The Little Manistee River runs from east to west in “northern lower Michigan,” a contradiction I have always enjoyed. (It means the northern part of Michigan’s Lower, or southern, peninsula.) It is a clear river: the bottom stays in well-lit focus, whether the water is ten inches deep or four feet deep. The banks are low, almost flat. If you needed to beach your boat, you could do it just about anywhere. The national forest is dense and grows right up to the water, but there is enough room between trees to land a kayak. Finding a spot to pull over and open a granola bar, or take a picture, or pee, or portage around a downed tree that is blocking the river from bank to bank—it’s not much of a problem.
The Little Manistee River is mostly not that fast, and mostly easy to paddle.
The river empties into Manistee Lake, which, like “northern lower Michigan,” is a contradiction: it has both an industrial shore and a wild shore. One side is where the coal comes in on ships. The other is trees and grasses and wetlands. It is beautiful and blemished. From Manistee Lake the water continues to Lake Michigan via a short channel, trenched deeply enough for the freighters. The straight channel passes under a drawbridge in downtown Manistee and courses behind a few bars. The finish is marked by a long breakwater with a lighthouse at the end.
But I was twenty miles inland from Lake Michigan, and a long way from bars and other forms of civilization. And though the Little Manistee is mostly a river of moderate speed, I was on the one part that wasn’t. I was alone, in a 14-foot kayak.
Canoeing Michigan Rivers—written and titled before the kayak’s surge in popularity—reports that the Little Manistee River is “small” and “quick-spirited.” The river has a “moderate to fairly quick” current, according to the guide. Paddlers with “basic skills” can handle most of the Little Manistee, author Jerry Dennis assures us. A sentence later, though, there is this warning: “The section between Nine Mile and Six Mile bridges, however, is one of the fastest and most challenging stretches in the Lower Peninsula and requires more advanced ability.”
I read this less as a warning and more as an advertisement, even though I do not possess “more advanced ability.”
On a bright afternoon in August, I took my 14-foot-kayak onto the Little Manistee, putting in at Nine Mile Bridge—exactly the beginning of the wild water. I intended to conquer the rough stretch, paddle past Six Mile Bridge, and continue westward to the bridge at Stronach Road, where I’d call for a ride. At the launch, a laminated sign stapled to a post repeated my book’s most-challenging-in-the-Lower-Peninsula warning. I assumed the sign mainly served to keep the lawyers for the Department of Natural Resources happy, asses sufficiently covered. I imagined that later, when I finished my run, the warnings would be something to brag about. I carried my gear past the sign to the river’s edge and began to script my heroic monologue: There’s this stretch of the Little Manistee that’s supposed to be one of the most dangerous runs in the Lower Peninsula. I paddled it this summer. It didn’t seem that bad to me. I had to stay on my toes, and it was a little quicker than I was used to, but I managed…
The current was indeed fast, and its path was twisted. From the moment I launched it was bend after bend, hairpin after hairpin, with few straightaways, and I was baffled as to how, traveling back in geological time, this ever could have been the water’s easiest way to reach Lake Michigan.
Often I could see only seventy or eighty yards ahead, and those eighty yards went fast. The turns were blind, and most blind turns were instantly followed by some form of blockage: a fallen trunk on the left, a collection of branches extending to the middle, or a low tree on the right reaching over the water at neck level. Decapitation level, it seemed. Three of my kayaks, arranged end to end, could block the entire river. In wider stretches it might take a fourth kayak. What mattered, though, wasn’t the width of the river but the width of the opening between fallen branches. Sometimes five feet. Sometimes less.
For a paddler with a relatively big kayak and a relatively small amount of swift-water experience, the gaps came up fast and in unpredictable spots.
Each new turn, the river allowed me only an instant to decide on a full string of maneuvers. I had to dig hard, reaching deep and paddling furiously. Moments of doubt and even panic. And then—through the opening.
And then it was behind me. A few seconds of straight, open river. A rush of accomplishment.
A sense of invulnerability.
After slipping through one gap perfectly, without even a slight scrape, I hooted into the wilderness. I loved the solitude, and my confidence grew.
Had I gone a half a mile, or three? I lost all sense of time and distance. I was thrilled, but far from relaxed. The current and the twisting river consumed me. I didn’t identify the trees standing near the banks—beech or birch? Cedar or hemlock? I had no idea. The only trees that mattered were the trees that blocked the river. Even with this concentration, sometimes I banged my way through an opening. My green kayak picked up some new white scrapes.
On a rare straightaway I unscrewed my water and drank. I was slow to rescrew the top—and I paid for it. While I tried to line up the cap’s threads, the river bent right. It started to sling my kayak around the bend. A low tree appeared. It stretched across most of the river, beginning underwater and gradually angling upward. It stayed close to the river’s surface and had collected driftwood. I was going fast and I didn’t even have my paddle in the water. The only gap was toward the right bank, and it was small. I was lined up all wrong—on the wrong side of the river, and pointed at a bad angle.
I tried to paddle backward. I thrust my paddle blades deep into the river and threw my weight behind each pull, but I couldn’t reverse. The current pushed harder, forcing me toward the bramble of sharp, dry wood. My kayak’s long back end started to swing sideways. I fought it. The boat’s nose hit the opening at an angle. The current was trying to wedge me, and if it wedged me, its next step would be to roll me. Back and forth I went, almost pointlessly, like a violent parallel parking job. I battled. The current didn’t notice. It caught the kayak’s back end the way a steady wind catches a kite. Finally the Little Manistee grew bored of toying with me, and somehow the current momentarily relented and let me swing my back around. Gracelessly, I bumped my way through the narrow route. I had no hoots left.
At one turn I had no choice but to beach it. The gap was on the far side of the river, and the current would have thrown me into the snags long before I could have cut across to the opening. I portaged around the tree and re-launched. A few bends later I beached it again. This time there was no gap at all. Two fallen trees, and all the branches they had collected since dropping, blocked every inch of the Little Manistee. The best paddler in the world, in the smallest kayak on the market, would have had to crash into the shore and drag the boat around. And I had modest skills. And a 14-foot kayak.
Finally, after too many scrapes, after too many misplayed turns, the river got me. I had shot around another sharp bend, and the current had caught my kayak’s long back end and had spun me. It was throwing me into the next jumble of branches and fallen trees. I was going in perfectly sideways. If there was a good way to stop, I didn’t know how to execute it. I hit the trunk of the tree flush, a few inches above the river’s surface. The water wanted to keep propelling my boat forward, downstream, and you know what water does: it finds a way. In an instant, the current rolled the kayak, spinning it under the trunk. I spilled out of the boat. I plunged chest deep into the river and lost hold of my paddle. I think the river swept me under the tree, too. I surfaced on the other side, but I cannot say how—it happened too fast, and, despite my life jacket, it happened underwater. Half-swimming and half-running, I chased down the 14-foot kayak, grabbed the back end, and slowed its progress. The current wanted to toss me forward, off my feet. I stumbled with the rush of water, desperate to stay with my boat and keep my head above water. Twenty yards ahead, my black paddle bobbed and spun. The water I think was chest deep. But I wasn’t standing straight or thinking straight or breathing straight so I can’t be sure. I ran and swam, and at times just clung to the kayak as it cruised forward. I never took my eyes off the paddle. I needed it back. There were no houses out here. I didn’t know how to find a dirt road. If I lost that paddle, I’d have to abandon my kayak and begin a directionless, hours-long trek through the Manistee National Forest. I pushed hard off the river bottom and closed the distance between myself and the paddle. Foot by foot, I got closer, slow-motion running where I could. When some dead branches loosely caught one end of the paddle, I rushed forward and seized it before it could spring free. I dragged the paddle and the half-submerged kayak out of the current. There was a bulge in the river where the water was slow. Staring at the scraped-up bottom of my boat, and at the wilderness around me, I caught my breath.
Here the water was thigh-deep, and cold. I needed to lift the 14-foot kayak a few inches above the water, upside down, and let the water pour out. But I was exhausted, physically and mentally, and my arms shook. I rolled the kayak in the water. It was filled to the rim with what I guessed were hundreds of pounds of river water. My boat’s rear hatch is closed off, from just behind the seat to the stern, but the front hatch is open, so the kayak was all water from behind the seat to the tip of the bow. I turned it upside-down again and gave it a tentative lift; it felt like it was filled with boulders and mud. Straining, I lifted it just enough, and tilted it just enough, and the water rushed out. I gave it a few extra spins and shakes and more water dripped out. When I set it back down on the river, Some water still sloshed around the bottom, but it wasn’t enough to matter. I climbed in and continued.
But how do you continue, after you’ve flipped? After you’ve stumbled desperately in one of the fastest currents in the Lower Peninsula, chasing an upside-down kayak? How do you proceed, now that you’ve acknowledged that the Lower Manistee actually does demand advanced skills that you don’t have?
Eventually you continue, since you have no other practical option, but you have this moment where you stand on the bank of fine stones in your drenched shorts and drenched t-shirt and soaked life jacket, holding the paddle that by all rights should be on its way to Lake Michigan without you, watching the water’s forward surge—which now seems impossibly fast—and seriously wonder whether a rescue helicopter could get in here.
This is not an excuse, but I will say this: My 14-foot kayak is too long for the Little Manistee River. I may as well have taken the jumbo table from the conference room at work, tossed it into the rushing current, hopped on and tried maneuvering that through the branch gaps. A 14-foot kayak is a hybrid boat. Kayaks specifically for swift rivers, not to mention rapids and small waterfalls, are much shorter than 14 feet. Sea kayaks—designed for the open water—are several feet longer. My 14-foot kayak, I had hoped when I bought it, would be long enough for the Great Lakes and short enough for fast rivers. I had wanted a boat that would be everything at once. The danger of this kind of compromise—this hedged bet of a boat purchase—became apparent between Nine Mile Bridge and Six Mile Bridge.
* * *
Only once has another paddler directly insulted my 14-foot kayak. I know what my boat’s limitations are. I don’t need strangers providing the abuse.
I was on the Detroit River, south of Detroit and only a few miles from home. The local kayak shop organizes a paddle every Wednesday evening during the warm months. You can rent a sea kayak from them, but the outing is free if you bring your own boat. The wind blew hard from the north that afternoon, right into our faces. The river is a few miles wide where we paddled—about halfway between downtown Detroit and Lake Erie, where the river ends. This part of the river is broken up by two large islands: Grosse Ile on the American side and Fighting Island on the Canadian side. We tried to head north, around the tip of Grosse Ile, but the wind, the chop, and the Detroit River’s southbound current made that outing the closest I’ve come to paddling on a treadmill. Hard stroke after hard stroke, and I wasn’t sure I moved a foot. About fifteen boats were in our fleet—reds and yellows and greens, bearing into the wind. I managed to stay in the middle of the pack, but I had to work harder than just about anyone else. They had sea kayaks, which cut through the waves more easily. Sea kayaks also track better, meaning the bow stays straight, rather than swinging back and forth. A swinging bow wastes distance and energy. A 14-foot kayak isn’t as bad as a 10-foot kayak, but it still has a swinging bow.
In any hobby, there are enthusiasts who don’t worry much about who is using what gear, and there are enthusiasts who make the gear the primary point of the hobby. This latter type of enthusiast paddled toward me as I crept along, inch by inch, into the wind. “If you go down, we’ll save you,” he said by way of greeting, “but I’m making no promises about that boat.” He paddled off in his sea kayak—which I assume cost four times as much as mine. He wanted me to notice how much better his boat cut through the waves. I noticed.
I didn’t flip that day, and eventually I made it around the northern tip of Grosse Ile, into a little canal that cuts through the island, and back to the dock where we had launched. I avoided the man who would save me but let my 14-foot kayak sink, never learning his name. Later, when my boat was on my car and I was driving home, I knew I should have told him that, if he had flipped, I would have saved his boat before I would have saved him.
* * *
“You think about flipping a lot more than I do,” I said to Jake. We were in a Lake Erie parking lot, at the edge of a boat launch. Nine of us were there. It was an outing organized by a different shop—the shop where I’d bought my boat. The Lake Erie launch mostly is used by fishermen taking motor boats out to catch walleye, and by hunters with camouflaged boats heading to the marshes to shoot ducks. Jake was debriefing us on his weekend at the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium, where he’d learned about rescue techniques and how to right your boat, drain your boat, and re-enter your boat in deep, turbulent water. Jake seemed ready for every worst-case scenario the Great Lakes could throw at a paddler, as if, had he been in his sea kayak side-by-side with the Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior, he somehow would have stayed aright and rescued all 29 men. That kind of doomsday readiness gave Jake pleasure, I figured, because he was a Republican.
I have never gone to a kayaking symposium. I can’t imagine a day when I will go to a kayaking symposium. I have never managed that kind of dedication. I do not throw myself headlong into a single pursuit, spending my last minute and dollar on one passion. If I did, I would not have a 14-foot kayak. I would have an 8-foot kayak, or an 18-foot kayak, or both.
Fortunately, Jake has a sea kayak and attends symposiums.
That night at dusk, when we were still at least two miles offshore, a wave flipped a man named Malcolm, who instantly went numb in the October water. Malcolm was wearing a wetsuit, but he discovered that the wetsuit was faulty. Fresh waves of cold water seeped to his skin. It was Jake, of course, who had the gear and the knowledge to right Malcolm’s boat, pump it dry, and get Malcolm back in. All of this took time, and Lake Erie grew dark. Malcolm shivered. He could not feel the lower half of his body. Since it’s the lower half of the body that balances the kayak, this was a problem. After fifty yards, Malcolm flipped again. More cold water found his skin and further numbed his legs.
Again it was Jake, by now in darkness, who emptied Malcolm’s boat of water and helped Malcolm re-enter his kayak. And it was Jake who, knowing Malcolm wouldn’t paddle another fifty yards before his senseless legs failed him again, devised what was next. Without exaggeration, I am calling Jake’s plan a lifesaving operation.
Jake tied his tow rope to Malcolm’s boat, with Malcolm still in it. (Of course Jake traveled with a tow rope, for just such an emergency. Of course I carried no such rope in my kayak.) Then Jake told another man in our group to stay in his own sea kayak but to hang onto Malcolm’s boat and keep him stable. Jake now had to paddle himself in, and also tow two other kayaks. It was slow going, but Jake’s idea worked. Malcolm stayed upright, and everyone was moving toward shore. The moon was supposed to be full that night, but the cloud cover was thick. The only light came from the large lamp in the parking lot and from the hazy light pollution that Detroit provided, to the north. Jake reached the ramp with the next step of the plan already formed. He had three of us lift Malcolm out of the boat and support him as he stumbled toward the cars. Jake hurried ahead, started his car, and turned the heat on high. We led Malcolm to the car and guided him in. Thirty minutes later, the feeling in Malcolm’s legs had returned fully. We lifted his boat onto his car, and he drove himself home.
And if I had been the only one out there with Malcolm? My 14-foot kayak, my lack of a tow-rope, my lack of a pump, my lack of training? Malcolm would have died.
Sometimes I am ashamed to be a casual kayaker, and am ashamed of my casual kayak. When I witnessed Jake save a life, when I endured the jibe of the man who thought my boat deserved to be at the bottom of the Detroit River, my reactions went two ways. I vowed to spend more money: on neoprene boots and suits, on a sea kayak and a river kayak, on expensive paddles, on lessons for a cleaner stroke, on symposiums and on multi-day trips through canyons. And I also considered giving up kayaking altogether, since I knew I would never commit enough time or money to be all that good. My kayak’s resale value could not have been much, given all the scrapes from the Little Manistee River.
It’s funny how “zealot” usually is used in a negative sense, but the word “zeal” has strong positive connotations. Owning a 14-foot kayak is the opposite of being a kayak zealot. Instead, you are a dabbler in the kayak world. You are a tourist. An ignoramus. You are passionless. You are afraid to commit to swift rivers. You are equally afraid to commit to open water.
I will never be accused of being a kayaking zealot. Nor will I be complimented for kayaking with zeal. Or, I fear, approaching anything with zeal.
I have tried in the past to muster zeal. At times I have wanted to give my life to kayaking, as if it were a call to orders, as if Michigan’s waters themselves had spoken to me and said, “This is the way.” It was time to focus. Put away the guitar, since I was only a half-assed guitar player, anyway. Read fewer books, since I wasn’t an actual scholar. Get rid of the racquetball racquet and the tennis racquet. I didn’t play often, and the sports didn’t cost me much money, but it was energy and dollars being taken from kayaking. Watch fewer movies. It’s not like I’ll ever be Martin Scorsese, or Roger Ebert. Forget improving my familiarity with the great symphonies.—there isn’t time for kayaking and Dmitri Shostakovitch.
* * *
Be Here to Love Me is a documentary about the singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. One night I watched it after my daughter had gone to sleep. I could have been watching a kayaking instructional video, or studying a catalogue of boats and gear, or I could have been paddling in the darkness with my safety light Velcroed to the back of my life jacket, but I was in my living room, watching a movie that had nothing to do with boats.
Townes was nothing like a 14-foot kayak.
He was already dead—at the age of 52, poor and drunk—when the movie was made. But the movie has old interviews, and in one of them Townes says this: “There was one point when I realized, Man, I could really do this, but it takes blowing everything off. It takes blowing the family off, money, security, happiness, friends. Blow it off, get a guitar, and go.” This is what zeal looks like. It is what a zealot looks like. What extreme selfishness looks like. What dedication to art looks like. What shitty parenting looks like. Townes had children, and they are in the movie, too. His son, now an adult himself, wanted a hybrid for a father. It is the son, not Townes, who makes me question the merits of zeal. The son says, “There’s too many other things in life besides writing songs that are important.”
* * *
On the Jordan River I am learning to live with my 14-foot-ness. The Jordan is also in “northern Lower Michigan,” 100 miles northeast of the Little Manistee. The Jordan is my favorite river. It is swift, but not as hairy as that stretch of the Little Manistee. It is narrow, but in a beautiful and cozy way. A livery monitors the river, so the branch gaps are wide enough for my long boat. The anti-hybrid part of me says that, since the Jordan is my favorite river, I should know every inch in every season. I should paddle it in the spring, when it is faster and the water is higher. Snow in the Jordan River Valley melts late, and the rivulets feed the river with cold water. In some ways it’s an easier paddle, because the high water shoots you right over the branches that, come July, will break the surface and snag you. I should paddle it in the summer, when life is at its fullest on the Jordan and the forest is at its greenest. I should paddle it in the fall—all of those red leaves, that gorgeous melancholy. My bad habit is to paddle in June and think about coming back in July, to paddle in July and think about coming back in early October. On a late afternoon paddle, I’ll wonder about the river at dawn. The Jordan River is many rivers, and the valley it has formed is many valleys, but if you really only have time to take it once in a year, think about the river you are on, and not about the river that will be here next month.
* * *
Hamlin Lake is no problem for a 14-foot kayak. Hamlin itself is a kind of hybrid—a lake made of river, the result of a dam near the mouth of the Big Sable, in Ludington, Michigan. The eastern shore is summer homes, and the western shore is state-owned woods. Pontoons troll the middle of the lake. The lake is shallow and in the summer the water heats up quickly for swimmers. Kayaks slip into the reeds at Hamlin Lake’s edge, where the designated paddlers’ trail begins. The water trail cuts across ponds and lagoons. It is heavy with shade, and the water is still. The lagoons are broken up by small humps of land where kayakers must hop out and drag their boats thirty or fifty feet to the next small launch. At one of these portages I stopped to stretch my legs and eat a few handfuls of trail mix. Before I could put my boat back in the water, another kayaker came around the reeds and into sight.
His name was David. He offered me a can of beer, and I took it, gratefully, wondering why I never thought to pack beer for myself. David lived only about an hour away and had paddled this trail before. I followed him across the bayou to the next portage. In the next pond we stopped, side by side, and drank and chatted. “Good kayak for a dog,” he said, nodding at my boat’s open cockpit. I don’t own a dog, but the open design was a big selling point for me—this was the rare kayak that my daughter, who was three when I bought the boat, could fit in front of me and share the ride.
Kayaks normally look like solitary vehicles. Most cockpits are designed with a single human waste in mind. Yes, people can and do paddle in groups, but to me a kayak is an icon of solitude and quiet, the way the minivan is the quintessential family vehicle—announcing the children, school bags, love, bickering, sports equipment, noise, groceries, and cellos within. My kayak—a single kayak, true, but with room enough for Nora—embodies my contradictions. I am a solitary man, and a family man. I am a loner, and I yearn for a companion on the water. I appreciate when others show zeal but fear being zealous myself. I share a beer with David, but we eventually separate, and I begin and end the trip alone.
Rob Keast lives in Trenton, Michigan, and teaches English in a high school south of Detroit. He has published essays in Post Road and The Sun.