By Allison Batdorff
DAY ONE: COUNTY ROAD 612 TO UNIDENTIFIED RIVERBANK 14 miles
So we're not Louis and Clark.
And we're not Ernest Shackleton. And the explorers of the world didn't get to eat curried vegetables and macrobiotic power bars and sleep in snazzy down-filled sleeping bags. But it feels like an adventure just the same.
We don't know how long it will take or how far we are going. We're just going to get in the water and start paddling. And while we're not discovering the river for the first time, we're discovering it for ourselves. We may even discover a bit about ourselves while we're at it.
I don't think the boss actually expected me to pull this off this trip. The plan was pretty optimistic. We were going to canoe somewhere between 150-230 miles. We gave ourselves nine days, but were going to shoot for seven.
He wasn't sure we were going to make it and he wasn't alone. There was a whole choir of "You Must Be Crazies" out there. Even the people that supposedly knew what they were talking about told me that we couldn't do it in a week. One canoe livery replied to my innocent inquiry with a "Unlessyou are a better paddler than I, you will never do the Manistee River in less than 80 hours."
They had me doubting.
But there were others voices too (they belong to people and are not just in my head). Their voices weren't quite as loud and enthusiastic, but they told me to make sure I packed my sunscreen and take lots of pictures of all the wonderful things we were sure to see. They were streaks of sunshine voices--ones that cut through the heavy clouds in 'hand of God' rays.
Granted, I had no idea what I was doing. I'd never been in a canoe for more than four hours in a stretch. This would also be the first trip where I had to bring other supplies besides beer, a place to keep the beer cold and a receptacle to hold said beer while it sat for a very short time in my
hands. I had no idea what our pace was going to be, what to bring, whatever. I just wanted to go.
So we did.
Jo and Jim recognized my 'experience' from the get-go. I was no cruise ship director. The only ship I could captain was the SS. Anarchist. And when the realization hit that they didn't expect me to guarantee their good time or safe return, I felt a lot better. Buoyant even.
On that Friday morning, we met at good breakfast place and wolfed down some eggs like it was the last supper. We headed to Wellston to pick up our canoe from Dan Funk at the Pine Creek Canoe Livery. Dan is the epitome of a great 'canoe guy.' He can sling canoes and conversation just as easy as sidelong grins. He was a master at all three. He's one of those imports from downstate that moved here because of the beauty and continues to appreciate it. Not like some of the people to have lived here all their lives...ehem....and seem to take it for granted. A wealth of little known tidbits about the river, he asked us intriguing questions like "Did you know there are 40,000 residents living in Tippy Dam?" Then he'd tell us they were bats, and laugh.
He patiently shuttled us up to Fredrick (near Grayling), then to County Road 612, our starting point. He unloaded the canoe like it was made of paper, swinging the 85 pound monolith off the van and onto his shoulders in a statement of pure graceful strength. He gave us some encouraging words and sent us off. He was one of those little streak of sunshine voices. And he gave us a great deal.
We got on the river roundabout 12:30. It took an hour or so for the rain to start. And it took another six hours for the rain to stop. It got wet. Soaking, sodden, Noah's Arc kind of wet. The kind of rain where you hope that God hasn't mistaken your address for Babylon. The rain was hitting the water so hard, it looked like it was raining up. The wind was gusting at thirty miles an hour straight into our faces. At one point I reached behind me to grab my water bottle, then realized all I had to do was open my mouth and pick a direction.
It rained sideways, crossways, diagonally and up. We could see walls of rain blowing towards us, dimpling the water in its mad rush to soak us. Jim called those water patterns "catpaws." He also described the weather as working in inverse proportion to its desirability. I knew right off that Jim was going to have some zingers.
Fog came like roving phantasms in certain places, blowing over and into us. When the winds stopped (albeit for very short times) the smells exploded, fat fall smells of leaves and damp and winter. We floated across mostly sandy bottoms, the weeds casting green, black shadows near the banks. Islands of cattails and grasses provided homes for the birdies that seemed to wait until we were upon them, than dart madly from island to bank. The trees are on fire with color. Scarlet, canary, solar flare colors--along with the burnt umber, burgundy and tan of the ferns and evergreens.
We pulled off along at some random flat spot along the river. Jo and Frank were shivering and I think everyone was soaked through and weather weary. I got the hot cocoa going and, before long, the decision was made to set up camp here instead of pressing on. It was only 4 p.m., earlier than we had planned to stop, but we figured we could make up the time another day.
And after an hour or so of setting up camp in the drizzling soak, the rain stopped. We could hear the babble of the river, and suddenly, everyone was smiling again, no longer through gritted teeth. Jim built an awesome fire and we hung everything up to dry. That's where I sit now. My toes stretched out towards the fire, boots steaming from the damp, the crackle of campfire and highway noise in my ears. The stars even came out. Not a bad day at the office.
DAY TWO PAST M72 TO FROG ISLAND 24 miles
A much drier, happier day today. The weather was so nice, we dawdled breaking camp and didn't get on the river until about 11 a.m. The morning sun set the trees aflame again, but it was cool and you could see your breath.
The morning stretch was beautiful. Few houses and lots of trees and water hazards to keep things exciting. After a couple hours, we stopped ashore for an apple and potty break. After that, the going got tough. The river widened and slowed to a crawl. It felt like we were paddling through honey. Then the wind kicked up. Now I know why they call it a 'headwind'-- in a canoe wind
in your face really messes with your head and you can't seem to get ahead. You want to take off the head of your partner. Hence headwind. We'd see those cat whiskers or cat paws coming at us, wrinkling the water and I'd give an inward groan. Facing the wind was like fighting a ninja with a noodle.
This morning, Frank gave us some advice his grandpa imparted him; to "move the boat, not the water." We all decided it would take a while to figure out what that meant. Around 2 p.m. today, it came to me. And all the sudden it became easier.
Jo taught me some new strokes...a steering stroke and a 'save yourself' stroke. The good thing is that now, I can steer the boat; the downside is that I can't blame Frank for everything anymore. We worked together a lot better today. Look forward to improving through the week. We still need to work on our parallel parking.
Harry the Great Blue heron continued to follow us. Also ran into two cool looking black and white ducks. The CCC Bridge was kind of a disappointment. It was just a run of the mill concrete block-highway bridge. I thought it would look more historical somehow, but the rest was welcome after all that wind.
Our campsite was a serendipitous find. We were flagging bad, and after we passed the Sharon bridge, we kept our eyes peeled for a place to put to. Out of desperation or fate, the next island we passed had some lovely flat ground, a stone fire pit, stacked wood in place and an easy access point. The island is only about 60 feet across and you can hear the water rushing by on both sides. We christened it Frog Island as I had heard a frog serenading us as we floated by. Froggy was our siren call.
The Sirens-this whole notion of a Greek odyssey keeps asserting itself in my brain. Only instead of searching out the golden fleece, we're more on the hunt for the warmest flannel. And instead of fighting Cyclops, we contend with Current. Like Jason and the Argonauts, we come up upon obstacles--like the raging wrath of submerged trees that grab us, sore muscles that stop us, and fly fishermen that snag us in the miles of line they throw. Then again, perhaps I need to give my imagination a rest.
I took a dip by a beaver dam tonight after we settled in. The water was frigid, so naturally I told everyone how nice it was. Jim was the only sucker. He kept repeating "why am I doing something so stupid," until it sounded like a Tibetan chant. Brrrr.
The ride was beautiful today. The colors, the eddies, the strange calls from the woods. I'm going to be sore as hell tomorrow, but we worked hard. When we stopped at the CCC Bridge for lunch, I never thought I'd be so glad to hear traffic noise. Tomorrow will be another big day and we're going to try to get an earlier start. Tomorrow we wake with the sun...unless we sleep through the morning.