As you cruise along M-72 about eight miles west of Grayling, you can't miss Shel-Haven (11852 West M-72, 989-348-2158, shelhaven.com) - this quaint little A-frame livery is always hoppin' with vacationers and locals looking to rent kayaks, canoes and inflatable inner tubes for floating the Manistee River. Avoid the crowds by showing up early armed with water shoes, bottled beverages and copious amounts of sunscreen. If you're coming by way of Kalkaska, fill your cooler with fresh fruit and cherry doughnut holes from the Cherry Street Market (301 M-72, 231-258-4946). As for shoulda-brought-it items like squirt guns and floating lanyards for sunglasses, Shel-Haven's got you covered.
Determine how long you want to spend on the river; Shel-Haven has a number of trips, ranging from a few hours to several days. The nine-mile, two-and-a-half hour jaunt from Manistee River Road is just right for families and first-timers looking to get their feet wet. The livery hosts will pack you, your crew and your canoe in a van and drive to the drop-off point, where you'll shove off from a grassy bank and begin the breezy cruise.
The Manistee River's 225 miles are prime territory for trout; look for big shadowy blurs as the fish dash under your canoe to hide in deeper holes. Because these waters are so smooth and shallow, go ahead and let the kids try their hand at paddling or steering - the worst that can happen here is a brief bump into the riverbank before you're on your way again.
Post-paddle, head into downtown Grayling and snag a swivel seat at the retro Dawson & Stevens Classic Diner (231 East Michigan Avenue, 989-348-2111). Help yourself to a James Dean burger and, without question, a chocolate malt served with its creamy leftovers in the stainless steel mixing canister. Your trip is officially complete; your day, officially a summer classic.
Emily Bingham is assistant editor at Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine.
Note: This article was first published in October 2006 and was updated for the web February 2008.