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The Huron-Manistee National Forest sprawls over the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. The Manistee portion lies in the northwest portion of the Lower, and nestled in its valleys are some of the finest rivers in the state. The Pine River west of Cadillac is probably one of the most popular summer destinations in this area. Designated a National Wild and Scenic River in 1992, it has withstood this popularity with enduring wildness. It has also been designated a Blue Ribbon Trout Stream, and every effort should be made to try ones’s skill at fishing.
Fishing is one of the reasons people come to the Pine, but it also lures those seeking adventures in a canoe or kayak. Beginning paddlers on the Pine River give accounts of harrowing rapids and treacherous currents, but it actually is a Class I-II river. Spring levels of 2.0’ or higher can give it a full Class II rating, but the more typically encountered levels are in the 0.5’ range. Nonetheless, the Pine River provides an exciting environment for paddlers and fishermen alike.
I cut my canoeing teeth on the Pine many years ago. I, too, was once one of those novices who felt they had run an extremely difficult river. The Pine can provide a challenging experience, and I learned quickly that you couldn’t float the Pine. You paddle the Pine. Rough calculations give the descent at 11 feet/mile, with tight corners and frequent obstructions. With more skills and experience, the Pine expands into a canoeing paradise.
Most people who run the Pine break it up into convenient day trips. The canoe liveries in the area usually does so unless special requests are made. Private boaters follow the same practice, since the many access points provide a large variety of possibilities. The US Forest Service has jurisdiction over the river, but many of the launching sites are managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Some of the sites require fees, where others do not. Both the USFS and MDNR also provide rustic campgrounds with road access right on the river. These campgrounds are heavily used in the summer, and many people use them as base camps for the day trips.
Often overlooked as a result, wilderness tripping on the Pine provides a different perspective on this beautiful stream. Separated from the daily routine of shuttling vehicles, and therefore separated from the additional camping gear a person might carry, wilderness tripping on the Pine provides a unique experience. A three-day excursion separates the paddler from the comfort of car camping and opens up the river to new vistas. Even seasoned paddlers on the Pine, including myself, can find new worlds to explore.
The Pine begins in the Pere Marquette State Forest, which borders the Manistee National Forest. Pine Creek and Beaver Creek join just upstream of Edgetts Bridge. Here, the Pine is a narrow, cold, and swift stream, with its trademark steep clay and sand banks. It can be a challenge to haul boats and equipment down this access trail, but the reward is being able to launch at the top of the Pine. Also, the local canoe liveries keep the constant deadfall from completely blocking passage on the river even from this remote point. This does not mean the river can ever be expected to be free from obstructions at any time. Paddlers are on guard almost immediately as sweepers find the fastest and narrowest portions of the river to fall into.
Our plan was to do a wilderness trip on the Pine beginning from Edgetts, a MDNR access site with no fee. From here we would canoe and kayak the 45 miles to Tippy Dam on the Manistee River. Most day trips don’t begin this far up, and shuttling and unshuttling all the way down to Tippy Dam would be time-consuming, so we contacted my friend Mark at Pine River Paddlesports Center (www.thepineriver.com) to assist us. He was able to get all of our vehicles down to the takeout and launch us from Edgetts. From there we would be floating free to our destination.
After waving goodbye to Mark, we slipped and slid down the trail to the river. There was a real sense of adventure as we made a final check of our gear and loaded it into our boats. Knowing we would be self-contained for the next three days gave a heightened awareness to our surroundings. The different perspective made the river a kind of “terra incognita” that wilderness paddlers crave. We weren’t just floating from one point to another. We were living out here, and that makes all the difference.
The Pine at this point is only about 20 feet wide with quick current. In several places, shallow gravel bars churn up small waves, and a few chutes drop up to a foot. The experienced paddler will have no difficulty with these, but if this was the very first time someone was canoeing, it could appear more difficult than it is. We savored the moment, as there were no other people on the river or anywhere around. The streamside development is limited due to the State Forest, and the only buildings we saw were near the bridges.
About an hour below Edgetts on the left is Briar Patch Access, which has a nicer launching site than where we had just begun. However, we had wanted to start as far upstream as possible. We had even considered starting on Pine Creek, but local information indicated that it was too obstructed to be practical for canoeing. Another access further below is North and South Skookum, which are on river right and left, respectively. These did nothing to detract from the sensation of wilderness, but they do encourage most people to simply day trip.
Just below Walker Bridge is Silver Creek Campground, a MDNR facility requiring fees with walk-in sites from the river for canoeists, as well as vehicle sites further in. The canoe camping sites are on the right just below the double set of bridges on the peninsula, and the landing sites are small foot trails from the obvious campsites. The established canoe landing is past these and requires a walk back upstream if you miss them. Canoeists can have relative privacy from the vehicle campground, where there are pit toilets and a water pump.
Silver Creek is only 4-5 hours below Edgetts, but to break the 45 miles of travel up, it is a good idea to camp here. There is another campground at Lincoln Bridge an hour further down, but the camping area is a ways off the river and all vehicles accessible. Also, the Wild and Scenic Designation begins at Lincoln Bridge, and there is no streamside camping allowed except at designated sites for the next 26 miles below it. This is part of the permit system in place on the Pine as the USFS takes over jurisdiction just above Lincoln Bridge.
The permit system has had the long-term benefit since it began in 1979 of preventing the river corridor from overuse. Limits are placed on the number of private and liveried watercraft that can be launched, as well as where they can be launched. A complete list of the permit regulations is posted at the access points, or can be obtained from the USFS office in Cadillac. The most important features of the permit system for private boaters is the season they are required and finding a place to get one.
The permit season is presently from May 1 to September 10 each year. This makes the “off-permit” season more attractive for the wilderness paddler because there will be less people. During the permit season, however, permits may be obtained by reservation in advance from the USFS office at 1755 S. US-131, Cadillac, MI, 49601, or calling (231) 775-2421. Getting one on the day of your trip can be more difficult as they must be acquired from the office in Cadillac (closed weekends) or the USFS office just north of Baldwin on M-37. There is a fee for reservations, but no fee for getting a permit the day you begin using it.
As you leave the State Forest behind you and enter the National Forest, you can begin to get a feel for traveling for more than just a day trip. Your first night in camp supported by only what you brought in has separated you from the crowd. As you float by Lincoln Bridge access and wave at the paddlers just starting out for a day trip, they look at you with the wish that they had spent last night somewhere on the river, too.
Once you are below Lincoln Bridge, the next campgrounds are Coolwater Campground (private) and Peterson Bridge, USFS. The river through this section has very little streamside development and as the river gains flow from tributaries, it begins to carve a deeper and steeper path through the valley. It was at this point that the excitement of a wilderness trip on the Pine really began to take hold.
A day and a half of paddling without connection to a vehicle made me feel free. The length of the river was beginning to sink in, and the tired muscles in my arms joyfully knew they were not finished. I delightfully stretched my shoulders and reveled in the feeling that comes from wilderness paddling. The ache of my body in the wilderness has replaced the ache in my heart for wild places, and I am glad. I am free again to float on the rivers of the world.
The light rapids at Dobson Bridge access are an indication of things to come downriver. The current continues picking up speed as the clay banks are exposed as underwater ledges. Soon, the river is kicking up genuine waves as it whips around the bends and drops over the ledges. Water is actually splashing into the boats now and we are all grinning from the sport. Nothing difficult really, but enough to know you better have your boat under control.
The current eases up at Peterson Bridge, and the campground is on the left above the bridge. It also has walk-in sites for canoeists separate from the vehicle accessible sites.
Here, the feeling of wilderness continues, as boats are unloaded and gear set up for the second time. You have nothing with you that you didn’t float down the river, and that is the reward of canoe camping. Freedom from too much stuff. What you do have is the wide-open sky and the comforting forest the sound of the river gurgling past your tent and the wind in the trees.
As the river descends below Peterson Bridge, the action continues and the scenery grows spectacular. High, sandy cliffs characteristic of the area near Lake Michigan become more numerous. The 481,000-acre Manistee National Forest in which the Pine River is found has many dunes like these, as well as the adjacent Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. During the retreat of the glaciers from the last ice age, approximately 10,000 years ago, a shallow, warm sea covered the region. As water left Lake Michigan through the Mackinac Gorge to the north, sand dunes from the prevailing westerly winds began to pile up on the northwestern portion of Michigan’s lower peninsula. They lay on top of the glacial moraine left behind, and it is this ground that west-flowing rivers like the Pine pass through. Beginning in the heart of the moraine, they cut through the huge inland dunes that accumulated so many centuries ago.
The paddler today has a rare treat in store for him that will not last for long. The Old Stronach Dam on the Pine between Peterson Bridge and Low Bridge is systematically being removed by the State. There used to be a mile of shallow, dead water prior to the portage on the left around the dam. Beginning in June 1999, the State started gradually lowering the dam as part of its complete removal. Now, the river has cut a new channel with fast water all the way up to the dam. The dynamics of streambed erosion and the natural history of the area are suddenly exposed in a geological instant. Even now, the river is constantly redefining itself. The portage is now on river right, but look for postings at the access points as this can change.
Low Bridge marks the typical ending of most trips on the Pine. Below here, the backwaters of Tippy Dam and the confluence with the Manistee River are found.
Most paddlers exclude this section, but we were determined to see every inch of this wonderful river. We portaged Low Bridge on the right and were back in current. We could tell that things were rapidly changing as the river widened and grew ever more shallow. Just when it didn’t seem like there would be enough water to float the boats any longer, we reached the backwaters of Tippy Dam Pond and deeper water.
It was a quiet paddle through the pond, which felt more like a lake. We were grateful there was no wind to impede our progress. Instead, it was as if the river was holding its breath as it let us leave. We were introspective as we moved further and further from shore, unlike the narrow confines of the river. Slowly, gradually, relentlessly we drew in sight of our final destination at the right side of Tippy Dam. No words could really convey how I felt. I had been free for three days on the Pine. I had seen the river in a way I had never seen it before. It was a place that could still be new, fresh, and waiting to be discovered. The change had been in the way I had looked at it.
Published September 2001 in "Woods-N-Water News"
Touring Kayak Paddles