Words by Mark Przedwojewski
I think it was Dan Smith who suggested that we try a new route for the 5th annual Bushwhacker Challenge. We have been running it on the Pine and Chippewa Rivers in the Mt. Pleasant area for the last 4 years and we all had a great time getting to know and love both of these gorgeous waterways. After doing the same route that many times everyone kind of wants to do something new, so Dan’s new route was put on the table.
This new Bushwhacker route would have us start at the Verlen Kruger Memorial on the Grand River, head downstream 17 miles to the town of Muir to the mouth of the Maple River. Up the Maple some 63 miles to M-52, portage 5.5 miles south on M-52 to the Looking Glass River then down the Looking Glass 55 miles back to Portland, finishing right where we started from.
Everyone taking part agreed that they would not use any landteams or pitcrews of any kind so it would be a full on “Expedition Style” event. At the start we had 8 guys committed to the full route and a few more that were just planning on doing as much as they could before Sunday night. (That work thing often shortens a good trip!)
The start was at 9am Saturday morning, we had a good size crowd of family and friends there to see us off with lots of hugs and kisses and well wishing in the air. The weather was perfect with sunny skies and over 80 degrees being forecast for the afternoon. We had forgotten to enlist the now famous black powder gunshot start so the actual start was a bit underwhelming, but once the paddles and water started flying and the canoes started moving it all felt just like it should.
Mike Smith took an early lead and pretty much set the pace for the entire stretch of the Grand down to Muir. We had 3 dams to get over, all fairly simple up and over, everyone managed them well. When we made it to the mouth of the Maple there were 6 of us all bunched up, pretty good 17 mile sprint for a bunch of old timers. The above average temperatures we were dealing with meant that we needed to be drinking way more water than usual and this meant needing water resupply more often. I think everyone made it to the Maple River campground before running out, we all did a quick water stop there and jumped back on the water with the pace going fast.
When paddling upstream the best place to be is right along the shoreline. There is an eddy that is created when the flow is strong that will actually help push you upstream and because of this it makes it impossible to paddle alongside one another. We all took turns in the lead place on either side of the river as we leapfrogged our way up river. After a while though the pace evened out as we all realized we had many miles in front of us and the heat was also starting to take its toll on us.
A few minutes before dark we passed a camp spot that was being used by some of our friends and family and it was known that there would be yummy grilled chicken available if we wanted it. I happened to be in the lead spot at this time and was not willing to give it up just yet so I flew right by without stopping. I’m not sure if any of us stopped there as we all wanted to get as far up river that first day as we could because we all knew that the upper section of the Maple was going to be tough with the tangled mess of down trees, mud and mosquitoes. There were five of us that all stayed together all the way up the Maple past Hwy 127. Right around midnight, at Blair Rd., Jack and I kept going while Mike, Bruce Kurzhals and George Stockman all peeled off to get a few hours of sleep. Jack and I went on upriver another hour and then sacked out until 5am and were back on the water around 6.
The upper Maple from about Bannister on up is heavily choked with many, many downfalls. There is usually only a few choices when you come up to them as to how you will get past them. Some logjams can be negotiated by threading through them without getting out of the boat. This usually means you will be knocking lots of spiders down on yourself along with sticks and leaves and whatever else is living amongst the branches. Other jams can be crossed over by stepping out onto the logs and pulling your loaded boat right over the tops of them. Most times with this option we get going full speed and ram our bows right up and onto the logs, often teeter tottering the canoe sometimes being able to pull on branches to get over it without getting out of the boat. Most jams are so big and tangled that the only option is to go to one side or the other and pull around on shore. This results in bringing lots of mud back in the boat caked to the bottom of our shoes which creates a big mess on the floor of the boat. All these methods of getting around the obstacles have a certain degree of danger involved and in order to not hurt ourselves we need to slow down and pay attention to every single step we take. Add in darkness to the mix and the danger level jumps up to an almost impossible, impassable river.
Just before the village of Bannister we came up to a big downfall and decided that the best way around would be to climb up the steep bank to the railroad grade that just happened to be right next to the river. Once up on the tracks we could see a bridge about ¼ mile ahead that we assumed was the river, where we could once again put back into the water. When we got up to it we found it was just a small stream with the river nowhere in sight. Instead of going back and finding another way around that jam we decided to strap on the wheels and follow the tracks to Bannister and enter the river again just west of town.
By the time we put back in the river the sun was really starting to cook us and our water was running short. We needed to resupply our water jugs in order to keep hydrated so we were on the lookout for a friendly homeowner. This is exactly what we found just up river from the Elsie dam. A nice old man was fishing off a dock and when we asked if we could fill up with water he pointed us up to his son’s house where we found the very friendly Doubrava family. They were more than happy to help us out and even pulled up the blog page for us on their laptop so we could see how far behind the other guys were. After a short visit we were back on the water heading upstream. They ended up putting out a big water cooler with ice in it so the guys still on their way would have as much water as they needed. A huge Thanks to the Boubrava family for such hospitality!
The day went on with many more logjams to get over as we made our way up to the town of Ovid. We pulled into Ovid about 6pm and from what we learned from the quick look at the blog earlier in the day we knew the guys behind us were hot on our heels. I ran across the street to a small grocery store for more water and some baked beans that Jack requested and while I was gone Bruce pulled in. He also was making a quick stop at the store so Jack and I pressed on to try and keep the small lead that we had. Above Ovid is a nice stretch of mostly clear river passing through grassy farmland. The river sits quit low so the view is not all that great, but there were no logjams to deal with so it was very enjoyable. As we got closer to Baldwin road we could see that the wall of forest was looking very thick and from a scouting trip we had done in February we knew this last 4 miles of the Maple River up to M-52 was going to be tough. Back in February the water level was a good 2 feet higher than what we had now and we were unsure how this would affect the logjams. We hoped the lower water would make this section easier, but it was not to be, this next section would turn out to be some of the toughest river travel I have ever done.
It was getting late and the sun was dropping fast, the mosquitoes were starting to come out and our energy levels were at just about zero. The downfalls in this section were one right after the other, often we could only paddle about 20 or 30 feet before we had to get out again and pull around, over or through another jam. The river banks here were steep and muddy and even the woods right next to the river was choked up with big downfalls so once on land we still had to pull our canoes up and over big huge trees, this was tough, slow going! At full dark we had had enough, we were on land with the biggest swarm of mosquitoes I had ever seen in life.
Looking back on this moment later we realized that we should have stopped and made our camp right at that spot and then picked up in the morning to press on. We had only 3 river miles to go to get to M-52 and start the portage over to the Looking Glass. We did not stop, but decided to put the canoes on the carts and portage ¾ of a mile south through a very rough wheat field to Dewey Rd. were we could see lights from some farm houses. At this point we both were very sleep deprived and we started making pour choices. Going off of the intended route we knew would take us out of the first place spot, but between the lack of sleep the mosquitoes and the pain of 2 hard days we made the decision and took an easier route out of that godforsaken river.
About 200 yards from Dewey Rd. Jack’s cart started falling apart. He had failed to check the nuts on it before the event and now it was coming apart and pieces were being lost in the field. We ended up dragging it the last 100 yards or so up to the road and once there decided to stop for the night and get some sleep. It was just about 11pm and we both needed to sleep. We had pushed hard the last 2 days, 16 hours the first day and 19 hours the 2nd. Before we crashed I opened the can of beans and drank them right from the can, they were the most delicious think I had ever eaten in my life!
The next morning Jack walked to a few houses nearby to try and find a few nuts to fix up his cart with. He had zero luck so we loaded up his boat on the cart anyway to see if the weight of his outfit would hold the cart wheels to the frame. It worked as long as he did not make sharp turns and kept the cart on a solid surface.
We ended up adding a few miles to our portage by taking out of the river early, but by now we had come to terms with our decision from the night before and we were both enjoying the morning on the road. It was an 8 ½ mile walk over to the Looking Glass River and we saw Steve Smith a few times during our walk. He had heard we were having cart trouble and even brought over his cart for us to use if we needed to. Jack’s was working fine, but we did take it along with us just in case. On our way over to the Looking Glass at M-52 I checked my phone and saw that Dan had left me a message, he had gotten word that the upper Maple was almost impassable and mentioned that the upper looking Glass would most likely be the same, he was right. We put in on the Looking Glass anyway and within about 50 yards we knew we would once again be hitting the road. We took back out just across the river where we had put in and set up the portage wheels, we had wasted another hour ½. We did another 6 ½ miles of road portage down river to Woodbury Road, just south of Laingsburg. By now, about 4 in the afternoon, Dan and Brian Keel were also on the Looking Glass River. They had heard the news about how much fun Jack Bruce and I were having on the upper stretches and decided to get out of the maple at Ovid and did a 10 mile portage south to the Looking Glass. They were only a few miles ahead of us so Jack and I hit it hard and ended up catching them by about 6 pm. We paddled with them for an hour or so before we peeled off as they had plans to stop and camp one more night and Jack and I decided to hit it hard and finish before morning.
We hooked up the lights just before full dark and had a great run down the Looking Glass and into Portland. I had grown up just a mile from the Looking Glass River and had spent many hours in and around the river near Wacousta. I have paddled the Dewitt to Portland section numerous times, but never at night. This was definitely the most intense out of all my Looking Glass River experiences and I look forward to doing it all again next year.
We pulled into the memorial landing finish line about 4:30 am on Tuesday morning. We had run our route in 2 days 19 ½ hours. We logged 148 total miles, 15 portage miles and 133 river miles. We ended up skipping 4 river miles on the Maple and 9 river miles on the Looking Glass. We had about 67.5 hours of travel time and 11 hours of camping time. All in all it was a great event and as of now we will run it all again next year, let’s start praying now for higher water levels!
Huge Thanks to Brian Weber for keeping the info flowing to the blog. Extra special Thanks to My wife and kids who let me out to play. Big Thanks to Jack for putting up with all my Ding Dong ways out on the water and a
Big extra Huge Thanks to all of you that look in as we make our way up and down these rivers!!! Hope to see you all soon on the water!