It’s Not Big–It’s Grand

Grand River, Fitzgerald Park to Thompson Field


14 August 2014

This is the second time Ellen and I and our paddling pal Doug undertook what is known among Grand River folks as the “Half Hugh”—25 miles that make up half of the 50-mile Hugh Heward Challenge, an official event that takes place every spring.  The last time we tried it was mid-October of 2012, and it was tough then, but the 25 miles is no joke in late summer, either.

Grassy stillwater.

The Grand is notoriously wide and slow, but recent rains had bumped up the cfs (the measurement for how fast the river moves) to 663. This was a good deal better than the 433 it was at the last time we did this paddle, so we thought we were in good shape. The truth is, the river was faster in some places; fairly often, one side of the river would be given over to river grass and stillwater, but along a bank a channel would be churning along really fast, even kicking up a little whitewater. We could ride these channels like little rollercoasters past some slow parts, but other slow parts, we just had to paddle through.

IMG_1952We also had some other issues to contend with, like for instance the headwind gusting to 11 mph sometimes. I call this a headwind, but the truth is that the river snakes around so much that sometimes the wind was at our backs.  Still, when it gusted, we were always facing it.  We also had some wildly fluctuating temperatures—the day was mostly sunny and pleasantly cool, and I started out the paddle wearing a long-sleeve hoodie. Pretty quickly I got hot and took it off, then was sorry 10 minutes later. I was hot and sweaty and cold and shivery on and off and in pretty equal measure, but luckily I had brought most of my paddling wardrobe with me so executed costume changes mid-river all day as circumstances allowed.

The main impediment to my costume changes and the general well-being of our paddling party was the big boulders this part of the Grand River has in spades.  They are beautiful boulders, brought to where they are forever ago by glaciers, and turtles and waterfowl make great use of them as river furniture when the water is low enough that they’re exposed. A lot of the rocks were barely submerged by the recent rains, though, so we kept running aground on them. A story legendary among Doug, Ellen, and me is the time, during our last go at this paddle, when Doug managed to wedge himself on one of these rocks that was as big as the roof of a Mini Cooper and, stuck there, to spin like the needle of a compass. We laugh and laugh about this still—it comes up just about every paddle.  Well, this time as we were paddling along around about mile 22, I felt my boat get heaved up and heard the sound of rock scraping plastic—I had managed to find the Mini Cooper rock! I had to launch myself off with my paddles. Doug and Ellen scraped their fair share of Grand boulders, but I took the cake this time.

We saw a grand sampling (pun intended) of wildlife this trip, including three or possibly six bald eagles.  We know for a fact we saw three separate birds, but the other three sightings may be one of the birds we followed downriver and kept seeing again. We also saw our first osprey of the season, a snake catching some rays in a tree, and some deer, including a mother with two really young fawns. And we stumbled into some sort of cedar waxwing metropolis, then a blue heron suburb—we saw both of these birds in large quantity.  While all this wildlife was delightful, we were sorry to see evidence, on parts of the river as the sun set, of the oil spill that happened earlier this summer. Sad!

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A lunch spot was tough to come by—we wandered from one bad spot to another, despairing that we would ever find a spot big enough to let three paddlers park, stretch their legs, and eat without the interference of ticks, poison ivy, or goose poo. As our search grew increasingly dire, in an attempt at distraction, I wondered aloud why Yankee Doodle called the feather he stuck in his cap “macaroni.”  You know:

Yankee Doodle went to town
Riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni.

IMG_1949Ellen pointed out that it’s not clear if he called the feather or the pony “macaroni,” and I said maybe it was the cap he called “macaroni.” So now on top of a lunch stop problem, we had a pronoun antecedent problem. Doug said, “I can’t explain all three so just pick one option and I’ll explain it.”  We ignored him then, but all the same in a few minutes he came up with, “maybe the feather was curled like a macaroni, so that’s what he called the feather.” Clearly, things were devolving. We finally resorted to eating on the pile of rocks you see to the left here, and Yankee Doodle was never brought up again.

We paddled so long that Ellen’s shirt gave her a blister from the repetitive motion of paddling, and so long that we outlasted the GPS battery, which gave up the ghost at mile 24.78 recording a high speed of 6.7 mph and an average of 3.1 mph. By that time, we had been on the move for 6 hours and 49 minutes, and it probably took us another 10 minutes or so to get to our take-out spot. This means we were slower than our other Half Hugh time by about 20 minutes; I blame the wind.

In any event, it was an epic journey, and like all such journeys, it made for a long day. Ellen and I didn’t pull back into our driveway until after 9:30, and dinner was cold cereal we had picked up on the way home that we wolfed down at the kitchen table.  This wasn’t the first time I ate half a box of Cheerios in one sitting, but at least this time, it was justified.

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Lazy Summer Paddle

Hudson Mills to Dexter Metropark

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31 July 2014

Ellen and I and our paddling pal Doug snuck this quick, 6-mile paddle in last Thursday.  The weather was cool and sunny, perfect for a leisurely float down the river which, as you can see in the slideshow above, is the best way to describe our trip.

IMG_1936When we got in the river at Hudson Mills we noticed that a tree trunk that had been acting as a pretty stable island right downriver from our put-in spot had dislodged and drifted over to the side of the river. That was about the most exciting thing that happened the whole trip. We saw a ton of turtles, dragonflies, and (through the crystal-clear river water) fish, but Ellen’s wildlife-cam was suffering from a low battery, so the only photo she got is the one to the left here.

Yep, not much happened, which is how we like our late summer trips.  Happy August!

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From River to Lake

Huron River, Huroc Park to Lake Erie


25 July 2014

This paddle saw the happy reunion of three paddling pals–Ellen and I have been so busy working on our new house that we have barely been able to paddle, and our friend Doug has been over the big pond for a few weeks.  We all got back together to paddle the last stretch of our home river, the Huron, into the mouth of Lake Erie.

We started out with cool temperatures (the mid-60s), partly sunny skies, and a million tiny ducks.  No, really–a million. 

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Ellen and I have done this paddle before and saw a ton of wildlife that time, but this time the very grand majority of animal sightings was baby ducks. They were everywhere!

IMG_1893We saw a a few herons both blue and green, kingfishers, and a lot of turtles, but the only other sighting to note is this bald eagle, who swooped down out of a tree literally right in front of us and startled us all.  Ellen got this picture of him a little piece further down the river, from a little far away, which is why it has the quality of those photos of Elvis captured on film eating a chili dog at a Tastee Freez in the early 1980s.

It’s because of the eagle that this post gets an “intimidating birds!” tag, but because of the last mile or so of the paddle that this post gets the “epic journey” tag. The river begins to seriously widen out into Lake Erie then, and the wind really kicked up against us–and with it, waves. I’m notso hotso about open water and didn’t love this, and while I think Ellen and Doug will say I was the one with the strongest reaction to this last mile, they both didn’t take it as nothing. Here’s a photo Ellen got of Doug and I waaay off in the distance getting slapped in the face by great lake waves.


And here’s a photo I took from my boat at about the same time, when I began to feel like the protagonist in an Anglo-Saxon poem.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut I lived to tell the tale, and this was a great paddle.  We went ten miles when all was said and done; it took us about 3 1/2 hours of moving time, and our top speed was 6 m.p.h.


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Our First Trip with a Mortgage

Huron River, Island Lake State Park to Placeway Picnic Area 


15 July 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s been too long since Ellen and I have paddled–out last trip was 9 June.  In the time since then, we bought a house and worked like dogs on it daily, and it definitely feels like home. One great feature of our new house is that we no longer have to carry the boats out of the basement for each trip–as you see in the photo to the left here, we have a nice garage that holds the boats.  For now they are on the floor, but by fall we want to get a system for hanging them–any paddlers out there have advice?

Anyhow, to get back to the paddle: this is a 5-mile trip we don’t do all that often because it usually feels too short. Since we aren’t in our usual paddling shape, though, and since I’m still nursing a sprained ankle, we figured it was the perfect trip for us right now.  It was sunny, but the polar vortex kept the air brisk and lifted a wind against us that got a little strong at times, but I love a cool summer, so I’m not complaining. With the breeze and a surprising number of downed trees in this short section, the trip took us longer than we thought, but we were glad for time back on the river!


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The Trip We Had No Business Taking

Huron River, Delhi Metropark to Honey Creek


9 June 2014

IMG_1733aThis paddle was a joyous one because it marked my return to the river after being side-lined for a couple weeks with a nasty sprained ankle. Now, you may be thinking, “hey, you don’t need two good ankles to paddle!” But you do need them to carry the boats up the stairs out of the basement and to steady yourself on wobbly put-ins.  So side-lined I was! To the left here, you can see the sprain when its bruise was at its most glorious.

So after weeks of sitting still, even this short 3-mile paddle was a real treat for me. Spring had clearly settled in on the river while I was away–the trees and even the river grass were lush and verdant, and the herons had made their return to the river. I was even glad to see the Tubbs Street rapids, which usually put a little bit of a chill in my spine. Would that we had more time to paddle right now!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut we don’t, because Ellen and I are in the midst of buying and moving into a house! (Probably we should have been at home packing these boxes instead of out paddling.) Our new house has a garage that will make for much easier access to our boats. It may well be that we are able to sneak in another paddle before our moving date later this month, but once we are fully in the new place, it will be so nice to have a less fussy boat-loading process. So here’s to an easier trip set-up for us in the near future, and between now and then, keep your fingers crossed for us and send us good vibes for moving!

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Muskrat Love

Huron River, between the train bridges around Honey Creek


19 May 2014

We set out late in the afternoon to do this quick paddle on a chunk of the river that swells up before Barton Dam. In the past I have referred to this paddle as the one around the Obama bridge–that’s it in the photo above, so named on account of a graffiti tribute to Obama on the bridge dating back to the 2008 election.  But the elements have worn off most of the letters on that graffiti, so I’ve taken now to referring to this paddle as the one between the set of train bridges near Honey Creek.  You may wonder, Gina, who cares what you call it? But one precaution Ellen and I always take with every paddle, no matter how small, is to file a float plan–that is, to let someone (usually my sister) know where we are going so that, if we don’t turn back up, folks know where to look. So there you have it.

Anyhow, it turns out we weren’t the only ones with idea to enjoy the chunk of river between the bridges; we saw three other double-bladed paddlers, one racing canoe, a fisherman, and a whole mess of wildlife starting with a million million muskrats!

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Okay, not a million, but really, lots of them, and they were not shy. They posed on logs, snarfed down snacks in front of us, slapped around their whip-like tails, and went butt-up underwater only to resurface three feet away, waving.  They did all but sing that song Captain and Tennille wrote for them.  If the river had a headline act for this paddle, it was the muskrats.

IMG_1681IMG_1683There weren’t quite as many turtles out as there were muskrats, which is really saying something because there were tons of turtles out, too.  This log in the photo to the left here, which Ellen and I think of as the turtle equivalent of the ratty couches that undergraduates keep on their porches to drink beer on, was just jam-packed with turtles–even turtles on top of turtles.

Off on his own little perch was the lone turtle in the photo to the left here.  You can’t tell it because the zoom lens of our camera is so powerful, but according to Ellen (Brandoberger chief wildlife photographer) this little guy was not two inches long.  Clearly this turtle is still too young to move over to the party log, but I suspect it will be over there by June doing the turtle equivalent of shotgunning a beer.

IMG_1690We usually dip into Honey Creek for a few hundred yards when we paddle this part of the river, but this swan in the photo to the left was nesting right at the mouth of the creek, and we decided to stay out of her comfort zone.  All the same, it was a great paddle; the river is high–high enough that we had to duck to do out loops under the train bridges, and that there was a noticeable current in this usually swampy section.

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Not Quite Our Longest Paddle, but Our Fastest

Au Sable River, Borcher’s B&B to McMaster’s Bridge


13 May 2014

This trip was Ellen’s and my second to the Au Sable River, a Michigan treasure.  We decided to go a little (well, actually a lot) further than we did last time we paddled this river, shooting for what my sister was calling a “marathon paddle”: 26 miles.

IMG_1623Our put-in was Borcher’s B&B in downtown Grayling, where we spent a night in our lovely room with a balcony overlooking the river and enjoyed a delicious breakfast. Borcher’s is great if you’re looking for a place to stay on the Au Sable–they’re some of the nicest people in Grayling; they have their own livery and also help with spotting if you have your own boats; and as a put-in spot, you can’t beat it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIMG_1645OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe started our trip around 8:45 am in temperatures hovering around 50 and cloudy conditions. Through the day, the sun peeked out a few times and it got to be about 60; not bad weather for a spring paddle in the north country.

The river was fast! The Au Sable is spring-fed so it never gets too slow, but days and days and days of rain had made it noticeably high, even in town where it crept up the boards on folks’ docks. So the river was fast, and we sped right along on it.  We averaged well over 4 mph the whole trip; before lunch, we covered over 15 miles in under 3 1/2 hours.  This first part of the trip was consistenly fast. My GPS told me that we clipped along at 5 mph with little effort; if we paddled a little harder, we were in the range of 6 mph; and at several spots where the water was especially fast, we hit 7 and even 8 mph. For a couple of gals whose home river carries them along at about 3.5, this was heady stuff!  The high water meant lots of barely submerged logs and rocks to steer around–and we also flew past about a dozen fisherman (but remarkably saw no other paddlers all day).   By lunch, as you can see to the left here, we were exhausted–but ready to get back to it after eating every scrap of food we had brought along.

It’s hard to describe what I think is the most awesome part of the Au Sable, which is how tall it is. You’re in your boat floating along, and white pines and other trees line the river, just towering over you. It’s beautiful, and humbling, and something I get a taste of when we are on other rivers (since trees and rivers are old friends) but it’s different in the north woods of Michigan. I’ve tried to put together a slideshow of images that suggest something of what it’s like, but this vertical aspect of the river is really something you just don’t get if you don’t see it in person.

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Though it was chilly enough out that we saw nary a turtle or heron, there was still much wildlife to be seen, and Ellen was wrangling the wildlife cam (as per usual) and got the excellent shots in the slideshow below.

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The second, after-lunch part of our paddle was not as fast–this part included the section of the river known as Connor’s Flats, where the current slows down to about what we are used to, in the 3 m.p.h. range.  The whole trip ended up being a little shorter than we expected–23 miles (so no marathon), and we managed it in just under 5 1/2 hours. This makes it, as the title of this post suggests, not quite our longest paddle (see the 25-miler we did on the Grand for that), but hands-down our fastest in terms of mph.  (This might explain why, in the convenience store we stopped at after our trip, we contemplated buying two bags of potato chips, one bag of Cheetos, one bag of Cracker Jack, plus M&Ms. Rest easy–we put most of this stuff back on the shelf.) It was a super-fun trip, and without doubt counts as one of our epic journeys!


PS: The day before this paddle we went to visit the virgin forest at Hartwick Pines, which is always something to see.  If you want a look at some trees over 350 years old, interesting fungi, inscrutable woodpecker craftwork, a brand-new baby fern, club moss (don’t miss the club moss!), and the skeleton of a coyote we stumbled across, take a click through the slideshow below!

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