Our theme for the month of March is “Part Two.” Writers were challenged to choose a piece they’ve previously contributed to the post calvin and revisit it, perhaps writing a sequel or reflecting on how things have changed.
Nick’s original post is “I Took a Cedar-strip Canoe Down the Most Dangerous River in Michigan.”
Last summer, I took a cedar-strip canoe down the most dangerous river in Michigan. To make a very long story short, it got the better of me. But if you’ve read the piece, you’ll remember that the voyages of the Dawn Treader presumably did not end after that fateful trip down the Pine. If you’ll remember, it ended with a challenge:
“Take her down the Pine again. Within a year. You need to conquer that river.”
It was made to be used, right?
The natural sequel to that piece would’ve been a victorious second trip down the Pine, but unfortunately that hasn’t happened yet. I still have a few months to prove myself before Larry vindictively bashes the hole back in, and my timeline has always been to give it another try this summer anyway.
I think I’m in good shape though, because the Dawn Treader has seen some tough rivers since then, including some even-more-harrowing than the Pine. She’s certainly been battle-tested.
As you may know, I have a bit of a history with close calls on the water. I’m a little more cautious than I used to be, and a lot more thorough with my preparations. That being said, I still enjoy a good challenge. It’s the reason I canoed the Pine in the first place, and it’s the reason why I opted to up the ante this past winter.
This time, I headed across the bridge to Yooperland. In the Upper Peninsula, the forests are taller, the weather is colder, and the rivers are wilder. The Manistique River slithers through the northwoods like a sidewinder snake, twisting back and forth in wide loops on its meandering path to Lake Michigan. En route, it passes through the Seney National Wildlife Refuge, widely regarded as the most remote area of the state. It’s Michigan’s patch of wilderness furthest from any road or residence. Black bear, bobcats, wolves, moose, and mountain lions all call Seney home, and plenty of them make use of the Manistique as it chugs along right through the heart of it all. This is one creek you don’t want to be up without a paddle.
Naturally, I thought it’d be a fun route to tackle in December.
Now I’m no stranger to winter camping trips; I’ve spent many a night in the frigid forests of northern Michigan. I’ve also canoe-camped my fair share, and have found that it’s generally preferable over backpacking. No need to worry about pack weight, extraneous items, or even general fatigue. And third, I’ve even taken the canoe out for a brisk winter paddle a few times. As long as you’re sufficiently bundled up, the novelty of paddling through snow makes for a tolerably pleasant experience.
But I had yet to complete the trifecta: Winter-canoe-camping. A three-tiered, badass adventure like this—conducted safely—would be a true test of strength and character.
It’s hard enough finding comrades for winter-camping or winter-canoeing excursions. Those who have the time generally aren’t willing, and the few who are willing usually don’t have the time. Still, I managed to wrangle a couple guys. For better or for worse, David is becoming a veteran partner in these kinds of trips, while my brother-in-law Eliot is relatively new to winter nights outdoors.
So on a Friday after work, the three of us drove north over the Mackinac Bridge, spent a night in tents on Lake Michigan to get acclimated, and arrived at the Manistique River early Saturday morning. About a mile upstream from where the Fox joins the river, the Manistique was nearly frozen over, which didn’t bode well going forward. A connection from Michigan Trailspotters had informed me that once we reached the confluence, it was wide, smooth sailing the rest of the way, but that first mile could be a pain.
Getting into the river was a comically tedious process. Everything was covered in a foot of snow, and the banks were mostly iced-over. It was too thin to walk on, but too thick to break with the boat or a paddle, which led to much arguing over how best to reach the main channel. We punched holes through the ice with logs, tried sliding over the top, running into the ice like a battering ram, all the while getting quite wet. An old man walking his dog stopped to observe the spectacle, clearly amused by our antics, and offered us his cane as an ice-breaker. Once we finally got going, he left shaking his head and chuckling.
The tip from Trailspotters was accurate; within that first mile the open-water portion of the river got narrower and narrower until it was choked off completely by iceflows. After some fruitless battering, we beached it and explored the banks to find an overland route. We used David’s deer-sling to tow the canoe through the woods for a quarter-mile, bushwhacking a beeline through the undergrowth to the next confluence.
Our portage ended with a dramatic stumbling out of the brush to see the sweeping panorama of the Fox River joining forces with the Manistique. I felt like a young Hemingway, who hiked off-trail through these very woods to find the perfect spot to cast a fly-rod. While my trip the Two Hearted River was more of a romantic literary hajj, any Hemingway purist would agree that bushwhacking along the Fox was a much more authentic experience.
We paddled upstream on the Fox for a ways, mostly just to humor my enthusiasm. I spouted off whimsical nature quotes from the Nick Adams Stories, and Eliot and David listened politely. Then we floated back down and continued our Manistique excursion.
From the conflux, it was indeed smooth sailing. The river was wide, the sun was shining, and the snow was gilded with sparkling crystals. It really did look magical. It was warm enough to paddle without a hat or gloves. We ended up quitting early for the day when we found a campsite we couldn’t pass up, and spent the afternoon lounging around a roaring fire.
Really, the only snag we ran into—and I mean that literally—came with about three hours left of paddling on our last day. It was the first time all weekend we came across a mess of fallen trees, spanning the entire river, followed by thick banks of ice on the other side.
Now before I describe what happened, I’d like to be clear that we came prepared for just about everything. We went over various scenarios before we even shoved off, so that we’d all be on the same page in terms of protocol. All three of us had complete sets of dry clothes, including boots and coats, in waterproof bags. We all had lifejackets.
Anyhow, here’s what happened: David and I coasted up to the nearest log, with the intention of getting out, lifting the canoe over, and getting back in. Eliot was in a kayak behind us. However, we failed to communicate that Eliot should wait upstream, treading water while we maneuvered the obstacle. He was essentially tailgating, and with the help of a brisk current, collided with the side of the canoe. The kayak rocked side to side, just barely enough to start taking on water.
Not wanting any part of that, Eliot hopped out, vaulted the canoe, and landed on the log. Before David and I could realize what just happened, the kayak promptly filled with water and sank. There was a little air pocket left in the nose, teasing us as the kayak drifted past and came to rest at the edge of the ice shelf.
Being up a creek without a paddle is one thing, being stranded on a log without a kayak is quite another. Also, the log was only a couple inches above the waterline, and covered in ice.
Extracting the canoe and retrieving it was one of the most arduous tasks I’ve ever faced in the outdoors. While I was never specifically worried about the odds of our well-being on this trip, there was a thirty-minute timespan in which I was certain we’d be heading home a boat short. The whole ordeal took almost an hour of pulling, pushing, and wiggling, then chasing downstream, followed by more pulling, pushing, and wiggling from a different logjam. But the climax was certainly that initial slippery log, where the only way to dislodge the beast was for Eliot to lay down on his stomach and yank down as hard as he could, passing the kayak underwater to his free hand under the log. David and I chased it downstream for about a mile before we were able to trap it, while Eliot had his own harrowing adventure leaping to the mainland across ice jams, crashing through the underbrush trying to keep up, running to stay warm, all the while soaking wet.
By the time we finally tracked it down and got Eliot a fresh pair of clothes, we were all ready to tap out. Thankfully, our car was parked just a few miles downstream, and we managed to ride it out without further incident.
While the Pine was much more technical, it was nothing compared to the constant cold-water threats of winter-canoe-camping. Yet I have a hard time explaining that whenever this story comes up.
Coworker: “So I imagine that’s the last time you’ll go canoeing in the winter again, eh?”
Me: “Well no, I still paddle in the winter, just not for overnighters.”
Coworker: “Ah, no canoe-camping trips anymore.”
Me: “Er, not exactly. I’ll definitely go canoe-camping in the summer and fall still; that’s a blast.”
Coworker, getting confused: “So, just no more winter camping?”
Me: “Still on the table. Just… not in a canoe.”
Coworker shakes head and changes conversation.
Even now, with the weather warming up and the event further behind me, a winter overnighter on the Grand River is beginning to not sound so bad, and that’s why I need to write blogs like this to remember that sometimes once is enough to whet your appetite (as well as your partners), and that there are better ways to spend a weekend.
Like gearing up for the Pine. Watch out, because the Dawn Treader is coming for ya… when summer rolls around.
Nick Meekhof (’15) graduated with a major in writing and a minor in geography. A farmer for the first twenty-three years of his life, Nick currently works for the Michigan Department of Agriculture. When he’s not traversing the state conducting orchard inspections, he can be found exploring the rivers, forests, and small towns all throughout the Great Lakes State. His current goals include kayaking one hundred Michigan rivers, swimming in Lake Michigan during every month of the year, and visiting as many Michigan breweries as possible.