My friends and I (and our two dogs) decided to paddle 2/3 of the Manistee River over about 4 days of total paddling. We took our time, floated and fished and took out at beaches to swim. But we still managed to cover 100 miles or so of this diverse, at times gorgeous and serene, relatively unpopulated stretch of water in Northern/central Michigan. We eventually ended up in great Lake Michigan, the sights and sounds so different from where we started. Overall, a magical trip.
Two of us put in where the Manistee crosses US 131. Just after the river crosses the highway there is signage on your right for a rest stop, put in, etc. There was ample parking and a fine boat launch. There we left our vehicle, locked up, for the duration of the trip (we had left the other vehicle at the parking lot in the 1st street public lot in Manistee, where we were informed it was legal as long as we weren't camping; it was untouched when we came back). We put in kind of late in the afternoon on a Tuesday, and the place was empty but for one other kayaker. When we came back to pick up our car on Saturday, however, the place was packed with cars, apparently weekend paddlers.
We didn't go far on the first afternoon, and chose a place to camp before too long. Much of the land surrounding the Manistee is either State of Michigan (DNR) or National Forest, both of which allow wilderness camping. There are restrictions, however, as you have to be so far away from the water, another campsite, or a road. You also need wilderness camping tags for the DNR land, which you hang on a tree at your campsite and leave there. They can be picked up at any DNR office--we got ours from the one in Cadillac, just past the interchange between 131 and 55.
The next day we paddled and paddled trying to reach Harvey Bridge to meet up with our friend, but we didn't make it. Our skills weren't quite up to par yet :) Stopped for lunch at Baxter Bridge campsite, which had a small dock and picnic tables River Left. Relatively well-maintained, if boring, and empty that day. Saw mostly wildlife and one boat with guys drinking beer. "Going fishing?" We asked. "Oh yeah, I guess we could do that," they replied. Apparently the order of the day was not much more than relaxing. There were a few campsites along the way, some friendly folks hanging out, but by in large not a lot of traffic.
That night, we stumbled upon a campsite on river right that looked pretty legitimate, but we couldn't see much signage. It had a sandy path leading up the hill, a creek flowing out the river. There were some campsites down by the creek and further up the hill. A very nice spot.
The next day we traveled to Harvey Bridge in about 1.5 hours, where we met up with our friend. All this stretch is pretty enough, but mostly sandy and not as rugged or rocky looking as you might expect for northern MI.
Then the river starts widening out as you come up on Hodenpyl Dam Pond and the dam itself, and pretty much comes to a standstill. Some of it was too shallow to paddle, so we hopped out and pulled our canoes along a ways. It felt sparsely populated, really rustic in this spot to me. Eventually it widens out and pours you out into a big long lake that made for a relaxing paddle, maybe even one of the best spots on our trip for whatever reason. The people were friendly, but not the fish so much, as we didn't catch anything in all our trolling that day over the lake. We took it easy as we approached the dam at the far end of the lake. It's to the left side of a large, long man-made embankment--look for a big sign that says "Portage." It's also where the powerlines originate from :) . The protage itself is easy, up a few stairs, down a few more, across a parking lot, and down another set to the rocky shorline below. Also, there's a public restroom there.
The stretch between the dams we found the prettiest of the whole part we did by far. Rocky, rippling, conifer forests, big bluffs. We found a campsite just beyond Hodenpyl, on a bend where it kind of eddied before rippling down at a wide section, that we named "stonethrower" (for the sound of falling boulders in the night). Featured a clearing behind a large portion of grassy area for having coffee by the riverbank.
Enjoyed the rippling river and all the bends the next day, stopping to swim at eddies where it bent sharply, taking our time. We would end up paying for this later, but it was fun while it lasted. The paddle across Tippy Dam Pond was longer and harder--we were trying to make time by this point and our solo paddler was struggling to keep up without a motorman in front. Eventually we made it and thankfully there were some guys with a trailer and a pickup to give us a hand with the portage. It's down a path and a long road--not impossible but time consuming and carrying our huge aluminum boy wouldn't have been fun. Bathroom available there too, with good signage all about.
Then we looked for a campsite after slowly fishing the absolutely packed river for trout, smallmouth, and pike. Pretty unbelievable that we only got a smallmouth and a little perch with all the visitble fish. It was honestly like a fishbowl, just peering at so many of them. It was a gorgeous stetch and we floated and fished for about 2 hours. But by then it was late, we needed a campsite and fast--but there was nothing as we went under Red Bridge. So we paddled and paddled. Just a bit past an island a some private property on the right we found Udall Rollways National Forest spot, however. Now, it's not technically a campsite, but it had a great beach. A million stairs lead up to the site of the old rollway with a fantastic view of the river and hills below, some signs describing the site, and a 9-hole frisbee golf course. We made supper on the beach and pitched our tents just back from the water. Probably not up to code, but we cleaned up in the morning :) Fisherman woke us at about 6:00--it's a popular spot and you shouldn't be surprised to see anglers there most days.
In the morning it was just me and the original buddy for the last stretch, 5 hours or so of pretty consistent hard paddling to make Lake Michigan. We faced some winds and a lot more civilization as we got within 3 hours or so. Careful as you go out between all the lake boats--they seemed to smirk at our little aluminum boat. But I can guarantee that we worked harder, had a greater sense of accomplishment, got more exercise, and I'm almost sure had a more fulfilling time than they did in their big yachts. I dove off the canoe and into the big lake just to celebrate. So the joke was on them and the rest of the onlookers at the beach as we pulled up with our canoe full of bags, sunburnt and exhausted, and gave each other a hug. They were pretty puzzled at us, but that was okay. We'd joined the ranks of river trippers across the globe and across time!
Aluminum Smoker Craft 17ft; Kevlar MR Explorer 16.6
Wilderness camping permits required for Michigan DNR land for free--pick up in Cadillac.
From Manistee on the coast we took 55E to 131N, up to where the Manistee crosses 131 about 25 miles north of Cadillac.