My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Kayaking the Little Muskegon above Morley

Yesterday, six of us kayaked the Little Muskegon River from the dam at the Altona Riverside Park down to the city park in Morley, Michigan. I guess you would say it was an up and down day, but overall, a great day! The weather started out very nice as we met in Morley and spotted a couple of vehicles in the city park there on the pond. You can continue across the pond to the dam in Morley, where there is another park right at the dam, but taking out there isn’t as good as the city park.

Then we drove up to Altona to put in. The Little Muskegon in this area is between 30 and 40 feet wide most of the time, and a typical Michigan stream with some riffle areas mixed with deeper holes on the bends and near where logs and trees have fallen into the water. The current is moderate, not anywhere near as fast as the Pine or Sturgeon Rivers, but faster than rivers like the Flat or Looking Glass. The gradient is around 5 feet per mile.

We got every one in their boats and on our way without incident, including Mike and Connie’s new boats, which perform very well it turns out. It was a beautiful afternoon as we wound our way downstream through the mixed forests and occasional tag alder swamps along the upper river. We went past the access site at the end of Three Mile Road, which is a DNR site and offers good access to the river if you want to shorten up the trip by about an hour or so. I did notice a few dark clouds, which were a portent of things to come.

We made it to the dam at Rustford, which we portaged on the right, and had a light lunch there at the dam. I don’t know who actually owns the property, but they keep it mowed and maintained, and it makes for a great spot for a break. Last year when we ran the Pine, we took two breaks, which worked out great, so I wanted to try that again yesterday, but things didn’t work out that way due to the weather later in the day.

It was after our break at the dam that things went downhill some what. I was helping people get back in the water, when one of our group flipped as she launched. I watched it happen as I was pushing her off, and I don’t know why she went over, she must have leaned the wrong way or something. We pulled her boat back out and drained it, this time I let Mike help her launch.

I could be wrong as to when we saw what, but for much of the trip we had both an eagle and at least one great blue heron taking off from in front of us time after time as we floated along. I don’t remember if we saw them first above or below the Rustford dam, I think it was before. At regular intervals we would see either the eagle take flight from the top of a tree with its white tail fanned out, or see a great blue heron take off from the river as it was hunting. Somewhere around there, we also saw a deer running through the woods after we had spooked it. We also saw a number of pileated woodpeckers, and there were birds singing in the trees and bushes all along the way. We also saw what I think was a little blue heron and a number of ducks that we never got close enough to for me to identify.

Then things went downhill a bit again, we came to a fallen tree that blocked the river completely, and required that we portage around it, sort of. I don’t remember it very well today, it wasn’t burned into my mind the way the other trouble spots later on were. I think it was pretty straight forward, I pulled out, set my boat off to the side, then helped Mike pull out, and we set his boat off to the side as well. Then, one by one, I helped the women out of their boats, passed the boats over the log jam to Mike, he helped them back in, and we were off again, no big deal. If I am wrong about that, please correct me.

 The next trouble spot is burned into my mind much more than the first. I don’t remember why I was lagging behind the group as much as I was, it may have been to change the batteries in my GPS unit, but I do remember coming around a bend in the river and seeing the silver and black of some one’s paddle jammed nearly vertically against the face of another log jam, and that the owner of the paddle was struggling trying to pull a water-logged boat up a steep bank. It was the same person that went over at the launch from the Rustford dam, and other members of the group were going through a small opening on the left side of the logjam to help her out. I knew her paddle had to be retrieved, but it wasn’t going to be easy where it was jammed in the logs. Right next to where her paddle was in the logjam, there was a spot where some one who was good in a kayak could have limbo-ed under the log, which is what she tried, but wasn’t able to pull off. I thought about trying it, I am not sure that I would have made it either as big as I am, but I know for sure I wouldn’t have been able to snatch her paddle off the logjam and gotten down in my kayak in time to make that very small opening.

 That left me with the alternative of paddling down to her paddle, grabbing it, then paddling back upstream against the fast current before the hydraulic formed by the logjam could roll me. I carefully positioned my boat so I was drifting downstream sideways and as soon as I could reach the other paddle, I snatched it, shoved off the logjam with my paddle, then paddled for all I was worth to keep from getting slammed into the logjam sideways, which probably would have rolled me. It worked even better than I expected, except that now, I had two paddles and one pair of hands. Every couple of paddle strokes I would have to grab the extra paddle and reposition it to keep it from slipping off to one side of my boat, digging in the water, and trying to spin me sideways in the current. I finally got far enough from the logjam where I had time to stow the extra paddle behind me, which turned out not to be such a good idea. I should have taken it apart and stowed it in a better position. I still had to shoot through the small opening in the logjam on the left bank.  I was all lined up to power through that opening, when at the last second, the extra paddle shifted, dug into the water and spun me somewhat sideways as I was going through the logjam. It spun me enough so I slammed into one of the logs, but I was in far enough that I could put both paddles away, and pull myself through the rest of the way by grabbing the branches.

 Through the logjam, I paddled over to return the extra paddle to the person who had lost it, and who was struggling mightily trying to hold her water filled boat out of the water on a steep bank. I was just able to shove her boat up far enough so she could hold it fairly easily, when Connie mis-judged the current as she tried to go through the opening in the logjam, crashed into the logjam, and was stuck there sideways to the current. Luckily, the current on the edge of the river wasn’t nearly as strong as it was mid-river, so the hydraulic wasn’t as bad, and Connie didn’t panic and roll like so many people do in that situation. But this left me with a dilemma, stay and help the swimmer, or help Connie so that she didn’t become the second swimmer of the day, I opted for the later. Mike was trying to help, and to be honest, one of us should have just bitten the bullet and gone swimming ourselves at that point, it would have been a lot easier out of a kayak. That would have been too easy.

I paddled over to below the logjam where Connie was hopelessly stuck, got up a head of steam going upstream, and crashed as far of the way through the branches making up the logjam as I could. At that point I was able to reach forward and up to grab a good-sized branch and pull myself up and into the heart of the logjam, to the point where the bow of my boat hit Connie’s boat, and knocked her free of the branch that was holding her stuck in place. My boat and I were solidly planted in the branches, it was like doing a chin-up with a kayak attached. Mike did about the same thing towards the bow of Connie’s boat, and then we used our paddles as pry bars to move branches and Connie’s boat around until she was finally free of the branches, and able to paddle back upstream.

At some point in this timeframe, I think I remember looking over to see the person who had already been swimming twice go over a third time as she tried to re-enter her boat with out some one to help her. I know this sounds cold-hearted, but I didn’t really care by then. She has been with us for a few trips, and nearly every time, she has rolled at least once. After a while, people should realize on their own that maybe kayaking isn’t the sport for them, or that they should limit themselves as far as the types of water they paddle. I like her, I feel bad that she went over, and if I hadn’t been tied up already helping some one else, I would have been there to help her. I don’t even mind the inconvenience to the group as far as the time and trouble her lack of skills cost us, but she is also putting people at risk because of her lack of ability.

I took a long break and debated with myself over whether I should leave the last paragraph in and continue to explain it, or delete it, and I am leaving it. This blog is named Quiet Solo Pursuits, mostly because I am good at offending people. Human nature is a funny thing, if the person who rolled her kayak multiple times yesterday reads this, she will probably be hurt and offended, and never join us again. When the other members of the group find out she’s never coming with us again, or maybe even from reading this, they will be hurt and offended, and mad at me for hurting and offending her to the point where she doesn’t come with us anymore. I would rather the person be hurt and offended, and alive, rather than drowning on a river somewhere because she isn’t very good at kayaking.

I was able to retrieve her lost paddle with not much trouble, but what if one of the less experienced members of the group had tried it, rolled, and gotten caught in the branches of the logjam? It happens, people drown while canoeing and kayaking, and I would rather it not happen to some one I like. But, it makes me the meannie if I tell some one they are very good at the sport, and maybe they should give it up, or not join us on certain rivers.

 Something else happened yesterday that fits in with this all too well. A group of teens were jumping into the Kalamazoo River, even though there are signs warning against it. Of of the guys was told by his friends that he shouldn’t try it because he wasn’t a very good swimmer, but he did anyway, and now he is lost and presumed drown. He got caught in the currents and even though his friends tried to rescue him, they weren’t able to pull him out. The power of moving water is nothing to fool around with, people die.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t fear water, or currents, but I do have a healthy respect for them. As Clint Eastwood said in one of the Dirty Harry movies, “A man’s got to know his limitations”. The same applies to kayakers, male or female.

Where was I? Oh yeah, we had just gotten Connie out of the logjam the first time. I say first time, because the second time she tried to make it through the small opening in the logjam, she got stuck again. Not as bad as the first, I was able to reach through the branches and get enough of a bite on the bow handle of her kayak with my paddle to pull the bow of her boat into the opening, where she was able to pull herself through. It sounds so simple here as I type it, but I know I was working as hard as I could to get her through, and I am sure she and Mike were as well.

After that, we had one other portage, the last logjam looked worse than it was. I beached my boat a few yards upstream, then had Mike come down through some small branches right along the bank until he got to the large logs that couldn’t be moved. I helped him out of his boat, then one by one, he helped the women out of their boats, started the boats over the logs to me, and I helped the women get back in and under way. The only bad parts were that we had to portage at all, and some burning nettles on the bank. If you don’t know what burning nettles are, they are the plant equivalent of jellyfish in a way. They have little bristles that stick into your skin and shoot a chemical into you that causes a burning, itching sensation and a rash. I was wearing long pants so I didn’t get stung, Mike was wearing shorts and got it pretty bad, as he had never run into them before.

 It wasn’t long after the last portage that the coolest thing of the day happened. Mike and I were just catching up to the women, and they were all grouped together along the shore. It looked like Connie was taking pictures of the wildflowers along the bank, of which there had been many all day. I saw the flash of her camera go off, then she reached down next to her boat and lifted a very young fawn out of the water. The fawn couldn’t have been more than a few days old. They had seen it swimming, trying to get out of the water, but it wasn’t big enough to make it up the bank right there. Connie tried to get it on shore, but the fawn squirmed loose from her, knocking her camera in the water I guess. She said later that her camera had been in the river, so I am assuming it happened when she picked the fawn up.

The fawn half swam, half jumped its way up the river until it found a place to exit the river, and it was off. I did try to get a picture, but it turned out blurry and the only thing you could see was that something had splashed the water, darn.

I had wanted to take a second break, but between the time we lost on the portages and logjam and the fact that the clouds were getting darker, it is a good thing we didn’t. We felt a few sprinkles once in a while as we crossed the short stretch of the Morley pond we had to paddle. It was raining very lightly by the time we retrieved the vehicles from the put in site in Altona, just hard enough to say it was raining. Great timing.

After that, all of us but one went over to the Moe Z Inn for dinner. The service isn’t the greatest there, but the food is very good, and they even have Blue Moon on tap, just about a perfect day.

Little Muskegon River, click for a larger view


Here’s a map that includes the GPS track of our paddle. It took us 5 1/2 hours with the three portages and the logjam.


2 responses

  1. Pingback: Kayaking the middle leg of the Little Muskegon « Quietsolopursuits's Blog

  2. Pingback: Screaming down Michigan’s lower Rogue « Quietsolopursuits's Blog