Every summer during the second week of August, several members and friends of my family embark on a canoe-camping journey along a northern Michigan river. The paddlers in each canoe — tent, sleeping bags, cooler and other gear mounded in the middle — includes fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, grandpas and grandkids. Our most recent adventure was on the Au Sable River, and that group ranged in age from 10 to 78 years.
Some were veteran canoeists; others had never paddled. But, regardless of skill, canoeing like that offers a great opportunity for sharing memorable experiences among family generations. For example, each summer, my teen grandson comes up from Florida. With our personal electronics locked in the car at the canoe livery, we have time to talk. And that time uncovers not only what’s around the next bend, but what hopes and dreams each of us harbors.
Not surprisingly, many of our best moments occur once the tents are pitched, the supper dishes are washed and the sparks rising from the campfire are easily confused with the stars just coming out.
“Did you see that bald eagle this morning?” someone might ask.
“That smallmouth I caught must have weighed four pounds!”
“Can we have venison chili again tomorrow?”
“Here, have another s’more.”
Our annual adventures connect us in a deeper way than going to Comerica Park and watching the Tigers play, although some of us enjoy doing that, too. Rivers have brought people together since prehistoric times. The late Verlen Kruger, a Michigan native and Guinness Book record holder whose canoeing adventures took him more than 100,000 miles, called rivers “earth’s arteries.” They are, indeed, the lifeblood of most wild places.
Our family paddling adventures typically last only three days and two or three nights. We choose rivers we can easily drive to from downstate where most of us live. The Upper Peninsula, however, is on our radar. And because Michigan offers gentle flows like the Grand River from Lansing to Grand Rapids, and boulder-banging torrents like the Yellow Dog River in the Upper Peninsula, there is no shortage from which to choose.
So, we choose those that have liveries where we can rent canoes and arrange for shuttles to drop-off and pick-up sites. We look for public campgrounds with potable water and necessities like vault toilets, fire rings and picnic tables. We pick river segments devoid of dams, free from downed timber and afford good fishing.
Having taken on the Manistee, Muskegon, Pere Marquette and Pine rivers, our group has yet to return to them. The most challenging was the Pine River, a 50-mile-long tributary of the Manistee River without dams, often touted as the fastest water in the Lower Peninsula.
It is the only river where we’ve flipped a canoe. Actually, two canoes, when one ran into another. Luckily, the water was not deep. No one was hurt. And that night around the campfire, I was struck by how the incident was harrowing for the younger, inexperienced members of our group while the older veterans, myself included, laughed and teased them about it.
There is something about a river that brings people together. And if you pause along a riverbank — any riverbank — to watch the water move, soon you will ponder where it came from and where it is going. Follow that current in a kayak or canoe, and you immerse yourself in an experience that is oddly nostalgic and prescient at the same time.
Such is the mysterious pull of water that passes this way once.
Tom Huggler is a Sunfield-based freelance writer and the author of 20 books. He is a regular contributor to Shooting Sportsman magazine and The Pointing Dog Journal.