grassy site on the bluff above the river where our dogs were free to explore off leash. They are farm dogs, not used to being chained, so we were particularly thankful to be able to let them run although we did keep a close eye on them. Farm dogs they may be, and hence experienced enough not to tangle with skunks or chase deer, but porcupines would have been new to them and we were not anxious to spend the evening extracting quills.

The next morning, leaving the dogs tied up back at camp, we set off in our 14' canoe from Driftwood, bound for Bear Track. Water levels were normal for this time of year. My memories did not disappoint me. The Little Manistee is a narrow, twisty river, challenging but passable. This section was well maintained, apparently by local livery services. Some cuts were barely wider than a canoe but it was never necessary to portage. Being so narrow, it did require close attention to stay in the river and not in the brush. This is not a river where you can just idly float with the current.

Beginner and novice paddlers would probably find the Little Manistee frustrating. Constant curves and eddies easily pull the unwary into brush heaps and log jams. This river requires solid boat handling skills and a confident, assertive paddling style. On the other hand, it's a fun river and when approached with the right attitude, a terrific outing.

Just above the first bridge, Stronach Creek comes in from the north, which significantly increases the water flow. Bear Track Campground is another 20 minutes below the bridge, on the south side of the river. The pull out is not well marked, so keep a sharp eye out. There is a rope swing and a set of steps leading to the bluff above.

Both Driftwood and Bear Track are fee areas, $14 for overnight camping and $4 to park a car for launch or pull out. Paddlers who are not camping at Driftwood may want to save 4 bucks by launching a bit farther upstream (east) of Driftwood where the river passes close to 10 Street. There is no similar easy river access in the area of Bear Track.

Passage between Driftwood Valley and Bear Track is approximately 2 hours. It was easily passable in our canoe although a kayak would have been easier. We never saw another soul on the river, along the shore or in either campground.

The following week Jon and I returned, intent on paddling from Bear Track to Six Mile Bridge. We were frankly intrigued by the various accounts of the 9 Mile 6 Mile stretch. Being "guys," the dire warnings only piqued our interest.

We camped the evening of July 1 in Bear Track. I was a little concerned that we would not be able to find a site before the holiday weekend but there was little danger of that. In fact, once again, Jon and I were the only ones in the entire campground. Only when we were packing up to head back downstate Thursday evening did a few others start to straggle in. Bear Track has 20 primitive camp sites, vault toilets and a hand water pump.

After launching our 10' kayaks from Bear Track on the morning of July 1, Jon and I were treated to a spectacular Michigan summer day. The clear water, green woods, surrounding hills were heavenly. If anything however, there were even more cottages and river side "retreats" here than there had been upstreammight as well have been paddling through downtown Cadillac.

The stretch of river from Bear Track to the first bridge (9 Mile) is about a 4 hour trip. Again, the river is characterized by narrow, fast flowing water snaking back and forth through the valley. Passages had been cut through the dead falls and log jams eliminating any need to portage.

Jon and I pulled up at 9 Mile Bridge to take break. We weren't really sure what to expect next. The warning posted at the DNR launch site made it clear that this was a very challenging section of river. It warned of impassible log jams, rapids and dangerous conditions and advised paddlers to be prepared for sudden, unexpected capsizing, to bring dry clothing and be knowledgeable in self-rescue techniques. Forewarned, excited, with just a bit of trepidation, off we went.

First off, whoever said this section is not maintained has old data. There were plenty of dead falls and log jams sure, but cutssome of them quite freshwere obvious. Not that the river was 100% clearthere were several "squeekers" that required careful maneuvering. But I only had to portage twice, Jon just once.

About 20 minutes below 9 Mile, the rapids begin. While a few approach Class III, none of them were particularly problematic or required a whole lot of skill. It was what was waiting for us just below that posed the problem. Many of these rapids ended in hairpin curves. These sharp turns pushed any logs and debris into huge piles along the outside of the curve. Tried to pull our kayaks in, too. Strong eddies in the curves made navigating through these obstacles all the more challenging. Frequently the passage between the jam and the inside shore was a mere 3 or 4 feet. More than once I found myself twisted around by the eddies, my bow jammed into the sand on the inside of the curve and my stern exposed to the current behind. Oh well, it just added to the fun.

We made the passage in about 2 hours. The 9 Mile to 6 Mile stretch is hardly the suicidal undertaking implied by some of the published reports. It is a section of river to be treated with respect and not to be attempted by novice paddlers. It would be easy to get into some real trouble, real fast if you're not careful. Or even if you are. Use the buddy system.

A challenging river, the 9 Mile to 6 Mile stretch is not for the novice, over all a lot of fun for those with solid boat handling skills and a sense of adventure


National Forest campgrounds. Primitive camping, vault toilets.

NOTE: There is no potable water at Driftwood. Campers must bring their own.


$14 to camp, $4 to park a car at the launch & pull out sites.


Access to area is from M-37 to the east, M-55 from the north & US 31 from the west. Irons is the closet settlement to Driftwood Valley and Bear Track. Both National Forest Campgrounds are well marked.


Do NOT depend on Google or Mapquest for local forest service roads. My experience is they are wildly inaccurate.

  • Duration: Day Trip, 2-3 Day Trip
  • Sport/Activity: Kayaking, Canoeing
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Water Type: River/Creek (Up to Class II)
  • Group Rates: No

Locations on this Trip