I try very hard not to let my dog see me pack for a trip, particularly when he is not coming along. Maybe I’m anthropomorphizing a little too much, but I know how excited he gets when he sees a backpack and I don’t want him to feel let down by getting left behind. I was planning a quick overnight to test out my new packraft, a lightweight inflatable whitewater craft. To extend the paddling portion of the trip, I would first cover 30 miles by mountain bike starting near the mouth of the Manistee River and ending at Red Bridge. From there, I’d hike 11 miles along the Manistee River Trail to Hodenpyle Dam, then paddle 45ish miles back to the car. Clearly this was not going to be a dog friendly trip.
Apparently I didn’t do a good enough job. He must have sensed something was up when he saw me making clandestine trips to the basement or portioning out food into little bags. In any event, I was awakened at 1 am to find him sitting by my head, muzzle inches from my face, watching intently. I told him to go back to sleep, and he obligingly curled up at my feet. An hour later he was back, staring at me again. Thinking that he needed to go out, I went downstairs and opened the door. He ran straight to the car and sat down by the passenger side door. Sadly, I called him back and tried to go back to sleep. He wasn’t having it. Finally I gave up on sleeping and headed out. The last thing I saw before pulling away was his white face watching mournfully from the window.
I reached the mouth of the river by about 6:30 am. The riverwalk was closed for construction so I drove around for a while until I found a tribal agency on one of the waterways in the “bayou” (a convoluted series of waterways off the main river as it enters Manistee Lake) that amiably allowed me to use their parking lot. Leaving my car there, I started out by bike on M31 until I intersected River Road.
It was a crisp morning (30 F) and a heavy frost lay on the ground in spots. The sky was azure and without a cloud to be seen. As the sun rose overhead, thoughts of freezing to death soon faded. Leaving the paved roads, I made my way on dirt and gravel past meadows and woods. Herds of deer would startle and bound away as I passed, white tails flagging in alarm.
I was unaccustomed to the efforts of biking and my legs burned with the effort. I was also quickly realizing that mountain bike saddles were not designed with the touring enthusiast in mind. With a 19 lb pack amplifying the effect of every rock and rut, I would not want to sit down for some time after this adventure.
A turkey vulture soared effortlessly in the updrafts in a classic tetrahedral flight pattern. It wasn’t too long before I started wondering why he was eyeing me so intently.
Contrary to expectations, River Road doesn’t actually run all that close to the river. This made for a much nicer float trip later, as from Hodenpyl Dam down to Manistee Lake, the Manistee flows predominantly through state game lands with few human constructs to mar the views. Briefly though, at its confluence with Bear Creek, the river meandered into view and I stopped for a snack of dried pears.
Stopping at Bear Creek
Pushing onward, I traversed a myriad of small dirt roads, deep sand frequently slowing my progress. It had been a few years since I had put any significant mileage on my bike, and this leg of this trip was proving more challenging than I had thought it would be. It had not occurred to me beforehand but was quickly becoming evident that biking a ways upriver implied that I would be travelling uphill for much of that distance. Additionally, compression running shorts may look like bike shorts, but they just aren’t the same. Next time, I'd splurge the extra couple ounces on shorts with a little "protection". Finally, saddlesore and hungry, I found myself on Coates Hwy and coasted in to Red Bridge. It had taken nearly 4 hours (with breaks) since I had started. I was all too relieved to be off the bike.
I paused at a picnic table for lunch, an artisanal salami and farmhouse cheddar, and then stashed my bike in the woods, well hidden in a cluster of young evergreens.
The next five hours passed quickly hiking the familiar trails. I had probably spent more time hiking and fishing along this section of the river than I had any other wilderness area in Michigan. With the addition of packraft, paddle, life vest, and extra insulation, my pack was significantly heavier than usual, but it carried easily enough for the short hiking distance I had planned.
View of the river
Arquilla Creek in light and shadow
At a grassy meadow slightly downriver from the suspension bridge near Hodenpyle Dam, I pulled the raft from my pack, manually inflated it, and lashed my pack to the front. Then I was away in the current, quickly delighting in the feel of the raft. I practiced forward and backward ferrying and eddying out. Once more comfortable, I began moving steadily downriver, avoiding the sweepers that lined the banks on either side. Four and a half hours of paddling took me about 11 miles downriver to Tippy Dam Pond. On a secluded island in the middle of the waterway, I found a nice campsite where I could watch the setting sun.
Bluffs as seen from the river
Tippy Dam Pond
My personal island
I planned on sleeping atop my raft, but pitched my poncho tarp just in case it rained. Given the beautiful weather this seemed unlikely, but you never can tell with Michigan weather. After all, it had been sub-freezing when I started out this morning.
Given the additional weight of the packrafting gear, I had really tried to skimp in other areas. My sleeping pad was a simple 1/8” thick foam pad, and my cooking setup was a small trapper’s mug set atop 3 stones. My base weight ended up around 15 lb, with a final pack weight of about 19 lb once food and water were factored in.
My favorite backpacking dinner, spicy chicken pasta
The raft was comfy for a while, but sagged in the middle. Waking in the night, I moved into the tarp so that I could sleep on my side. There, I was delighted to find that the ultrathin 1/8” pad was not any more uncomfortable than my regular cutdown foam pad. Not a raving endorsement I know, but it seemed like an acceptable compromise. I had wanted to test this out for some trips planned later in the season that would require a more minimalist setup.
I awoke at 5 am to a chorus of birds. A light mist was rising off the water
Geese greet the sunrise
I heated some water for breakfast and quickly packed while my cheesy bacon grits rehydrated. The trapper’s mug wasn’t big enough for both coffee and breakfast, so I dumped some Starbucks Via into cold water and drank it while taking down my tarp. I also poured some cold water into a bag of refried bean flakes in preparation for lunch.
Soon I was paddling out onto the glassy surface of Tippy Dam Pond.
This area was absolutely beautiful. Waterfowl were everywhere, frequently with gaggles of goslings or ducklings in tow. Herons stood poised in the shallows. A pair of loons bobbed and dived, staying just out of range of my raft. Sunrise soon turned the water’s surface into a polished mirror.
On the down side, with no current I had to work pretty hard to keep the packraft moving, pausing occasionally to rest aching shoulders. The pond stretched onward for miles. Eventually I was able to see the dam and paddled with renewed enthusiasm toward the portage.
Re-entering the current below the dam was like going into hyperdrive. Enjoying the sensation of being carried along by the river, I watched a deer and fawns appear atop a bluff, running from my raft and soon appearing again at a more distant bluff. Turtles perched atop logs and on top of each other, hastily plopping into the water as I passed. Mayflies lit on the water’s surface and fish rose to feed. A bald eagle watched hungrily from a treetop perch. Life was everywhere.
Stopping for a bean burrito lunch at Blacksmith Bayou
Lower on the river, the bluffs faded and were replaced by tangled growth, swamps, and braided channels. The wind had picked up and I experienced the challenge of paddling into a stiff headwind. Gusts would catch my pack and try to spin the raft backward or sideways. I had found my paddling rhythm though and made good time nonetheless. Passing the Bear Creek Access, a DNR sign advised that it was a 1.5 hour float till the next access point at Rainbow Bend, but I made it in 50 minutes. The next access at the M55 bridge was 4 hours away and would put me at my car by about 8 pm that night.
The next four hours had me paddling into what seemed like a continuous headwind. At first I was bemused (“You’ve got to be kidding me!”), then angry (“[Expletive] you, wind!”), and finally, up for the challenge (“Is that all you got?”)
At least, that’s what was going on in my mind. To all appearances, I was just some lunatic cursing into the wind. I paddled furiously, my earlier fatigue long since forgotten. For each time that the wind stopped me in my tracks or spun me around, I had only to look over at the bank to make note of my continued forward progress.
A typical stand of Michigan pine on a bluff
Finally, human constructs appeared on the banks of the river. I had made it back to the bayou. Unfortunately, I somehow managed to misplace myself. I was not lost, technically speaking. I knew exactly where I was on the map (1 mile past the intersection of the Manistee River and the M55 bridge). And I knew where my car was (more or less). Figuring out how to connect the two was proving problematic. I had passed the waterway that would have taken me directly back to my car. Paddling upriver in the packraft was not going to work. The many waterways and swamps that comprised the bayou made cross-country travel an impossibility.
From the water, I suddenly spotted a set of tracks I knew would take me where I needed to go. Stowing my raft on top of my pack, I started out on foot.
Me, in my element. Slightly lost and enjoying the adventure.
A set of tracks leading back to civilization
Crossing a narrow one lane bridge over one of the waterways was unnerving. Had a train come during that crossing, my only recourse would have been to jump. Making it safely to the other side, I stumbled across a sign warning that trespassing was strictly prohibited. I suddenly wished that I had hidden my candy red raft inside the pack instead of on top of it. I was sure that I would be spotted, and that a police escort would be waiting for the “hobo” when I made it to solid ground.
As expected, the tracks took me straight to my car. No one was waiting. After a quick detour to pick up my bike, I made my way directly to “Da Dawg House” in Cadillac, MI. Although it was 9 pm, I ordered what I knew they made best. Dog Chow; hash browns, biscuits, eggs over easy, sausage, and gravy, all piled high in a stainless steel bowl. Life was good.