Sleeping Bear Dunes

If there was ever a Class 0, it would be the Crystal River in northern Michigan. True to its name, this flatwater river is like a sheet of glass no more than a foot above the sandy riverbed, meandering its way through a dense wood of evergreen to the lakeside vacation town of Glen Arbor. Every summer weekend, an outfitter in the town shuttles people to a boat launch a few miles up the road. I try to avoid spending money just to paddle, and hiked up there on my own.

I set up my raft and got in, and immediately enjoyed the calm and steady current as it made its way through the woods. Many places were a foot deep or less, but usually just deep enough not to scrape my raft on the bottom as I dug my paddle into the sand and grit. I passed several families and on more than one occasion saw kids paddling by themselves out ahead. The truth is that you would have to actually try to screw up on this river.

After about two hours I got to the takeout, packed up, and got a fish and chips dinner at a restaurant close by – the benefits of paddling next to a tourist town.

My plan was to packraft for three days on this vacation – first on the Crystal River, then for two days on the Boardman, a bigger Class II river south of Traverse City. For the past 16 years, the Boardman has undergone a major dam removal project, so far removing three of its four decommissioned dams from the river. I had the idea to spend two days paddling through it with my packraft to see the grassy fields left behind from what were once artificial lakes, and to document the recovering ecosystems. So on the second day, I parked at a river takeout south of the city and hiked the River Road upstream.

Eventually the road crossed over the river and I got a good look at what I was actually dealing with. It rained a lot in the last night, and that river was high. And fast. That along with the fact that camping in the rain already had me in a bad mood, gave me an uneasy feeling about going any further. If I were to go around a bend at that speed and run into a strainer, I don’t know if I would be ready for it. Further on were Class II rapids that I knew nothing about, and also likely higher and faster from the rainstorm. I didn’t want to run it today and end up in the paper tomorrow. So I turned back.

Determined to make something of the day, I got lunch in Glen Arbor and spent the afternoon hiking the trail systems around the Sleeping Bear Dunes. It is a scenic series of sand dunes that span three miles from west to east on the shoreline, with sand bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands across the water. In non-Covid times, you could take a ferry out to them for more secluded camping and backpacking.

I hiked the dune trails as they went along the ridges and scrawling vegetation, occasionally passing dried out husks that were once trees. As the sun fell in the west I parked my car at the main lot and made the Dune Hike straight up and over the ridge system, climbing five or six steep hills before reaching the beach on the far end. I had done this trail before, but it still felt like forever as I cleared each hill only to see another one.

I sat by the water and waited for the late day sun to come out of the clouds that loomed just above the horizon, longing for another sundown of another where and when – one that won’t happen until I’m allowed to return to Europe. It has been a strange and unprecedented year where I had just about everything planned out of where I would go, and what I would do when I got there – only to have life get in the way and change all if it. This week long trip in Michigan might well be the only vacation of note that I take. I, like the rest of America – whether they want to accept it or not – have to wait until we’re not sick anymore. But I’m nothing if not thankful as I allow these times to pass, as surely they shall. There are other worlds than these.

All at once, the sun fell behind the water. I packed up my lensball and camera and made a good pace back in the fading daylight. It was fully dark by the time I reached my car.

This roadtrip continues in the Upper Peninsula.