On a beautiful late afternoon, I decided to paddle from the nice DNR Airport Road canoe launch just north of Hastings to downtown Middleville. I had done the stretch from Airport Road to Irving Dam before but felt that was too short (one hour 20 minutes) for what I wanted today. This total trip took three hours with the river flowing fairly high after some good rains. I believe it is about 10 miles.
After dropping my kayak off at Airport Road, I drove to downtown Middleville, where I parked in a municipal lot next to the river (and dam). I rode my bike down the Paul B. Henry Thornapple Trail along the river to Irving Road. The first 3.5 miles of the bike trail are paved and beautiful. The next two miles are a grass path - and I mean grass, not really a single-track path or anything; that was tough slogging. I turned right on Irving Road out to M-37 and then to Airport Road, about a 9 mile ride.
What I have been most amazed by on the Thornapple from Airport Road to Irving Dam are the number and size of the turtles. This held true again. Turtles on logs, on rocks, and burrowed in the sand along the river's edge. And one turtle so big I thought it was a stump! On this trip, I also capsized for the first-time ever! I never expected it to happen on the Thornapple, which is probably part of the reason it did. I got a little careless and couldn't make it around the end of a downed tree. So I tried to get under it by pushing up on the trunk, which has always worked before. The tree didn't give but the boat did. A first time for everything - after four years of kayaking some of the most challenging rivers in the lower peninsula.
Know that it is a slow paddle up to Irving Dam. Exit to the left near the culverts (which I could barely see because of the high water level). Then what I did but wouldn't recommend is walk to the right across the bridge over the dam and put in just below the dam. Irving Dam actually consists of two dams, and the trip on the water between the dams, even at high water, was miserable with several portages and very low water - lots of scraping, pushing, pulling. And it took much longer than I expected to get to the second dam, which you don't have to portage; it simply comes down from the left.
The better route is to finish at Irving Dam or start at the DNR put-in on Irving Road just past the second dam. To portage from the first take-out to the Irving Road launch would be a good-sized hike.
A friend told me that I would be portaging often on the segment from Irving to Middleville, but perhaps he was talking just about this stretch between the dams. I didn't have to portage at all after passing the second dam. In fact, this was an incredibly beautiful stretch of river with very little civilization. I said hi to a water snake sunning itself on a downed tree, had a huge fish come up for a bug in front of me, greeted a raccoon in the river's edge for it's evening meal, and floated a dozen feet below a majestic bald eagle perched on tree fall. I will be back here many times.
There is one tricky little spot at the end where the river turns 90 degrees to the right but appears to go straight. Just make note of the the big sign that says no hunting or trespassing and you'll figure it out.
All in all, I would recommend either of these segments on their own but not together. Treefall appears to get cut pretty regularly, but freshly downed trees could mean portaging at any time. The take-out in Middleville before the dam is clearly marked on the left, across the river from the parking lot.
Get to downtown Middleville from M-37 by going east a couple blocks on Main Street. Get to Airport Road just east of M-37 north of Hastings, with the launch on the north side of the road. Irving Road runs between Middleville and M-37 more or less along the river.