Carpe Wetsuit

Huron River, Hudson Mills to Dexter Metropark


15 December 2014

You don’t live in Michigan and expect warm paddling weather in December.  So when the weather forecast promised temperatures of 50 degrees–that’s warmer than it was the last day we paddled in Florida last month!–we knew we had to seize the day (plus our wetsuits, just in case).  We headed out with our friend Doug and hemmed and hawed about whether we should do this paddle of about 6 miles or the slightly longer one of 9 miles to Delhi. Turns out all the gates to the park and takeouts at Delhi were locked up, so that decision was made for us, which ended up being good, as you’ll see as you continue to read. Click here to see the piece of river we paddled.

The river had on its lovely, dark winter colors, and with trees bereft of leaves, we could see plenty of wildlife. All the critters that are usually so hard to locate were easy to spot: the browns and grays that hide in summer’s background inch up to the foreground during late fall. The one bright note in the woods was the pileated woodpecker, who was so loud and so big that it would have been impossible to miss.

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I am always the first to get cold on these kinds of trips, buy by the end of our two hours or so on the river, I wasn’t the only one who was cold, and we were all glad we had done the shorter trip. Doug actually had on a jacket and a hat, which is almost unheard of. Ellen and I were glad for the extra warmth of our wetsuit layers–turns out you don’t need to go into the drink for those to be useful. But I think we were all glad for the paddle, and sad that it might be the last one of the year.  Being cold was worth it.

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Sneaking in One Last Paddle

Dawson Canal up to St. James Creek


28 November 2014

Our last day of this trip, we had to get ourselves to the airport right after lunch, but we hoped to sneak in one more short paddle before we had to leave.  We woke up to chilly temperatures by Florida standards–48 degrees! We took a walk by the canal, pondering whether or not to go out on the water; the sun was out, but it was a little nippy.  What decided it for us was that we checked what the temperatures were back in Michigan . . . 17 degrees.  Knowing that, we felt like we owed it to the people back home to paddle, so out we went!

The truth is, it wasn’t so cold once we got on the water–we have plenty of cold weather gear, and the sun warmed us up, plus it got warmer even just in the hour we were out. We had time to paddle only about a mile, into some bigger water before St. James Creek.  You can see where we went by clicking here.

The birds came out to say good-bye to us in force, including a representative from the eagles–two soared over us each day as we were putting in our boats, but this is the only one we saw while we were out paddling.

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I am thoroughly a Midwesterner at heart and rivers are my first love, but I so appreciate spending Thanksgiving in the warm backwaters of friendly Pine Island!

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Thanksgiving in Nature’s Food Court

Backwaters of the Southwest Side of Pine Island


27 November 2014

On Thanksgiving, we had a nice, sunny day with temperatures in the  mid to high 70s and less wind than the previous day–so, calmer paddling when we dipped out into open water and less work when we paddled the canals. During our paddle the day before, we had picked out some mangrove channels to save  for the holiday, and we wended our way to them in low tide.

When we stopped for lunch, it was on an exposed bank that for sure isn’t there when the tide is high, and we spied some creatures that we still can’t identify.  They looked one way on the bank and another in the water, as you will see, and overall they looked a little strange.  When poked, they moved around. Can anyone help?

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As we got deeper into the mangroves, my new smart phone’s GPS, which had been making me feel so confident about our ability to find our way back to the canals after our explorations, dropped out. I panicked a little, but luckily, my other GPS (girlfriend positioning system) kicked in–Ellen got us back to the canal amazingly efficiently!

We paddled back to our dock as the tide was coming in, and the tide was obviously bringing in all the birds’ dinners, because they were fishing and eating all around us: the pelicans were doing their graceless, mouth-first plops into the water, small birds were skimming the surface and darting to a tree when they clipped a little fish, osprey were flying around with half-eaten leftovers of fish . . . it was a little nuts. But to each bird, its own Thanksgiving feast.

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The Sea Was Angry that Day; the Backwaters, Not So Much

Backwaters of the Southwest Side of Pine Island


26 November 2014

This is the second Thanksgiving that Ellen and I got lucky enough to be able to celebrate Thanksgiving paddling around beautiful Pine Island in Florida. As with last year, we were thankful especially for my mom and step-dad, Patsy and Gene, who generously loaned us their winter home for our trip, and also their great friends Sandy and Dan who did everything from helping us launch our boats to loaning us their car one night to fixing the washing machine when it was acting up to giving us fancy crackers to help fill out our lunch the last day we were in town.  They’re Thanksgiving superheroes!

IMG_2189We got to paddle three days of this four-day trip, which was fantastic. This post is all about our first paddle, which happened in some interesting weather. The temperatures were all right, especially by Midwesterner standards: a high of 73 and  low of 55. But there was a high surf advisory and wind gusts up to 30 mph with threats of riptide and 5-6 foot waves.  That morning on the news, the weatherman said, “Small boats, stay in today.” But he meant motor boats, I think, and in any event, in open water.  But kayaks can creep where even the smallest of motor boats can’t go, so we went out with the plan of sticking to the backwaters.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was a good plan, but the thing of it is, you need to paddle through canals to get to the backwaters, and the wind was with us in one canal, speeding our boats along like yellow bullets, but against us–and cold!–in the next canal. The work of getting to the backwaters was considerable–in fact, most of our paddle was in canals, as you can see if you click here and look at the record of our paddle (for it to really make sense, click on the top right for satellite view), and we tried to find a place to tuck in and eat the lunch we had brought along to no avail, since anywhere we tried to pull over, the wind messed with us.  Finally, a woman came out of her canal-side house to see what in tarnation we were up to, and when she heard our lunch dilemma, she lowered this awesome boat lift you see pictured here–a sort of elevator for watercraft–and let us come on up and eat our lunch on her dock.  Nice lady!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe backwaters, though–they were warm! We could feel the heat of the water radiating up around our boats, and the wind was totally blocked by the mangroves. We wound around and around mangrove paths, which led to some protected smaller, shallower open waters where there were birds ahoy! check out the slideshow below to see the cornucopia o’ birds we saw this day–well worth the work of the paddle out!

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We were also lucky enough to see two seaprate ospreys enjoying their lunches–kinda ghastly from the fish perspective, but good eats for these birds!

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IMG_2213The other wildlife of interest in the mangroves were these cool spider crabs, which were literally all over the mangroves as we paddled all through them. It was pretty creepy, and Ellen was completely fixated on them, which made them hard to ignore. We learned later that night that the crabs live on the mangrove branches so that, when high tide comes, they can crawl into the water and eat the little tiny fish that swim around in the mangrove branches.  So: they’re not hanging out there waiting for us.  This is cold comfort when the branches you are paddling through are alive with them.

We had two cool brushes with wildlife that we did not get pictures of.  One was only an audio brush–we heard a great horned owl hooting–they nest in the mangroves. And we shared the canals with some dolphins, which is nice and all but man, they are big, and when they come up to breathe, it’s unsettling to a person not used to seeing something that size under the water.

We paddled 7 1/2 miles this day, earning our dinner when the wind was against us.


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Freezin’ on the ‘Zoo

Kalamazoo River, Mayor’s Riverside Park to D Avenue Boat Launch

Ellen and Doug spy Fall!

Ellen and Doug spy Fall!


12 September 2014

Ellen and I and our paddling pal Doug planned this paddle of just about 7 1/2 miles when it was still hot and humid in Michigan; we didn’t anticipate starting out in a cool drizzle and paddling with temperatures that never got close to 60 degrees and barely any peeks of sunshine.  Doug came in shorts (and with a spare pair of shorts, just in case?); I was smart enough to bring my trusty Elmer Fudd hat with the earflaps but was still cold; Ellen deliberately left her sunglasses in the car to try to draw out the sun.  The weather wasn’t on our side, realy–but we had a good trip anyhow.

For one thing, we saw the first signs of fall on the river in some changing leaves, and the bald eagle below got some of his smaller bird friends to re-enact a scene from The Birds behind him, so we had a little Halloween preview.


Also, while the river is a little dirty and stinky through Kalamazoo, it is one of the few industrial areas we ever get to paddle through, and that’s kind of cool.  We start out near a railroad yard, go past lots of closed and some working factories, hold our noses through the sewage treatment area, and go under two really cool old train bridges.  But then there was also the wildlife, and we saw some gems! On top of the bald eagle and his backup birds, a ton of Canada geese, and ducks of all stripes, we saw a great hawk making the most of the electrical towers we float under, a ton of cedar waxwings that taunted Ellen, never allowing her a good shot until this one you see below finally relented, and more than our fair share of northern flickers and blue herons. So, in other words: birds ahoy! 

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This paddle is always over too soon–it took us just about 2 hours and 15 minutes, and we weren’t hurrying. The river was moving at a pretty fast clip, and there were a ton of downed trees from a recent storm, which meant once we had to paddle upstream and find another way around, but otherwise, it was a paddle during which we didn’t have to do a ton of work and got to enjoy the sights–which we did, even if we were a little cold.



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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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