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As for skills? You don’t need much. The current keeps to a not-too-swift, not-too-sluggish 3 to 4 mph. An ever-widening surface and snaky curves—not narrow hairpin turns—are the norm. And except for the odd 10-foot swimming hole, the depth keeps between knee and chest high. Finally, there are only two places to portage: Hodenpyle and Tippy Dams. But those are in the Lower Manistee, nearly 50 miles and three days farther than I’m going. My plan? About 60 easy miles on the Upper.
Following a sprint from Subway to the launch at M-72 west of Grayling, I’m stroking furiously through a miles-long corridor of riverfront cottages, using my knees for leverage while I try to paddle with one hand and, with the other, unwrap and raise my sandwich to my face, swat away gnats and fumble for bug spray. As I bump from bank to bank under the pitying eyes of dads manning grills and kids with water guns, the buzz of lawn mowers onshore is suddenly broken—by the techno beat of my cell phone, boogieing somewhere deep in my kayak’s cargo hold.
Disgusted, I slap the sandwich down in my lap. This is the same frazzled chaos of my daily commute, only I’m playing with a paddle instead of a radio tuner. I take a deep breath, visualize the moment I’ll float beyond cellular range, and exhale. Then I stroke. Slowly.
Despite the languid pace of the ensuing miles, I make it to the CCC campground before the sun sinks. But instead of hauling my boat ashore and setting up camp as planned, I keep on paddling.
Maybe it’s the magic of the Manistee or the pull of rivers in general, but the scene around each bend outshines the last, and I hate to quit before the light does. The last hours have revealed armies of ducklings, a dive-bombing kingfisher, and the heart-shaped copulation of dozens of dragonfly pairs, glinting emerald and sapphire as they somersaulted through the air around me. Across one deep hole, I even saw a doe and fawn swimming—something I’d chalked up to Northwoods myth, until today.
But as the lemonade light of early sunset dissolves into dusk, I start to sweat. I need to find a place to camp. Paddling harder, I eye the banks ahead. They’re choked with tag alder. An open stretch comes eventually, but when I step out of my boat, black muck swallows me up to my shins. Night’s coming quickly, birdsong giving way to the drone of crickets and the muddy gulps of frogs. Should I paddle back to the campground? The throb in my shoulders screams against the upstream option. I shove off downstream, rejecting one bank after another. Too steep. Too murky. No trees. Poison ivy?
Paddling in the dark now, I curse myself, thinking guiltily of the question my worried father posed before I left: “If a daughter falls in the middle of a forest, how will a dad hear the sound?”