A grand day kayaking the Grand River
Probably the most under used recreational outlet that there is in West Michigan is the Grand River. That’s certainly true among us kayakers, the Grand is hardly the first river that comes to mind when you think about rivers to kayak. It’s slow and it’s muddy, but it isn’t nearly as polluted as most people think, especially above the city of Grand Rapids. I know, it looks dirty, but that’s not pollution or the river’s fault, the Grand is a large mature river that carries tons of sediment each day.
Because the Grand is a large river, the largest and longest in Michigan, it has a very large flood plain by the time you get near Grand Rapids. That’s a good thing in a way, because few houses have been built on the floodplain, leaving the river looking very natural and undeveloped.
As you can see, there are no signs of human encroachment in sight, and there are miles of the Grand just like this.
This trip started simply enough, my buddy Mike asked me if I wanted to go kayaking this Sunday, and my reply was that it would have to be close to home as I am saving money for my Labor Day trip to the Pigeon River Country to go elk “hunting” with my cameras. So, I suggested the Grand River near Ada, since I had grown up in that area and it has been at least 30 years since I have paddled that stretch of the Grand River. I made the mistake of suggesting that we paddle upstream to the Thornapple River, and then up the Thornapple to the dam, then drift back. It turns out that Mike has an aversion to paddling upstream, which I am going to have to cure him of. 😉 The mere mention of paddling upstream was enough for Mike to back out, but he didn’t tell me why until after I was back.
That left me on my own, which is one of the reasons the Grand River is great for a solo kayaker, it is almost as easy to paddle upstream as it is to go downstream since there is very little current in most places. I’ve done some tough upstream paddles in my day, I did four miles up the White River a couple of years ago as an example, and I’m getting too old for that kind of paddling.
My plan was to put in at Roselle Township Park, since I had read that they added a canoe landing to the park. As you will see on the map that I’ll post here later, Roselle Park is on Grand River Drive, about halfway between Ada and the DNR access site on Knapp Street. I was going to put in at the park, paddle up to the Thornapple, then drift back to the park.
I say “I was going to” because when I got to the park, my plans changed. They built the canoe landing, they even built a road going to the landing, but they have the road closed, leaving you with a half mile carry to get your canoe or kayak to the water. It’s a great park, on what used to be the Ada Beef Company property that was donated to Ada Township. Why they don’t allow you to drive to the canoe landing is beyond me, the landing is about worthless the way it is now. (Since I wrote this, I received a reply from Jim Ferro, the Ada Township Planning Director explaining why the landing and access is the way it is. You can read the explanation as a comment below the main body of this post)
Since I didn’t feel like carrying my kayak half a mile, I put in at the Amway DNR access site instead. I don’t think that its official name is the Amway access, but it is on land next to Amway’s headquarters, on land that Amway donated to the state for the access site. It is on M 21 also known as Fulton Street in Ada, on the north side of the road, and not signed. You turn into the east gate for Amway, just before the bridge over the Grand River, then veer right to the access site just before the Amway gates.
You can see where the Thornapple River joins the Grand from that access site, and it’s an easy paddle up the Thornapple. My day started well, once I got on the river, there was a great blue heron hunting on the flats where the two rivers meet.
It was so focused on food that it paid me no mind at all as I paddled past it and started up the Thornapple.
It may be hard to believe, but this is right in “downtown” Ada. The only signs of development that you see are the three bridges that cross the Thornapple. One is the current automobile bridge, one is the old railroad bridge, and between them is the old historic covered bridge.
About 3/4 of a mile upstream on the Thornapple, you come to the first of many dams on the river.
You can portage the dam, there’s a trail there for you to do so, but the impoundment above the dam is surrounded with wall to wall waterfront homes, and normally filled with jet skis and people waterskiing. The portage is mainly used for people going down river anyway, not crazies like me going upstream. That was as far as I wanted to go on the Thornapple anyway, so I turned around and drifted back to the Grand, watching the kingfishers and hawks hunting over the river.
It was a beautiful late summer day. Sunny skies, temperature around 80 degrees, and a light wind. I drifted back to the Grand River and just let the current carry me along slowly, about the only paddling I did was from one side of the river to the other to get a better view of something on the bank. I think I saw one house and two places of business along the way, the rest of the river is heavily forested and you would never know that you were on the Grand River just outside of Michigan’s second largest city other than some occasional traffic noise.
Different people paddle for different reasons, some like fast whitewater rivers like the Pine where the paddling itself is the focus. Some people like slower rivers such as the Thornapple or the Flat so they can hang their feet over the side of the kayak and relax. Some people prefer inland lakes, and some prefer the Great Lakes. Me, I love them all and then some. I’ll even paddle swamps and marshes if there is enough water to float my kayak and a way to get on them.
This day was a hang my feet over the side of the kayak and relax kind of day, and floating down the Grand works great for that. However, it is also a good river to get the paddling muscles in shape on, if you paddle upstream. I met at least a half a dozen other kayakers who typically paddle the Great Lakes working their way upstream. Talking to them, they were there because it was close to home and a way to stay in shape for when they go out on the big lakes. They all had the long, narrow, open water boats rather than the type of kayaks one normally uses for rivers.
Did I mention it was a beautiful day?
The large floodplain and forests along the Grand River also makes a good home for many types of wildlife. Like this spiny softshell turtle.
It, along with many other species of turtles were out basking in the sunshine all up and down the banks of the river. There were also wildflowers on the banks, like this cardinal-flower.
Of course there were frogs, like this leopard frog.
And as I was chatting with another group of kayakers, this flock of sandhill cranes flew past us.
I drifted all the way downstream to the canoe landing at Roselle Park in order to check it out from the water, and so I would have some idea how far I had gone, and how long the paddle back upstream was going to be. The float down was about as good as it gets, but I knew the paddle back was going to take some work, so Roselle Park is as far down as I went. If Mike had joined me, we would have left a vehicle at the Knapp Street access site and floated all the way down to there, a total of about 6 river miles from the Amway access site.
As it was, I turned around and started back up the river. It isn’t hard going at all, the Grand is like a long narrow lake rather than a river. I did stop a couple of times for a break, and a couple of times for pictures like this one.
That about sums up how great of a day it was, being able to get that close to a bald eagle as it was perched waiting for a fish to get too near the surface.
A couple other wildlife notes. There were reports of a black bear living along the river in this area a few years back, I haven’t heard of any lately though, but for as close to Grand Rapids as it is, the river itself is pretty wild. I saw a lot of clam shells in the shallow parts of the river, and along the banks, that’s to be expected. But, I also saw many clam shells on rocks and stumps out in the river. That leads me to believe that otters may have returned to this stretch of the Grand River! There are lots of raccoons living along the river, I saw their tracks all up and down the banks, in places, it looked like a raccoon super highway. And, raccoons are known to feed on clams, but I don’t know that they swim out from the bank, grab clams, and then eat them on rocks and stumps that are in the river. That sounds like the eating habits of river otters to me, but I could be wrong about that. It would not surprise me to see one there though.
I made it back up to the boat ramp at the Amway access site and called it a day, a grand day! Here’s a map of the area along with the GPS track of my paddle.
There are many options for you to choose from if you would like to give this section of river a try. The entire stretch of the Grand River from Ada to the Northland Drive bridge is like you see in the pictures, forested with very few houses or other signs of human development. The only road that crosses the Grand in this stretch is Knapp Street, otherwise it is about 12 miles of wooded undeveloped river. In fact, of all the rivers I have ever paddled in Michigan, this may be the least developed of any but a few, like the Jordan or the Pigeon. There are a couple of houses near Knapp Street, and some development as you approach Northland Drive, but that’s it.
For solo paddlers, it works great. I know, I did it backwards, you should paddle upstream then drift back, but even my trip was easy enough. But you can put in at either the access site at West River Drive (it is shown on the map above) or Knapp Street and paddle up as far as you want, then drift back down. If you want to use more than one vehicle, you can go downstream between any of the access sites, depending on how far you want to go, and how long you want to stay on the river. It may not be sparkling clear water, and there may not be much current, but if you are looking for a place close to home to spend a relaxing day on the water with abundent wildlife to watch, then the Grand River may surprise you as to how good it can be.