Screeching filled the forest as I portaged around a log, dragging my kayak behind me. I hesitated, searching the sky, and almost slipped backward into the Rainy River.
Dozens of herons circled above me. Their enormous nests dotted the pines, and several more birds shot away from their leafy camouflage, aiming in my direction. Their eerie song was easy to interpret—“Go away!”
Following the herons’ advice, I slid into my kayak, leaving the rookery to its forest shrine of towering trees and rushing water. As my paddle sliced through the river, I wondered what surprise nature had planned for me next.
During the spring thaw, northeastern Michigan’s rivers—the Rainy, Ocqueoc, Pigeon, and Black—course over rapids and riffles. Ledges tumble into shallow waterfalls, while beaver dams and deadfall ensure at least a few portages through deep woods.
At the same time, stretches of flat water, appropriate for entire families, provide an afternoon of nature-watching. Butterflies flit among wildflowers, anglers tip their hats as you float by, or an eagle soars overhead.
Flowing south to north, while most Michigan rivers take a west-to-east route, the Rainy and its neighbors glide to their own rhythms. Livery services are rare, giving paddlers a sense of floating through nature, devoid of the typical parade of rafts, canoes, and kayaks found on more popular streams.
“You get away from the mess of regular daily life,” says Ray Hoobler, President of the Pigeon River Country Association. “It’s a chance to reconnect with the peace of nature.”
So with endless opportunities to escape civilization, consider the following guide a jumping-off point for creating your own adventures, not only during the spring but throughout the entire year.
Slipping in and out of the Pigeon River Country State Forest, home to the largest wild elk herd east of the Mississippi, the Pigeon is both sassy and placid, with numerous snags and rapids. It winds through undeveloped woods and past log cabins, ending at Mullet Lake, about 42 miles from its headwaters northeast of Gaylord.
“Every time my wife and I paddle the Pigeon, we see a great blue heron,” Hoobler says. “He’ll fly up a quarter-mile and then we’ll come around a bend and he’ll take off again.”
Whitewater-junkies will want to tackle the stretch from Pigeon River Road to M-68 (southwest of Onaway), about an hour’s worth of class I and II rapids. Only navigable during high water, this section tugs paddlers through a wild ride of splashing water.
On the 57-mile Upper Black River, paddlers also hit a series of rapids, enhanced by spring runoff, shortly after Crocket Bridge (southwest of Onaway). The river tugs you along until it mellows and widens, joining with Canada Creek—another stream worth exploring—before flowing beneath the Milligan Road Bridge, a good spot to takeout.
Families, however, should try one of Hoobler’s favorite trips from Clark Bridge to Crockett Bridge. “In August, you see the red cardinal flower—spiky with red tops—peaking out from the river banks,” he says. “You’re floating down the river, then you see a splash of really vivid red.”
Flowing about 30 miles from Lake Emma (southwest of Rogers City) to Lake Huron, the Ocqueoc boasts the Ocqueoc Falls, the only major waterfalls in the Lower Peninsula. But the river also hosts the lesser-known Chipmunk Falls, a four-foot drop found between Millersburg and the Ocqueoc Falls Campground.
The current pulls you around a blind corner, and suddenly you’re plummeting over Chipmunk Falls. The water ripples, alternating between Class I/II rapids. Soon, however, the river relaxes, flowing through open meadows, where ebony-winged damselflies sometimes hover among the tall grasses.
The Millersburg to Ocqueoc Falls trip is only navigable during high water, but a year-round paddle, perfect for all ages, runs from Lake Emma to Lake Nettie. Lake Emma’s resident loons see you off, and Lake Nettie’s own loon family is the welcoming party at your destination.
Of all the rivers, the 24-mile Rainy offers the most unique experience. Paddleable during high water only, the best stretch of the Rainy runs from the state land just off North Allis Road (northeast of Onaway) to Black Lake.
A canopy of pines stretches overhead, replaced occasionally by cedar swamp. Rock ledges create a canyon feeling, then drop around bends in the river, ending in riffles. Paddlers who want to avoid long portages should take out on Roost Road, but to see the rookery, continue to Black Lake.
On the day we paddled the Rainy, the cries of the herons stayed with me for a long time. Their enormous wings slashed through the sky, gray upon gray. The scene hypnotized me with its primeval feel, and I wanted to dawdle, soaking in the great bird’s cries. But I left them to their privacy, reminding myself that many more adventures waited for me on other northeastern Michigan’s rivers, where a few miles can turn into endless memories.
Putting in and taking out:
For more information, check out Jerry Dennis and Craig Date’s excellent book, “Canoeing Michigan Rivers” (Friede Publications, 2001).
Best spring rapids:
Except for the stretch on the Black River, the following trips are paddleable only during high water:
Pigeon River: Pigeon River Road to M-68 Bridge (Cheboygan County).
Black River: Crockett Bridge to Milligan Road Bridge (Cheboygan County). Livery service for the Black River is available at Ma & Pa’s Country Corner, south of Onaway on M-33 (989-733-8054).
Ocqueoc River: County Road 638 Bridge in Millersburg to Ocqueoc Falls Campground (Presque Isle County). WARNING: Be sure to take out before the Ocqueoc Falls, which are potentially dangerous.
Rainy River: North Allis Road to Roost Road or Black Lake (Presque Isle County).
This article was first published in True North.