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Thunder Bay 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 Thunder Bay River runs eastward from the small town of Long Rapids and empties into Thunder Bay on Lake Huron.

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.

Wednesday, September 15, we got up early, packed up all our gear, and drove to Shelias for breakfast before heading for Thunder Bay River. We each had a plate heaping with two eggs, a choice of two meats, hash browns and a thick, toasted piece of homemade bread.

The plan was to canoe the Thunder Bay River and then drive home. The put-in was the municipal park in the small town of Long Rapids. The river is known for its rapids that the maps identify as Speehley Rapids, but "long rapids" more accurately describes what we encountered.

First, let me describe the river. It was much wider than the other rivers we had paddled and it was the only one with murky water. The north shore was populated with cottages until the river entered a large forest populated only by deer. A lot of deer.

The rapids started almost immediately, one after the other, until we lost count. They spread all the way across the wide river and our challenge was to find runnable spots among the shallows. Again, like the Black River, we had to avoid a lot of large rocks. We kept shifting from bank to bank searching for deep water. Occasionally we guessed wrong and had to get out and line or track the canoe to deeper water.

We finally hit deeper water in the forest and began to see deer, everywhere. At one cottage we saw five deer in the yard behaving like they were the owners and we were unwanted tourists. I swear that one of them was sitting in a chaise glaring at us as we drifted quietly by.

We reached the takeout bridge after noon and shuttled back to the municipal park for a bag lunch and to retrieve Dons van. We then went back and loaded the canoe. It was the end of our canoeing adventure. We were tired, dirty, unshaven and a few pounds lighter. The canoe was so scarred that it looked like part of her design, but she had survived hell and could be proud that she had carried us through. Don drove off to Lansing and I headed for Kentucky. I think we both felt that it was a rewarding adventure that would be hard to top in the future.


"Canoeing Michigan Rivers" by Jerry Dennis

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

Locations on this Trip