Saturday, September 23, 2017

Canoeing the Au Sable River is always better in the fall

One of the few times you'll see an image of me on this page. And yes, I am wearing a bandana with skulls and crossbones
on it. Thanks, 2007 CMU Homecoming. (Photo by Jim Kenning)
My first times canoeing as a child came along the South Branch of the Au Sable River. Some close family friends have a cottage near Mio, and I vaguely remember drifting down the river with my paddle, getting exhausted in the process.

The colors along the river looked just like this: mostly green
with a splash of bright red and orange. (Photo by Jim Kenning)
I returned to that same portion of the river this past weekend, heading up north to canoe one of Michigan's premiere canoeing rivers. It's just as nice a river as I remember from doing it a few years ago, and this is the time of year I recommend doing it.

The youth group I help lead does a fall trip each year, opting to canoe every-other year or so. We did the Rifle River back in 2015, as well as the South Branch of the Au Sable in 2012, and decided again to hit the waters this fall this year. With younger, more inexperienced canoers joining us this year, we decided doing the Au Sable would make for a great first trip for member of the young men.

That was certainly the case. We had at least one young man who had never gone canoeing before and had recently moved to the U.S. from Liberia. He seemed to enjoy the calm waters of the Au Sable, which were higher than I'm used to. There's at least a few sections of the river that typically have dried up in areas this time of year, but that wasn't the case last weekend.

As for my excursion, I finally succumbed to something I haven't done a river before: managed to take a spill and flip my boat. After stopping for others to catch up, our boat turned around. While trying to right the ship, we began floating sideways, having both the bow and stern get lodged on some downed trees in the river. That left us vulnerable to another canoe making its way down: once another boat tapped us, there was no for us to go but over, our canoe becoming a swivel. Into the drink we went, with our canoe floating down the river and the contents, too. For being mid-September, the water was unusually pleasant, though walking the 100 feet in the river's murky bed left my boots stinking to high heaven, a distinction they still hold a week later.

The South Branch of the Au Sable River as seen from the
Canoe Harbor State Forest Campground site.
The South Branch of the Au Sable is an excellent stretch for canoers looking for a good time but not wanting a huge challenge. The current is well-paced, and canoe liveries have done a nice job of trimming downed trees for easy passage. The depth can range from a few inches to a few feet. Starting at the Paddle Brave livery, the banks were lined with cabins and homes for the first few hours. After that, we headed into the Mason Tract, where all we saw along the banks were ducks and other water fowl. It's a calming experience to feel like you're in the middle of nowhere even when you know the highway can't be too far away.

After spending five hours on the river, we head back to the Canoe Harbor State Forest Campground, a wonderful place to stay if ever in the area. Since it was after Labor Day, we were some of only a handful of individuals staying there. The campground has a trail leading down to the river, which provided excellent visuals early Sunday morning when I went down the next day.

I've always found fall canoeing to be vastly superior to summer canoeing. The water is calmer, there's fewer people and the fall color highlight the already-gorgeous river. It's an experience everyone should have at least once. You might not head back to the river when it's warm.

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