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.
It was getting late and I was tired, more than ready to stop for the night. Coincidentally, at the moment Karisma called. She checked my location and said that I was surrounded by campsites, but they were all closed for the season except for one small ‘modern’ RV area. Well. I paddled over to that spot, a detour, but they required phone reservations and nobody was answering. I finally decided to quit messing around and just go portage the Alcona dam; there was a series of nice no-reservation-needed Forest Service sites less than three-quarters of a mile after it.
When I reached the dam, it was hard to tell on which side of the power plant the portage was on. I did get out at one steep concrete wall to scout, but this was the wrong area. There was, thankfully, a beach that I could just wheel my kayak out of without even unloading it. Fantastic. As I assembled my cart, however, I noticed that I had lost one of the cotter pins that secures the wheel to the rest of the cart. So with the sun very low on the horizon, I found a zip tie in my repair kit and used that instead.
The nice strong current on the opposite side of the dam was a welcome change, although I still needed a handful of chocolate covered espresso beans for fortification. I chose the third and last site, because the first two seemed to have a steep climb up from the river. So did the third. And the third also had quite a muddy landing! But I definitely wasn’t interested in paddling upstream after that long day, so it looked great to me.
I squished my way through the swampy mud up the hill to the site and grabbed water for cooking and filtering before I changed into dry clothes, as always tying up the kayak just in case as I had left it near the river. I was looking forward to trying out a new dehydrated meal I had created, a miso-mushroom-tofu-noodle soup. I let it rehydrate while I set up camp and sat down to eat, the sun setting. And... it was terrible! Of course, that is part of the risk with not trying out meals at home first, but the tofu had not rehydrated well at all, and the flavor also wasn’t impressive. I had an extra meal with me, so drank the broth as a warm appetizer while I cooked a better meal: paneer tikka masala. Delicious!
Day 3 10/6/21 Campsite: Bird Beach Dinner: Mexican Quinoa Tacos Mileage: 37.7 Total Mileage: 113.7
Although it was cold in the morning, I pried myself out of the tent and managed to get on the water by first light. This morning was also awe-inspiring. I paddled in silence for the first two hours, with no headphones, and was able to additionally see beavers and two bald eagles. One of the eagles, what looked like a juvenile, was traveling down the river with me for a while, stopping at a tree every now and then.
This day was a little more challenging, mentally and physically. My body was a little sore, and the hand blisters had grown. But they did inspire me to have a nice technically-correct loose grip on the paddle. With four dams along this stretch, the current slows to almost nothing for a large portion of it, so my traveling speed was less than the previous two days.
The wetlands before the first dam, Loud Dam, were full of snails floating on the surface of the water. It was a beautiful area, and although the road is fairly close to water, it felt very remote. There was plenty of camping options in that area and I wouldn’t mind going back just to explore more. It was slow going, but the islands and fall colors made it pleasant.
The portage for this dam was a nice beach, and the put-in was a canoe slide. The path to the slide was under construction, so I was wheeling my boat past heavy equipment. A canoe slide is a steep ramp that you can slide your boat down. It does also work with a heavily loaded kayak, although I was careful not to send it on a free-fall. Right past the dam, I spotted a group of river otters playing. These animals always seem like they’re having a great time and are a joy to see.
It was just a short paddle to the next dam of the day, Five Channels Dam. Remarkably, Five Channels was also under construction. I was tempted to try and get construction-worker help with dragging my boat up the steep ledges that were provided for portaging, but didn’t want to look like I skip arm day. After one or two attempts at moving it loaded, I gave up and took the gear out. This was my least favorite portage of the trip.
After dragging it up to an access road, there was a very long, very steep canoe slide to get down to the other side. Instead of using the slide, I pushed it down the hill, using one of my tow ropes to keep it from reaching highway speeds. At ground level, there was a bit of a drag over grass to get to the water, then some slippery algae-covered rocks to climb over to finally reload the boat. After this ordeal I was ready for a snack and hoping to make a little effortless lunchtime progress by floating with the current, but of course there was none because of the next dam, eight miles away.
Those eight miles felt like they took ages. The first part was quite pretty, but then it opened up into an area lined with houses, and the reservoir was large enough that there was some motor boat traffic, more than the few fishing boats I had seen up to that point. I had to use my compass to figure out which inlet to aim for across the bay, and, fighting a headwind, I eventually reached the final portage. I was thankful that I didn’t have to unload the boat, and there was a steep grassy hill that I could send the boat down in the general direction of the water.
I had my eye on the last set of campsites along the river, but the sun was setting by the time I finished my last portage. I paddled a while, eating the last of the chocolate espresso beans. It was becoming obvious that I would not reach a campsite by dark, so I started scouting for a suitable spot. In Forest Service land you can dispersed camp (meaning camping outside of designated campgrounds), and I was able to find a semi-dry spot to spend the night at. It was actually a pretty unpleasant beach, more mud than sand and well frequented by birds, meaning it had a distinctive odor which transferred to my tent!
As I was eating dinner in my tent and planning out the next day, I kept hearing big splashes in the water. A beaver? Rocks being thrown? Loch Ness monster? I couldn’t see what was making the noise but it would startle me every time. I slept soundly with earplugs in, so I don’t know if it continued all night or not.
Day 4 10/7/21 Campsite: Harrisville State Park Dinner: Pesto Pasta Mileage: 24 Total Mileage: 137.7
I woke up right on schedule, feeling well rested. In the morning I put on my drysuit for the first time of the trip, as I would be leaving the river in a few hours. Leaving the campsite, I saw the mystery animals! Cormorants, doing some very loud diving for fish from the surface of the water. By the time you hear the noise they are gone, probably already swallowing their catch. I also saw more deer and some beavers; they also splashed but not with as much volume. It was just a short paddle to the mouth of the river, about six miles, and it was nice to not have portages to look forward to.