You’ve read the story of kayaking on the Grand River and now you want to fashion your own epic kayaking adventure. In this guide, I’ve picked the Au Sable River in northeast Michigan (lower peninsula) as an example along which you can design a personal kayaking trip for yourself and your companion(s).
Personally, I would love to drop everything for one week and get out to the roughly 125 mile stretch of the Au Sable because of a recent camping experience in Oscoda, Michigan. Our campsite sat at the top of a cliff made of dunes that overlooked the lush green countryside surrounding the Au Sable river. Unquestionably, we ran full force down the dunes to splash around in the river, which got me thinking about how awesome it would be to kayak this. From doing some research I found that “Au Sable” is French for “with sand,” alluding to the miles of sandy coastline that make up its banks.
Those were my reasons for choosing the Au Sable River. For your trip, think of a specific terrain you would like to see (maybe forests, sandy beaches, large cliffs, etc.) and find a river that you’re able to kayak/canoe through in that territory. Consider how developed that area is because your food supply and medical help in case of emergencies depends on your surroundings.
When I say “find something you’re able to kayak/canoe through,” that means that not all rivers make the list of potential candidates. For instance, some parts of a few rivers are reserved for major cargo ship transport, some dams are impossible to portage around (especially if there’s a huge difference in elevation), or there might be white water rapids for a long stretch of the river that you should avoid unless you’re prepared and experienced for such a dangerous task.
From personal experience, one can kayak about 25 miles a day on average. Days when you will not reach that goal are days you have to portage often. To portage is to drag your kayak out of the water to drag it over land further downstream to avoid dams, rapids, any obstruction. Know your territory. A quick google or wikipedia search of the Au Sable River comes up with six dams I would have to portage around.
Consider the direction of the river flow and plan your start/end point accordingly. Paddling/rowing upriver for 7 days is unheard of. You’ll need at least two cars to complete the journey. First, two people must drive two cars to the end point. Leave one car there, then both get in the other car with all your gear and drive to the start point. When you reach the end, you can drive back to the start point to retrieve the other car. If you want to avoid this, ask a non-kayaking friend to drop you off and pick you up, otherwise hire a service to do so.
One of the most important items to have with you is a topographical map of the river. You’ll know which path to take when you come to a fork in the river, where dams are located, how wide or narrow the river becomes, etc. Also, find a map that designates which land is state owned or privately owned to plan your campsite accordingly. Look for maps online, stop by the nearest DNR office location to your proposed river venture, or check with the nearest canoe/kayak rental shop. Plan ahead as this will ensure enjoyment of your trip. If all else fails, follow your river trail on your preferred online map service (google maps, mapquest) and print out individual sections as you go.
Choose your water vessel. Kayak or canoe is your best option. I find kayaks more manageable and adventurous in the water. Canoes can carry more gear, but have a tendency to flip and you don’t want everything you brought getting wet.
There are three different ways of acquiring your vessel. Take the appropriate paddle or oar for your kayak or canoe, respectively.
1) Buy a new one from an outdoors store. Dunham’s, Gander Mountain, Dick’s Sporting Goods, REI in Michigan are all good options. Fall is the best time of season to find discounts since kayaks are considered summer sporting goods and the stores would like to clear their inventory for winter items.
2) Buy a used kayak online or from some other private seller, for example on craigslist.org. Find it under the “boats” or “sporting” sections of the “for sale” tab on your region’s homepage.
3) Rent your kayak or canoe from a water crafts rental shop. Call ahead because some shops don’t rent out vessels for more than one day, but if you find a shop that does, try to get a deal with the salesman since you’ll be using the vessel for at least a few days.
If none of these options work out, beg your friend with a kayak to let you borrow it.
Secure shelter for your equipment! Invest in a dry-bag (a bag that seals your equipment from water even if it falls in the river). They are available in multiple styles and sizes, also note that some rental shops will offer these as well. Consider the time of year you’re going and what climate you’ll be in. It’s generally a smart idea to bring a tent to shelter you away from bugs and bad weather. If you don’t pack a conventional tent, at least take a sleeping bag.
Obviously, for cold climates bring warm clothing that dries quickly since there’s a possibility you’ll get wet and loose clothing for hot climates. Just be mindful that even in hot climates, nights can get cold in some locations.
Take heavy duty rain boots since you’ll be on a river and the banks will likely get muddy in some stops when you stop to exit your kayak to camp.
Rain gear is important unless you’re 100 percent sure that the weather report is accurate and it won’t rain for the week you’re out. A poncho and kayak cover are suitable.
I spoke to Mary Dettloff, the Public Information Officer for the Department of Natural Resources in Michigan, to ask if a seven-day trip down the river was legal, considering that such travellers usually sleep along the banks. Dettloff said yes, there are state forest campgrounds available for a fee along the river although they offer little to no amenities. Otherwise, disperse camping is free. “Disperse camping” means you can sleep on state land as long as you’re not within one mile of designated campgrounds. Bring adequate fire starters as campsites may not offer you more than wood.
Bring along some non-perishable items such as granola bars, canned foods like fruits or spaghettiOs or Chef Boyardee. Take some tin foil and potatoes to make baked potatoes in your campfire since potatoes are one of the only vegetables that take longer than a week to decay. Depending on the development of your region, food and fire supplies will likely will be available in towns which you pass through. Find towns by pausing at a bridge for cars and have one person watch the kayaks while the other follows the road in the direction of town as outlined on your map or per your hunch.
Those are the most important suggestions and considerations. Each individual person will want to bring other extraneous items such as cards, cameras and bandanas.
- Two cars to begin/end the journey
- Kayaks and paddles/Canoes and oars
- Tent, sleeping bag
- Warm or loose clothing
- Rain boots
- Rain gear – poncho, kayak cover, tarp (optional)
- Dry bag
- Non-perishable food
- Tin foil
- Fire starter supplies
- Cleaning supplies
- Bug repellant
- First-aid kit
- A cooler (optional and depends if it fits in your vessel)
Photo: (Kayak) Thomas & Dianne Jones, (Au Sable River) Linda N.