Floating down an icy, fast-surging river on a rubber raft when it’s 30 degrees and snowing offers an energizing way to enjoy Mother Nature’s cold-weather charms.
Jamie Jacklitch, owner of Sturgeon River Paddlesports in Wolverine, north of Gaylord, has guided winter trips down the Sturgeon River for nearly 20 years. He sees something different on every trip. One reason: The Sturgeon is the fastest-flowing river in lower Michigan, and attracts a diverse variety of wildlife seeking food and shelter at the water’s edge.
“You have to be a little bit crazy to give it a try, but once you’re out there, you’re not quite as crazy as you thought,” Jacklitch says. “It’s a very special, unique trip. We mainly do it for the serenity, the peacefulness, and being away from other people.”
Passengers of any age are welcome on the excursion, which combines a bit of work with wildlife viewing. It’s common to spot bald eagles, turkey, mink, and deer.
The 3.5-mile float takes about 90 minutes and requires some teamwork. Jacklitch equips passengers with a paddle to help maneuver around tight corners, which often come in rapid succession. He says no experience is required, and most people stay dry. All you have to do is listen to his instructions at the start of the trip for tips on how to remain safe and how to paddle in unison.
“It’s a fairly active trip,” he says. “The Sturgeon River is pretty exciting. There are a lot of twists and turns and overhanging branches.” Passengers often are treated to an ice-covered landscape due to fluctuations in temperature and water levels. “The ice formations and icicles, and the sound of the water hitting the ice, are pretty incredible,” Jacklitch adds.
River Options: Brian Kozminski, an experienced fly-fishing guide who leads winter rafting trips for Jordan Valley Outfitters, says going out after a fresh snowfall, or in the middle of one, is like entering a real-life snow globe.
“Being on the river when the weather is happening is always very special,” he says. “It makes the forest and the woods feel like they’re alive.”
Jordan Valley Outfitters, located in East Jordan on the South Arm of Lake Charlevoix, offers guided winter rafting trips on the slower Jordan River. It’s a more relaxed trip, with the guide doing most of the work while passengers take in the scenery. The group stops at about the halfway mark for hot chocolate and snacks.
It’s the state’s first designated Natural Wild and Scenic River, and runs through the Jordan Valley and 18,000 acres of protected land. The coniferous trees lining the banks are green and hold the snow. When rafting, Kozminski likes to share details about the river’s history and fish species, pointing out beavers, river otters, porcupines, deer, bald eagles, and other wildlife.
“When people get up here, they spend an hour and a half not attached to technology,” Kozminski says. “You’re out in nature. You’re breathing it and feeling it. You feel like you’re part of the river. It’s an awesome place to be.”
To ensure a good time, guides recommend dressing for the weather with a base layer, boots, water-resistant pants, a warm coat, a hat, and gloves.
Both outfitters are pretty busy during the winter season, booking several trips on weekends and by reservation on weekdays. The trips fill up with local residents, people visiting nearby ski resorts, winter enthusiasts, and downstaters looking for something different to do.
Melanie Bennett, co-owner of Jordan Valley Outfitters, says a cold-weather rafting trip is a nice alternative to snowmobiling or skiing if you still want to get outdoors. “It’s an adventure, but it’s not strenuous exercise. You just get to enjoy nature at its best. The winter splendor of the Jordan is breathtaking.”
Jordan Valley Outfitters
Sturgeon River Paddlesports