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The Au Sable River in the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan has a long history of human contact, yet its wildness has still endured to this day. The Native American name for the river is unknown, but the first French explorers named it the “Riviere aux Sables” or “River of Sand” for the large amounts of sand found at its mouth on the Lake Huron shoreline. Since that time, the Au Sable would become a major artery for the fur trade, and then later it was transformed into a conveyor of lumber for the logging industry. European settlers walked its banks and poled up its waters in search of new homes and livelihoods. Lake Huron fisherman took shelter in the harbor at the mouth, and today modern fly fisherman flock to its waters to try their luck at the trout it nourishes. Industry has dammed its lower stretches to generate electric power, but the spirit of the Au Sable can still be experienced today, particularly in the upper stretches near Grayling. Winter canoeing on the Au Sable brings the wilderness of the past right here to the present, and a sense of what it must have been like a long time ago on the “Riviere aux Sables”.
During the retreat of the glaciers from the last ice age approximately 10,000 years ago, the grinding that had occurred during their advance was exposed and shaped by the melting ice. Locally, the Grayling Fingers are names for the high areas of soil left behind called moraines and eskers. They shaped the rivers of the region into a natural east-west division, with the Au Sable flowing east. Its headwaters are near Frederick just north of Grayling, where Kolka and Bradford Creeks join together. The terrain here is a combination of gravel, peat and sand, with the sand composition gradually increasing until it reaches Lake Huron.
The earliest accounts of the Au Sable are filled with descriptions of impenetrable forests and impassable swamps. The indigenous people lived mostly in its lower portions, and in the 1800’s the interior was daunting. An account from 1839, first published in 1880 in the Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan, states “the density of some portions of the spruce, fir, and cedar lands exceeded any tropical forest I have ever seen, and my experience in Central and South American states has been considerable”. Deadfall from the great virgin white pine forest created huge natural dams and swamps. The only thing more difficult than traveling across the country was traveling along the river. It could take over a month to move supplies from the river’s mouth to the headwaters, all the while exposed to mosquitoes, black flies and gnats. This condition did not last long, as between 1850 and 1910, this entire area of Michigan was stripped bare, the rivers were bulldozed from carrying the lumber, and the fish that Grayling was named for was gone.
Winter brings the primeval nature of the wilderness back in full force, and the replanted forests from the early 1900’s have inherited their own grandeur. The snow and ice cover up the traces of human occupation, and the animals are not expecting human visitors. Although snow machines are common in Michigan, most of the river corridor is not accessible to them, and silence reigns. Bald eagles, wild turkey, whitetail deer, beaver, pine martens, and several species of squirrel seem to be more curious than afraid of the people canoeing. Combined with winter camping, winter canoeing is a very challenging and yet satisfying activity.
Canoeing on the mainstream of the Au Sable begins right in downtown Grayling. The water coming into the river is spring-fed and stays open except during the bitterest arctic blast. Ray’s Canoe Livery (989) 348-5844 is right on M-72 where it crosses the river, and Steve Southard operates the livery and fly fishing store at this premium location. Steve can help coordinate any shuttle logistics or rental needs you may have for arranging a single or multi-day trip. There are many places to camp and take out between Grayling and the 114 miles to Lake Huron.
Canoeing in the wintertime brings the elements of survival that are present in wilderness canoeing into this relatively modern setting. Although there are many cottages along the river bank, especially when you first leave Grayling, they are closed up for the most part and are silent as you float by. There will probably be nobody else on the river other than you and whoever is with you. It is not uncommon to float the Au Sable in the wintertime and come away with a profound sense of solitude. It is because of these reasons that preparation is important, and I recommend a visit to the library for some books on winter camping before ever beginning to pack.
I discovered many years ago on my first winter canoe trip why an aluminum canoe is a poor choice. The metal hull rapidly conducts heat away from your feet and anywhere else you may happen to touch it. Composite or plastic hulls are preferred but they also have vulnerabilities. Plastic may fracture if temperatures plummet below zero, and ice can be as damaging as rocks to composites. Wooden stripper canoes, although expensive, are probably the only canoes completely at “home” on the river in the wintertime.
A good overnight trip is about 30 miles from Grayling to Parmalee, and is my typical winter paddle. For the very first winter canoe trip, however, I would suggest floating from Grayling to no further than Wakeley Bridge to gain experience. The canoeing techniques are no different in the winter than in the summer, but due to the risk of exposure and hypothermia, there are some adjustments necessary. First, whether it is a day float or an overnight trip, always bring a complete change of clothes in a dry bag securely fastened inside the boat. In the event of a cold weather capsize, the first thing you must do to survive is to get yourself and your canoe to shore, and change your clothes. The shorter the amount of time you are wet in cold weather, the better your chances are for survival. I pack the dry bag in the reverse order I would put the clothes on. Strip off everything wet and completely redress. Only at that point in time should you decide on a course of action. Remember the STOP principle for survival: Sit, Think, Observe, Plan.
You may have to build a fire and set camp, you may have to continue on to the next access point, you may have to walk for help. Only the circumstances at the moment will guide you, the point is to Be Prepared.
It can be awkward canoeing if you are overdressed and it can lead directly to the mishaps you are trying to avoid. The most common mistake in winter canoeing is overdressing. Also, follow the basics of avoiding hypothermia: drink plenty of liquids, eat often, and stop and walk around at designated landings on the river to keep all the blood flowing. And never forget to wear a PFD.
The choice of clothing for winter activities is overwhelming with today’s modern fabrics, but the principles have remained the same. Dress in layers like an onion, with a synthetic, wicking layer next to your skin, an insulating layer over that, and a windproof breathable shell on the outside. The more thin layers you use, the easier it is to adjust your body temperature to the cold. Canoeing uses very few of the muscles in the lower body, and therefore requires more insulation than the upper body that is doing all the work. The last thing you want to do is sweat, so be able to loosen or remove upper body layers as necessary. Gloves are essential but you will be better served with thinner ones than heavy ski mitts. Check all of your gear for comfort and mobility during mild physical activity. If you’ve made it this far, you’re ready to go.
I slipped away from the launching site at Ray’s, the sky a dull gray and the wind indifferently gusting one way and then another. I could see easily down into the cold, shallow water, and it would whisk me over small gravel bars and then spin me into quiet pools. It wanted to lure me into the branches hanging low over the water and dump me unceremoniously into the drink, but an easy pry kept my canoe at a safe distance.
The river made several more attempts to dislodge me from my seat, but then it seemed to take a different attitude. After being joined by the East Branch that comes in from the left, it seemed to finally welcome my presence when I floated under the noisy highway bridge. Everything seemed to be settling in. I wasn’t as chilly as when I started, and I loosened my collar slightly. The snow hanging on the branches of the trees gave everything a pure and innocent appearance, and the barrenness of the landscape this time of year made me feel like one of the early explorers.
At one cottage that I floated by a man was out chopping wood in his backyard along the riverbank. I stopped paddling and drifted along, soundless. I didn’t want to disturb his solitary activity any more than I wanted him to disturb mine. I hoped the other members in my group floated by just as undetected. Winter canoeing is probably one of the few activities that still gives you a sensation of solitude even when done in a group. A collection of individuals with the same passion for the wilderness has as strong a bond as any team, and yet we all felt like unique entities. We all felt the vastness of the outdoors.
Burton’s Landing is about 1-1/2 hours below Grayling and is a nice place for everyone to see how everyone else is doing since the launch. Snacks and water are quickly opened from all of the dry bags secured inside the boats, and it is interesting to see the variety of canoes and kayaks that different people prefer. It also marks the beginning of the “Holy Water” on the river where a no-kill, flies-only regulation is in effect for trout fisherman. It extends eight miles downstream to Wakeley Bridge.
After all of the boats are back in the river, the group quickly disperses into single file. The lead canoe usually has the first chance to spot wildlife, but I have discovered many a deer looking at the passing canoe and never noticing my own approach. Eagles rarely tolerate an approach of less than 500 yards, but occasionally a haughty one will let everyone float right under its beak. You can see the trout in the river as you float over the top of them, but it is easy to get distracted and join them.
White Pine State Forest Campground is about five or six hours of steady paddling from Grayling. It is accessible only from the river, and provides ample space for the largest group to camp. Camping in the wintertime is the part I enjoy the most on the trip, but again, preparation is the key. There are volumes of text on the subject, but there are a few key points on shelter, food, and clothing. First, almost any three season tent will be sufficient. You are not camping at 16,000 feet elevation in a mountain gale. Several of us just use bivies and tarps, the primary function is to provide shelter from direct exposure to precipitation.
Most sleeping bags are over rated for how cold they are good for. A bag with a 20 degree rating will not keep you comfortable at 20 degrees, especially if it has been used several times. Insulation tends to decrease with age and usage, so buy a heavier bag or beef up an older one with a polypro bag liner. Always wear a hat to bed, with dry socks and sleeping booties. A closed cell foam mattress is also essential. Seal yourself in when it is particularly cold until only your nose is sticking out. Most of the heat is lost from your head and chest.
You can eat whatever foods you prefer, as there is no risk of spoiling. Some foods don’t take well to freezing, like potatoes, so I sometimes carry them in my coat pocket. Just make sure you have plenty of calories as you will burn them up generating body heat. Continue drinking lots of water, and keep your water bottles from freezing at night by tying them together by loops if they have them or putting them in a dunk bag and throwing them in the river. Even on the coldest night, the river is still the warmest element in the environment. Don’t bring a water filter as it will be ruined when it freezes up after the first use. Rather, boil the water you need in camp to replenish your bottles, unless the hand pumps are working in camp.
You already have the clothes you need, and I have found that I usually overheat in setting up camp. Take off your jacket and sweater before you begin, and then put them back on when you are finished to avoid excessive cooling down. A campfire is a welcome addition to the social setting, and I have been experimenting the last few years with home made wood burning stoves. They can allow a fire to be made even when the snow is too heavy to clear for a regular fire pit, and when I use it with a tarp, it makes for a downright cozy winter home. I can heat water on it in the morning when I am breaking camp, and the whole thing disassembles into a lightweight, portable unit. Commercial models are several hundred dollars, but you can build your own design for under $20. All you need are the fundamental features of any wood burning stove.
Morning always provides a new answer to the question of what the weather will be like today. Nothing imparts a sense of solitude and wilderness than crawling out of your sleeping bag at the first light of dawn into single digit temperatures. Hot coffee and oatmeal have never tasted so good before, and you can’t cook them fast enough. Soon, the chill has worn off and the crunching of the snow under your feet is almost deafening as you break camp. The frost on the bottoms of the overturned canoes melts as they are once again slid into the water for another day of introspection and the float out to Parmalee Bridge.
Just below White Pine, the South Branch of the Au Sable comes in from the right. I had already floated this section just prior to this, and it provides an even greater wilderness experience than the mainstream. This is due to the Mason Tract, a 2,800 acre wilderness that the South Branch flows through. 1,500 acres of the Mason Tract were given to the state by George Mason in 1955, and there are only foot trails along the shoreline for the eight miles from Chase Bridge to Canoe Harbor Campground. All other buildings in the tract have been removed or left to disintegrate except for the Chapel that was built in honor of George’s donation.
Launching from Steckert Bridge in Roscommon makes for a nice day paddle to Smith Bridge on M-72. Located at Steckert Bridge is Mike of Paddle Brave Canoe Livery (989) 275-5273. He can assist you if you need shuttling or rental services. It is about 4 hours to Canoe Harbor Campground, and you can either camp there or paddle right on out to Smith Bridge. I have stayed at the campground, paddled out until it joined the mainstream, and then went upstream to White Pine Campground for another night. This time I camped at Canoe Harbor and took out at Smith Bridge and made the short shuttle into Grayling to join everyone else on the mainstream.
Winter canoeing is probably the closest I will ever come to mountain climbing. I have thrilled to the tales of Everest, K2, and Denali. Every year as I pack my gear I feel the hunger to explore. Every year when I float down the river I feel the thrill of being “out there”. And every year as I set up camp in the snow, I feel the joy of solitude. Laying there in my sleeping bag as I settle in for the night, I hear the coyotes yipping across the river from me. They serenade me all through the night, and it is only when I cannot hear them anymore that I am lost in that wonderful world between dreaming and sleeping, and when I wake up in the morning it is so real that I wonder if I was dreaming at all.
Published Spring 2002 in "Paddle and Portage"
Touring Kayak Paddles