You tend to think of the Manistee River, one of Michigan’s longest rivers at 163 miles, as a wide, stodgy river that plods along on its journey to Lake Michigan. At least that’s the part most of us see in our travels across northern Michigan.
From M-72 on over to the lake the river averages between 60 and 100 feet across, and does offer scenic floats beneath towering bluffs. But, it doesn’t have the intimate feel of many of our smaller, faster flowing streams.
Head above M-72 for a float on the upper Manistee, where the width ranges between 30 and 45 feet, cottages are less frequent to non-existent and it feels comfortable, less intimidating. It’s hard to believe you’re on the Manistee River.
You can start your float from the old lumbering “ghost town” of Deward, about a six to seven hour 18-mile float down to M-72; at Cameron Bridge, 14 miles and about five hours of float time; or CR-612, 10 miles and a three to four hour float.
Deward is the most difficult put-in to reach. You have to follow Manistee River Road, a rough dirt road, for five of six miles above CR-612, turn down an even rougher two-track marked by a “binocular” sign to a sandy parking area. Then you have to carry your kayak or canoe a quarter-mile to the put-in. A cart is useful here, and so is four-wheel drive to get there.
The other two put-ins, CR-612 and Cameron Road at paved bridge crossings, are much easier to reach. Normally when I’ve kayaked from Deward it’s down to the CR-612 Bridge, which is about an eight-mile float. Friends spot cars and it makes a nice leisurely outing. It makes an awfully long day to kayak all the way down to M-72.
The upper river is clear, meandering and beautiful. The depth averages between one and three feet, and the bottom is mostly gravel, which makes it an excellent trout stream. You most likely will come across trout fishers wading the river. Just make sure they know you are there and stay wide. It’s all friendly, and there’s plenty of room.
This was the heart of the last great stand of virgin white pine in the late 1800s, thus the birth of Deward, which died when the lost logs floated down the river. You can still see the weathered stumps dotting the surrounding hills and meadows as you float down the river.
A few cabins are interspersed with large holdings of public land, which helps lend to the intimate seclusion you feel paddling this section of river. It flows through grasslands and is often divided into channels as it winds through numerous little grass islands. There are a few giant white pines along the river that the lumberman’s axe missed. If you paddle upstream a short distance from Deward you will find beaver dams. This section of the river gets as narrow as 30 feet at times. It’s also a great place, because of its remoteness to spot deer, waterfowl and eagles perched high in trees.
You see few paddlers north of the CR-612 Bridge, because it’s a longer trip back to popular Shel Haven Canoe and Kayak Rental located on the north side of M-72. The liveries trip from CR-612 back to their location is their most popular. Summer days, especially weekends, can be busy on that section of river. They will run trips up to Deward, but because of the length don’t get many takers.
It had been a few years since I last floated the section of river from CR-612 down to the M-72 public access so I decided to join a Traverse Area Paddling Club trip that took place mid-June on a weekday. There were a fair number of paddlers and tubers headed down river, but nothing like the crowds you will encounter from now through Labor Day.
Most of the paddlers and tubers tend to follow the main section of river, but the river often divides into channels as it winds around all the little grass islands. I love to play around and follow some of the side channels. Sometimes you go through all by yourself. Occasionally you come across a downed tree and have to go back, but that’s the fun of exploring. And, it gets you away from the maddening crowd.
Or, better yet grab some friends to spot cars and head up to Deward.