Our trip took place from Friday, September 11 to Sunday September 13, as we were in the full swing of work and couldn't pull a long weekend. On these short trips, our usual plan of action is to load up as much gear on the Thursday night before the trip, get off work as soon as possible (usually mid-afternoon) on Friday, and haul tail up North, catching some quality fast food dinner along the way. Usually we reach a state campground by 9 or 10 at night, which leaves us ample time to set up camp under headlights and relax before bedtime. These first nights are generally mild in nature, as we try to hit the river as early as possible the following morning.
On the Friday of this trip, we decided to camp at CCC Bridge State Forest Campground, where we had stayed on a previous trip. The layout of this campground is awesome - right alongside of the Manistee River with great river access next to the bridge. Upon arriving to the campground, we grew anxious as we saw the number of denizens camping that weekend, but after a spin around the grounds, we found a great site all the way in the back - what I believe was the same site we camped at during our first trip! I think this spot remains open because it is designated for tent camping only and it butts up to the North Country Trail. On this particular Friday, the other side of the river (there is campground on both sides of the Manistee) was hopping! Music blasting, folks whooping and hollering - they put our attempts to relax and enjoy a few drinks to shame. After a tame round or two, it was bedtime before our adventure began....
I need to pause and note that we have been cursed with bad car luck on the upper stretches of the Manistee. On our first trip, my paddling partner-in-crime bottomed out on the front of his little Volkswagen, tearing off a portion of his front bumper, which elicited a slew of angry words. On this trip, he blew a tire on the way to our put-in point. Thanks to his speedy tire changing and my GPS finding the nearest Wal-Mart to visit at the end of our trip, we were on our way shortly so the adventure could continue. I don't know what it is about this portion of the river and cars, but so far my vehicles have been exempt, and for this, I'm grateful.
I also need to note that this was the inaugural trip for my boyfriend and me with our new baby. No no no...the baby is NOT human....our new baby is our new Pelican Colorado Canoe. What a great story she has, and what a fine boat she is! After doing paddle trips in both kayaks and a canoe borrowed from the camp where I work, my boyfriend and I decided we much preferred paddling together in a canoe. This led us to start searching for cheap watercraft online, simply on a whim. Enter Craigslist. We came across a nice family who hoped to sell a brand new canoe that had never touched the water for $250. We haggled it down to $225, and WHAT A DEAL! It turns out that the couple bought a canoe and kayak, hoping to paddle together. They both decided they like kayaking best and wanted to purchase and additional kayak, but were stuck with this canoe that they had never even tried. Papers were still attached to the inside of the boat, the couple gave us the car-top foam pads with the deal, all we had to do was buy some cheap paddles from Campmor and some ratcheting tie-down straps and we were good to go. This was one hell of a deal, considering that the cheapest I can find this canoe new online is over $400. And the canoe? She's a dream! At first we were concerned by reviews that this boat tended to be "tippy". Upon getting her in the Manistee, we found that there is a slight "sway" to her, but nothing all that disconcerting. I think the canoe has this quality because of its keel, which makes for excellent steering. As the usual "stern woman", I really appreciate how quickly the boat responds to my steering. One other plus about the boat? The center bench has...yes...cupholders. I don't use it much, but it's good for the temporary placement of radios, beverages, etc. She's a great boat!
So...back to the trip. We put in at Lower Sharon Bridge, and what a surprise we encountered! The last time we put in here, the put-in was sketchy at best. There was a steep grade down to the lot (this is what tore off my friends front bumper)and the river access was rustic at best. This new site...holy cow! Fully paved parking area, stairs and a gently graded paved road down to the river for both boat, and I assume, wheelchair access, nice new bathrooms, and even a ramp right to the water for handicapped paddlers. This new put-in is phenomenal and my hat goes off to the forest service or whatever good Samaritans contributed to make this new access a reality. It's a gem! After dropping off the boyfriend and my friend's fianc my friend and I spotted a car downriver at our takeout point at the Coster Road Bridge. This is another great access point on the Manistee, with a good ramp, excellent parking, and leaving us with a great stretch of river to paddle for a day and a half.
We hit the river shortly after a group of college kids, who were dropped off by a local livery. I missed this when we were spotting cars, but according to my boyfriend's report, they promptly dumped in the river right after getting in. We came upon the group shortly after putting in as they took a break on shore. Clad in viking helmets and gear, they gave us hearty hello, which we returned in earnest. Just a bit further downriver, we came across a fairly technical switchback with decent, but not dangerous, strainer, and I believe my words at the time were "Oh god...they're going to die". We made it through just fine and the boat handled like a gem, but I can't help but to wonder what happened to those coeds, as we did not see them again for the remainder of our trip....
After about 6 hours of leisurely paddling (including a lunch break) and just before reaching the M-66 bridge, we found the campsite that we had used on our first trip down this stretch of the river, and what a great one it is. The site comes up on the left side of the river and consists of a large, very open plateau above a surprisingly small (only about 6ft) bank, which makes for easy unloading and reloading of gear. The site itself is interesting as it is large, flat, and contains evidence of past human habitation, specifically in the form of old apple trees. In early September, the apples weren't quite ripe, but they still made for enjoyable snacking. In the Spring, this campsite is equally beautiful, as the last time we visited, these trees were fully in bloom! All in all it was an excellent site, except for some bugs that decided to pay us a visit, which Hike & Paddle promptly took care of with his homemade bug smoker. You can see video evidence of this on his blog. My friend's bride-to-be and myself took a nap under the shade of a tarp whilst the boys set up camp and listened to U of M beat Notre Dame on the radio....we were content to let the boys do some work for once.
We had a great night at this site - I have holes burnt into my fleece jacket and convertible pants to prove it. After too many songs were sung and good times were had, we retreated to our tents for a well-earned night of sleep by the river. The following Sunday only left us with about 3 more hours of a beautiful paddle along the Manistee. This is about right for a last day paddle, as we are always tired and ready to get off the river on the last day. We took out at Coster Road Bridge, which as I mentioned, is a great takeout point. Except for getting a bit lost, our canoes trying to fall off the top of our cars on bumpy washboard roads, and hitting up the local Wal-Mart on the way home to get my friend a new tire, it was a relatively smooth last day.
In summary, this is an excellent one-night trip, as long as one can navigate the sometimes puzzling country roads and escape the local "car curse" that has befallen Hike & Paddle. Would do it again in a heartbeat!
State forest campground at CCC bridge
Unmarked campsite before M-66 bridge
Pelican Colorado Canoe
My friend's old canoe from the 70's
Canoeing Michigan Rivers, by Jerry Dennis and Craig Date
Paddling Michigan by Kevin Hillstrom and Laurie Collier Hillstrom