Betsie River – The best paddling experience no one’s heard about
A trip down the length of the Betsie River will include several liftovers and portages. Photo by Cyndy Foley
Paddling with Dave Foley
Cadillac, my hometown, is within 50 miles of some of the best canoeing in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The Pine, Manistee, Pere Marquette and the Boardman, these are the streams that everyone knows about and they all carry plenty of boat traffic. Then there’s the Betsie River. Fifty miles of navigable river, a couple canoe/kayak liveries, and the place to go if you want some solitude during the paddle season. And it is only 35 miles from our home. For Cyndy and me, it would be a good tune-up to prepare us for our more extensive trips coming later in the summer.
The car shuttle, as usual, is annoying. Drive two cars to the Grass River Campground, drop the canoe and packs, then head west to the edge of Betsie Lake to drop off the canoe-rack car before returning to the campground. Just below the Grass River spillway, we launch our canoe. Here the river is little more than a wide, shallow creek. Our paddles bounce off the sandy gravel bottom as we navigate around fallen trees. Forty minutes later, the gentle river suddenly shows its muscle as we slide beneath the Reynolds Road Bridge. The stream narrows as the current, now rushing furiously, races into a bank, and slides under a jam of dead fall. Caught off guard, I counter with a bow draw*, while Cyndy supplies power from the stern. Though lasting barely a half-hour, the intensity of this stretch of river might prove more than beginning or maybe even intermediate paddlers could handle.
The author executing a bow draw. Photo by Cyndy Foley
Near Carmean Bridge, the river settles down. Sharp turns and log jams still appear and our fiberglass canoe bottom occasionally grinds over shallow gravel sections, but the paddling becomes easier. Stands of hardwoods mixed with coniferous trees line the riverbank. Occasionally we see a cottage.
Canoe liveries, typically, can be counted on to keep rivers navigable. While there’s evidence of work being done here, there are some surprises in the upper sections of the Betsie. At one point, a mass of logs jams the river.
Instinctively, we back paddle and pull in next to a beaten down path around the woodpile. We empty the canoe, carry the gear and canoe around to open water and resume our trip. Later, a single log will necessitate another unload so we can slide the boat over the obstacle.
Near the village of Thompsonville, we shoot through a quick exhilarating section of standing waves, marking the location of a now defunct dam. Then the river settles down and we continue to the Betsie River Canoe Livery, just above Lindy Road Bridge, one of two businesses where kayaks, canoes and camping are available. The other, Vacation Trailer Park, is at US-31.
At Kurick Road, there’s the longest culvert we’ve ever encountered. Perhaps a hundred feet long, we slide into darkness pointing toward a distant circle of light. As we emerge, I am enveloped in a spider web carrying a sizeable agitated black arachnid, which drops off my face onto the canoe bottom. Normally complacent about spiders, this one gets my attention.
As the sun drops toward the horizon, its rays shimmer on the river surface, both highlighting and obscuring the way forward. Sunlight shining through overhanging foliage creates a glowing green backdrop. Then a surprisingly close hooting begins. We stop paddling and listen to what we will later identify as a great horned owl. We paddle on, thoroughly enthralled by nature’s show.
Except for summer weekends, paddlers on the Betsie will likely have the river to themselves. Photo by Cyndy Foley
As the evening shadows lengthen, we beach our canoe at the edge of a stand of cedars, tiptoe our way through shoreline poison ivy, and select a tent site on level ground in the forest. It is only then we discover how tired we are. Rather than cook, we eat sandwiches and trail mix for dinner. Sleep comes easily.
The next morning, with the sun rising behind us, we pack up and by 7:30 we’re back on the river. The stream’s wider and deeper, but we still occasionally grind over shallow gravel and sometimes need quick reactions to avoid smacking into log jams. We agree that the two hours we spend between Kurick Road and County Line Bridge is a stretch that would delight any kayak or canoe traveler.
The nature show continues as we startle deer – some with fawns – drinking at water’s edge. Families of merganser and wood ducks floating in midstream are startled at our approach. The baby ducklings kick up tiny water rooster tails as they race for the safety of the riverbank. Overhead kingfishers heckle us with their harsh staccato calls as they put on an aerial show of dives and swoops ahead of our canoe. These noisy birds are literally overshadowed by eagles, which on several occasions suddenly appear, dropping in graceful arcs across our bow and then soaring up to alight in tall trees.
Soon after County Line Bridge, hardwood forests which had dominated gradually give way to cedar, tag alder and marshland. The river bottom becomes sandy, but vigilance is needed to avoid becoming impaled on barely-submerged logs.
At noon, we portage around Homestead Dam and continue through an area that in spring and fall will have salmon fishermen lined up elbow to elbow. Today we have it to ourselves.
Tree branches adorned with tangles of line and orange spawn bags are the only signs of the angler horde. The river water is cloudy, but wide enough that we can avoid most of the woody debris. There are few cottages. We see massive willow trees and stands of skeletons of former elm trees. Three hours below Homestead Dam, the forests gives away to marshland and soon we are unloading our canoe at a trestle bridge within sight of the too-low-to-pass-under Mich. Hwy. 22 bridge where the river empties into Betsie Lake.
It took us just under thirteen hours of actual paddling to tour the river, during which time I don’t think we saw even a dozen paddle craft out on the water. This is a river more paddlers ought to sample.
* Bow draw & bow rudder
Sit upright and rotate so your chest and shoulders are facing the direction that you want to turn. Place your paddle in the water ahead of you, completely sinking the blade. Bend at the waist so as to get the blade as far ahead of you as possible. It should be about a foot away from the side of the canoe.
Be sure the face of the paddle is facing towards the boat. The paddle blade should not be at a right angle to the boat.
In a tandem canoe, unless there is a strong current, the stern paddler should be paddling vigorously on the opposite side of the canoe from where the bow paddler has placed his blade.
In a solo canoe the paddler must have momentum in order to make a successful turn. Once the momentum drops, the solo paddler needs to take quick strokes on the other side of the canoe, before returning to the bow turn.
The bow paddler will need strength to hold the paddle in the water as the force of the water can be powerful.
If you leave the blade hanging in the water so it carries momentum into the turn this is a bow rudder.
If you pull against the blade and move the boat towards the blade this is a bow draw.