Solo Fall Paddle Week: 170 Miles - Grayling to Alpena via Au Sable River & Lake Huron
For several years I’ve guided sea kayaking expeditions, and a few years back I did a six-hundred mile paddle to Baja. I wanted to do a long-ish solo trip this year and fall seemed like the best time with my schedule. I would have preferred to paddle along the open coast and maybe do some island hopping on the Great Lakes, but fall weather can be a little unpredictable and I planned to paddle alone. I decided instead to do the full Au Sable River then take a left at Lake Huron and go up the coast for fifty miles or so to Alpena. I spent quite a while dehydrating dinners, getting organized, and debating wearing my drysuit vs a wetsuit.
My girlfriend Karisma and I went on a weekend backpacking trip with a couple of her friends in northern Michigan, then she dropped me off at the river on Monday morning before sunrise. I told her I expected it to take about an hour to pack the boat and get on the water; she thought it couldn't possibly take that long and was surprised when it turned out to be true! There was a lot to organize: food for a full week, a drysuit for paddling Lake Huron (it was too unseasonably hot and the water was too warm to wear it on the river), a cart for the six portages, etc., etc. Sea kayaking is a gear-intensive sport at the best of times, and with the standard safety equipment and camping supplies, I had an impressive pile coming with me.
The cart had been a little tricky to find. People commonly use canoes on this river for ease of portaging, but I chose a sea kayak because 1) I don’t own a canoe, and 2) I needed it to paddle the last stretch of open water on Lake Huron. Sea kayaks are much more unwieldy, so travelling by myself I needed a cart that would collapse enough to be transported. I rigged up a system of zip-ties and bungee cords behind my footrests and luckily the detachable wheels fit perfectly. The actual frame of the cart could be strapped to the back deck.
I had printed out charts of the coastline and had picked up a map of the national forest that included the river, but I didn’t have a clear understanding of the distances between each point and hadn’t been able to find that info. I wasn’t too concerned; I had a rough idea of the plan and expected to paddle about twenty-five miles a day, finishing in seven days.
Day One 10/4/21 Campsite: Parmalee Campground Dinner: Sausage & Veggie Rice Miles: 32
I was pleased to see that I was travelling much faster than expected; the current was moving right along and the turns weren’t slowing me down too much like tight river bends sometimes do with a long boat. The scenery was great; lots of overhanging cedar and pine trees. I only saw a few people on the water the first day, fishing out of small boats. About ten miles in the riverbanks became dominated by houses and cabins. This can be interesting in its own way, but definitely wasn't as nice as the remote earlier stretch.
Going around a corner, I was excited to see Karisma! She had waited for me at a spot about an hour and a half downriver. Some of the distances between points on the river is listed by various outfitters in ‘float times’ instead of miles, which is not that helpful for someone who plans to paddle instead of float. However, my guess on timing to reach this point had been accurate.
I had one last chance to get any forgotten gear; I wasn't missing anything, but I did take the chance to grab a bag of chips from the truck and squeeze it in a hatch. Getting back into the boat, I spotted a fossil along the shore and used it to further weigh down my boat. I have a good eye for spotting them and often get lucky! It was nice to paddle a blockage-free river for a change - usually the rivers I go on are obstructed with logs, beaver dams, and endless other debris.
Cabins remained the primary scenery most of this day, and it was hard to find dry spots to stop to get out of the boat and stretch, so when I did stop, I just stood in the shallow water. I don’t stop much, but every now and then a short break is needed. I ended up staying at Parmalee campground after paddling about thirty-two miles. It was further than I expected to paddle; I would have been okay going about another hour, but the next campsite was up at least another two, two and a half hours and I didn’t see any reason to push it that much.
The campground was nice, and I had the whole area to myself. I wasn’t sure how primitive the sites would be, but this one had a well, a pit toilet, and even trash bins. The life of luxury! I had a bit of time to relax and cook dinner before bed: vegetarian sausage sautéed and rice with dehydrated vegetables. An unusually bold chipmunk kept me company, hoping I would turn my back so it could help itself to some dinner. Not a chance!
In the photos, you'll see I do not always wear a lifejacket in calm water, but I do always use a bow line and I wear a tow belt with various safety items in it. I can also roll my boat if I should manage to capsize.
Day Two 10/5/21 Campsite: Forest Service site past the Alcona Dam Dinner: Paneer Tikka Masala with Miso Ramen appetizer Miles: 44 Total Miles: 76.1
I was on the water by first light again, and the morning paddling was incredible. It was foggy and quiet; everything was still. I didn’t see another person for hours, but I did see quite a bit of wildlife. Many birds: kingfishers, hawks, ducks, grebes, and others I don’t know the names of, but also muskrat, deer, and even a coyote getting a morning drink. Once I heard a series of big kerplunks off to my left but couldn’t quite turn fast enough to see what it was. Eventually I saw it: a cormorant that had been loudly fishing!
My body was pleasantly sore but still feeling good, especially once the sun came out. Despite wearing gloves, I was developing a few small blisters on my hands, which I taped up. The cabins now were few and far between, making for a serene experience. After the morning animal sightings slowed down, I listened to an audiobook for a while and focused on paddling, enjoying the fall colors.
You can hear the dams from miles away on the river, and the current completely stops as you approach; the reservoirs are pretty much still lakes with no stream. As I approached the first dam I saw a purple canoe-shaped sign pointing to a set of stairs leading out of the deep water. Surely that wasn’t the portage! Stairs?? I rolled myself out of my boat with no trouble but didn’t enjoy unloading it and dragging the poor thing up the concrete. This is why I like plastic kayaks!😂 Once at the top of the stairs, the wheels worked well to move the boat to the other side of the dam. After all that dragging, I was quite hot and enjoyed cooling off in the water; on the other side of the dam the stream was fast enough that I could get a free ride down the river while eating lunch.
I was making good progress, nearly as fast as the first day. Based on the mileage I was able to do, I decided I would only need six days instead of the original seven. I planned to camp quite a distance before the second dam, but reached that area early and wanted to keep going. The next campsite was a large county park just before the Alcona dam, which was preceded by a massive, wide reservoir. The lack of current had turned it into a pretty, marshy area with many birds. As I paddled up to the campsite I struggled to tell where in the lake it was; I was seeing many areas that looked like campgrounds.