A couple of weeks ago, although it was getting a little colder, Ekaterina and I felt like river exploration season hadn’t yet ended. This year we paddled (and portaged…) stretches of the main and south branches of the Flint River, about thirty miles over two days, which is only a small percentage of the total waterway. For both of those two days we parked at the same location, a three-way fork in the river. It was clearly time to get started on exploring the third branch, the north.
The south and main branches of the river are regularly used for kayaking. Trees are cleared, maps are produced, there may be ramps and access points. The north branch is different. I haven’t been able to find any mention of anyone paddling it, and there are no dedicated access points. We did our research and drove to a couple of places where the river intersected roads and saw that it looked plenty wide and deep enough to attempt, and wasn't just a creek or drainage ditch.
When I woke up early the morning of, there was frost on my truck. I did begin to wonder at the wisdom of doing a trip that would surely involve getting very wet when it was so cold. However, the forecast for the day was decent and I do have plenty of suitable clothing. No excuses would be sufficient to get back into bed.
I looked at Google Maps, on satellite view, and picked out a likely starting point. There were other options, but they all seemed too close. It would be a shame to drive all the way out there and have a short, unfulfilling trip. We dropped off Ekaterina’s car at the confluence of the three branches and took my truck to the start. It took us a while to find a decent parking spot, and I ended up not too far from the river, parked on the grassy shoulder of a dirt road.
Under the road we were launching at, there was a mostly sunken rowboat, filled with mud, the rest nestled in poison ivy. Not really a good omen! Someone did try to navigate these waters at one point, but perhaps without great success 😂. We could see the first portage from this point, a sight we would become used to.
It did warm up fairly quickly, so wading waist-deep in the chilly water wasn’t that bad. All in all, we did very little paddling. Some portages were big, some were small, but they were all very close together. On some blockages we got lucky and were able to squeeze under, laying completely flat on the kayak, usually scraping spiderwebs with our noses. When we were unlucky, we’d drag the boats up the banks at the spot with the least poison ivy and nettles. I’d take nettles over the poison ivy any day but would still rather have neither!
One interesting feature of this area was all the burrs. Past river trips seemed to have fewer of them. Our pants were thickly adorned after a few hours. We did see some interesting deer stands, some so well camouflage that I missed them at first. There were also a few deer in the river, some muskrats, and some fairly gross swarms of red beetles covering some of the plants, milkweed bugs.
We paddled past one area that had been used as a dump, with some rusty equipment and assorted trash, including a car. You could just make out the frame. As we were looking at the debris, a beaver surfaced right next to us, splashing the water. Very cool! After a few hours, I checked the map, concerned that we hadn’t passed any roads yet. We would have five roads to go under, with the fifth being next to our end point. Our lack of progress was astonishing. About an hour per half mile. The Belle River had been slow, but the constant small portages were really slowing us down.
I called my partner and told her that we would likely need a ride as we would not possibly make it to our end point by dark, or by the next day for that matter. But then I checked the walking distance back to my truck… thirty minutes from the first bridge we would reach. Never mind!
We slogged on a while longer, eventually reaching our new end point, the first road intersection since we launched. I had brought a cable lock just in case, so I chained the kayak to a tree and we walked back down a dirt road with wet feet. Thirty minutes on foot, or seven hours dragging a kayak over the trees. Definitely not an effective means of travel, but certainly a fun challenge.
The next time we try this river, I’d like to go when it’s warmer and the river is a little lower (if we’re lucky), and skip bringing the kayak. We had a good time wading on the Belle River, and I wouldn't mind doing that again.
Learn to kayak on actual bodies of water next season with my Kayak Essentials class, or join the mailing list at the bottom of this page to be notified of upcoming group trips!