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.

Food for a week, minus most of the bagels and cream cheese. The chocolate-covered coffee beans in the lower right were naturally the most important food item.

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.