At least three Pine Rivers flow through Michigan. However, to paddlers, the Pine River that runs through Osceola, Wexford and Lake counties in the northwest part of the state, is the only one that counts.
From the first navigable stretch upstream at Edgetts Bridge down to the final takeout below Low Bridge, the current never slackens as it carries paddlers through frequent riffles, several sets of class l-ll rapids, and around countless sharp bends. A gradient measured at 9.9 feet per mile gives this river one of the fastest average flows in the Lower Peninsula
Only the AuSable River rivals the Pine in popularity as a Michigan paddlesport destination. The scenery throughout its length is primarily unspoiled forests of hardwood and conifer with only the occasional cottage. It's designation as part of the Michigan Natural Rivers Program, as well as the establishment of the Pine River Corridor forbidding development near the river, ensures that this river will retain its wilderness character.
Located just 25 from my home, the Pine has been the source of many personal paddling and fishing adventures. It was where I took my soon-to-be-wife Cyndy in 1969 to dazzle her with my paddling skills. Instead I nearly swamped the canoe when we ran under a tree.
Three years later, as a group leader on an Albion College outing and wearing only my underpants, I balanced precariously on a logjam while trying to dislodge a canoe stuck in the woody debris. Why the underpants? Not wanting to risk getting my clothes wet, I had stripped down to my skivvies.
In addition to those misadventures, I have paddled the entire length of the Pine, and done my favorite stretches numerous times.
My trip notes indicate that it would take me about nine hours of steady paddling in a tandem canoe, not counting rest or lunch breaks, to cover the entire Pine River. The livery guides and canoe books estimated travel time is about double the numbers that I list as their clientele paddle leisurely and do some floating.
The first decent launch site downstream is the Meadow Bridge/Briar Patch area which offers more parking and easier access. The upper river is 20 to 40 feet wide and occasionally narrows for fallen trees and log jams. During low water, paddlers may have to pull watercraft over shallow spots. This uppermost stretch has some cottages on its shores, however, much of the shoreline remains forested.
My favorite upstream access is about a half mile below Skookum Bridge at State Forest landing near the beginning of the eight-mile stretch of private property owned by the Ne-Bo-Shone Club. This section is posted so visitors passing through the Ne-Bo-Shone must not leave the river. From there to Elm Flats takes us just a bit under three hours.
During the summer season, when several hundred watercraft may be launched every day, this stretch of river will be less congested. Although there are about a half-dozen canoe liveries, only one is located on the riverbank, making the presence of canoes and kayaks less obtrusive.
Van Bosman, owner of Bosman's Canoe Livery, noted that in recent years the demand for river kayaks has increased. "Once they paddle a kayak, they never go back to a canoe," he said.
Van also pointed out that limiting paddlers to three beers per person has eliminated much of the rowdy behavior that was at one time a problem on the river. All of the liveries make several sweeps of the river each season to clean up the litter. Several of the rental services have camping areas located several miles from the river and that, along with making a concerted effort to have all watercraft off by six, helps create a quiet evening atmosphere on the river.
State forest campgrounds, with water pumps and pit toilets, appear on the right side of the river about a 10-minute paddle below Walker Bridge and again near the Lincoln Bridge area. The original Lincoln Bridge was removed some years ago and replaced with a narrow bridge designed for ORVs and snowmobiles. The campground here is a popular destination for ORV aficionados, so silent sport campers will likely prefer the Silver Creek Campground near Walker Bridge.
Although much of the river runs through state and national forest land, camps made outside of established campgrounds must be at least 100 feet from the river.
From Elm Flats on down, the current never slackens as it pushes boaters through tight bends and switchbacks. High clay or sand banks begin to appear. Depending on the paddler's steering efficiency, the run to Dobson Bridge will be 1.5 to two hours.
Dobson is a popular landing and a place to watch beginning paddlers launch, bounce off a couple boulders and then try desperately to gain control of their craft before it slams into a sharp elbow bend. The run from here to Peterson ends with the rapids that have made the Pine River legendary. The whitewater and standing waves wouldn't even raise the eyebrows of a skilled paddler, but recreational weekend paddlers get a real adrenaline rush.
The Peterson Bridge landing is a full service USFC camping area with good parking and access. Below Peterson, the current is uniformly strong featuring narrow chutes formed by underwater clay ledges and tight bends requiring strong bow rudders and vigorous paddling.
Much of the route passes beneath 100-foot high sandy cliffs and the forest occasionally gives way to willows and alders in the bottom lands. The ride is exhilarating and takes 1.5 to two hours. When the river widens and the current slows, watch for the take out on the left, a short distance above Low Bridge which offers no access. The river beyond Low Bridge soon enters the Tippy Dam Backwaters.
Dave Foley is happy to offer advice on paddling the Pine but he refuses to divulge where he catches his trout.
Pine River permits
In the 1970s during the summer season, there were weeks when more than 2,000 canoes were launched on the Pine River. To relieve the congestion, the U.S. Forest Service established a daily permit system.
Between May 15 and September 10, all watercraft paddling the river between Elm Flats and Low Bridge must display a permit. Permits are available at the six watercraft liveries that service the Pine as well as the USFS offices in Baldwin, Manistee and Cadillac.
Permits may be reserved for $2 by calling the Baldwin/White Cloud Station at 231/745-4631. The $2 charge is waived if no reservation is made and the permit is picked up at the USFS office. Typically all permits are filled during summer weekends and holiday weeks, so early reservations are encouraged.
To park a vehicle at the USFS access sites, a parking permit is required. These are available for $3 daily, $5 weekly or $30 for the season. Parking permits may be purchased at USFS offices or local businesses.