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GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The Manistee River cuts a beautiful path -- a post card around every bend. Groves of intermixed birch, cedar and hardwoods are common. One can smell pine in the air. The water appears pure. Clusters of homes, "wilderness", occasional commercial liveries, meadows and convenient camping line the banks. The book, "Canoeing Michigan Rivers", provides an excellent description and may be the only text that need be referenced. In addition to the book cited above, we referenced several trout stream books from the library. Included in the trout stream books were details on location of public access, river current and depth. As a bonus, these trout stream books offered information on riverbed content, bank and surrounding land make-up, useful in trip planning. Many stretches that we paddled appear to be true wilderness, where the only sight, sound and smell are those of nature. Other sections parallel unseen roads from which traffic is heard. Occasional large islands may cause some momentary confusion. One may encounter paddle-pig-flotilla-parties of canoeing and tubing hoopla. In contrast, seemingly gentle-spirited, fly-fishing people sparsely dotted the Manistee River. Likewise, one may encounter seemingly gentle-spirited families enjoying a float. Kayaks are also well represented. We saw people everyday; however, the greatest numbers were at campgrounds, most of whom were car camping. Even then, the campgrounds were not filled. Swimming is not really a viable option, wading and splashing are. My wife and I advised the group that there would be no entering the water without foot protection.
LOCATION (PUT-IN / TAKE-OUT) AND CANOEABLE MILEAGE: Our canoe rental company choice put us in at CR. 612, NW of Grayling, MI. This bridge landing is narrow, shallow and banked by private lands with homes. Target take-out was Baxter Bridge. We only made it to Rainbow Jim's, due to the five neo-canoe-campers that my wife and I introduced and "lead" to canoe camping. Rainbow Jim's is a large and scenic public access site allegedly 85 river miles SW of Grayling. We put-in on Sunday morning and were picked up on Thursday, mid-afternoon.
INTERESTING FEATURES: (Also see GENERAL DESCRIPTION, ETC. and CONCLUSION) The section that we paddled of the Manistee River is sacred fly fishing water. It is incredibly clear and cool, 4-inch to 6-feet plus deep, constantly moving water. There is faster water in some places, but no white water. We had to line the canoes at some points due to fallen logs in chest-deep water. Some spots offer a somewhat fast-paced challenge to maneuver through log jammed narrows that twist and turn sharply while the current sweeps where one does not want to go. Maps and compass may not really be needed for following the flow. Maps would be useful to those who may want to follow feeder streams in search of fish. Our casual observation was that these feeder streams would not float a canoe. Some may not need or want to paddle in some sections, opting for the current to carry them.
CAMPING: Each Michigan State Forest Campground is about a day's paddle from the other. We had no trouble finding the campgrounds, as there seemed to be a "theme" of wooden post and rail fencing, visible from the section of river on which we traveled. We observed that each campground we used was also accessible by car, since they are located at or near bridges. We found this somewhat detracting from a wilderness feel due to traffic noise and car campers. Maps could be handy to locate public land that would be suitable for a lunch break or a remote camp (permit required) employing LNT principles. The campgrounds we encountered had "convenient" camping with pump water, a large trash container and pit toilets. There was a table and a fire pit at each site, which can easily accommodate two tents. All this convenience was only $6/night/site. Some state campgrounds are closed, which may pose inconveniences. Check with DNR for the latest information. We were pleasantly surprised to find toilet tissue in each outhouse. We were disappointed to find foil and other trash in each fire and toilet pit. Broken glass shimmered on each gravel pavement. There were nails hammered into several trees. We were pleased that firewood may be collected from the forest floor and ropes may be tied to trees for tarps, hanging food packs and such.
We camped at:
1. M72 BRIDGE - There is a livery business visible across the river. We thought the campground was noisy from M72 traffic, but died down after dark. The grounds are up a long stairs and most sites are back from the river. Two "hitching-post" style canoe rests provide a stable alcove. One cannot see or hear the river or canoes from camp. We had the campground to ourselves.
2. CCC BRIDGE - There are two campgrounds, one above and one below the bridge. We chose the first. We concluded that this was a nice spot for a layover day, giving the inexperienced neo-canoe-campers a rest. We could see and hear the river from our coveted site. This camp was quieter than M72, but there was minor traffic noise. The first campground has a convenient "ramp" to schlep canoes up a short hill and out of others' way. The toilet and water pump pads are equal access and appeared to be new. All in all, a very nice place. A planted, pine-needle-carpeted-mosquito-farm-woods borders the back of the campground. There seemed to be a fireworks party at a residence, across the river. There is another, larger campground across the river and just past the bridge. "Swimming" is easier at the second landing. Both grounds received maintenance attention both days of our 2-day stay.
3. M66 BRIDGE - CLOSED. We had a permit to use state land, but were not sure if we were "legal" at this closed site. Nevertheless, we had to stop. We did not notice traffic noise. There are no conveniences except parallel "hitching-post" canoe racks. We showed the neo-canoe-campers how to make "tables" from overturned canoes. We had the campground to ourselves. Houses were visible across the river.
OUTFITTERS: In my opinion, THERE ARE NO OUTFITTERS. There are, however, order takers, employed by liveries from where parties rent or buy canoes, tubes, kayaks, water shoes, sandals, sunscreen, fly fishing equipment, postcards, etc. We were left with the impression that not one of the businesses we spoke with really cared if we rented from them or not. Please understand me, these companies were not rude by any measure; in fact, they are very friendly and engaging folks, willing to work with us. However, we were not asked about our expectations, interests, desires, etc… Not one asked us for our business. Not one could give a firm price quote before arrival. Not one offered to place an inquiry to DNR regarding closed campgrounds. In all cases, the livery instructed us to call long distance information to get the telephone number of DNR. We were left with the impression that we taught them about customer service. My perception is that outfitting is in large part, an untapped opportunity in this geographic location. I assume that there are camping interested liveries operating in the area; however, we did not speak with them. Our livery order taker was surprised that we did not need to re-supply for a 5-day trip with seven people. Grayling is the only sizable town in the immediate area and we chose to do our business at this hub. Our disappointment may very well be because the Manistee River is approximately 8 miles from Grayling and the AuSable River runs through Grayling. I might be persuaded to understand the disinterest of a livery in the Manistee River from a profit point of view. However, most liveries will transport to/from a landing for a fee in addition to the rental. It was our observation that the larger liveries had fleets of vehicles and carts. We perceived that the liveries were somewhat hesitant to travel to landings with which they were not instantly familiar. My perception is that if one wants a guided fly-fishing trip, the livery then dallies into elements of outfitting with in-house or hired local experts.
ETC.: We saw many deer but encountered no ticks while exploring trails and gathering firewood. Poison ivy is abundant. There were more deer flies than mosquitoes. Gnats were bothersome and thick just after sunrise and just before sunset - head-nets were the appropriate fashion in the summer collection of the well-prepared camper. We saw several species of duck. We believe we saw mink, possibly small otters. We believe we saw a bear's print on a bank where we stopped to go back into woods for firewood. We were surprised that we saw no raccoons nor experienced any damage or pilfering. Many blue birds and herons. Not many hawks and no eagles. We were surprised that we saw only five turtles, but frogs did serenade us the whole way. Large fish were visible the length of our trip. Predominately working with the five inexperienced campers, we found little time to invite any fish for dinner. Some may find it inconvenient that there are no stores along the way.
CONCLUSION: The Manistee River presents all of the components of a wilderness canoe or kayak journey. This river can introduce wilderness canoe or kayak camping to those honing their skills, or possibly meet the needs of experienced trekkers looking closer to home. I would take this same trip again or start where we took-out, targeting Lake Michigan as the take-out. I personally longed for the prospects offered by portaging during flat-water experiences. Portaging around dams is required farther down-river. Be advised -- you will see occasional accidental and purposeful trash in the water as well as trash in every campground. You will see people everyday. You will sometimes hear tires whining on a highway. Power lines will obstruct the perfect photograph. Nevertheless, there are hours of miles on the Manistee River that strike you as pristine.
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