At the Upper River Road trailhead, the kiosk noted that the Red Bridge was closed to both cars and hikers. We set off hopeful an alternate would be available. A hard-hat clad worker informed us that hikers are not allowed to walk the beams that connected the bridge under construction. A crane loomed overhead and I looked longingly to the east bank wishing for wings on our backpacks. Olivia, Luke and Jude all inquired, “Uncle Josh and Aunt Laura, how will we get across?” No wings appeared on our packs rather trail angels….a family embarking on float at our access point.
We can thank Silas and Jenny from Kalamazoo for letting us borrow their kayaks and a SUP (stand up paddleboard) to cross the river with packs lashed on top with bungees. Olivia volunteered to paddle the SUP across with Luke as her passenger, while Josh made two kayak trips with all the packs and one with Jude on his lap. We won’t tell the kids’ parents we crossed without PFD’s (personal floatation device)! The kids were unphased and were happy to put their shoes on and start walking the MRT (Manistee River Trail) on the east side of the river.
The plan was to walk about two miles and find a spot to camp. I had peeked at the weather radar on the drive up and knew the rain was imminent. The sky darkened, the kids adjusted to their packs as we walked up and around the bends in the river. We passed a panoramic bluff view from 200 feet above, displaying the snaking river pattern. From that vista we descended through evergreens and stately hardwoods to a creek bed.
The rain began about 10 minutes after we set up tents up by a misty Arquilla Creek. We scurried around putting shoes and packs under the tent vestibules and sent the kids inside. Josh pumped water through our filter while I boiled water for our dinner packets. The kids ate chili mac under cover and listened to rain drops smacking off tent tarps. For added drama, thunder cracked and lightning strobed. It was Friday, July 13th after all. Josh and I scrambled in the tents soggy from food prep in the rain. Olivia was my tent mate while Josh squeezed in with Luke and Jude.
The kids did not complain! We showed them how to blow up their sleeping pads and pillows and pulled the sleeping bags out of their sacks too. After putting on a dry layer and giving a high-five to Olivia, I laid in the tent awake listening to the storm and the gurgling creek. Sleep was scarce as my air mattress felt inclined to deflate about every half hour.
Day 2- Because the rain had forced us into tents by nine, the whole crew was up early listening to the birds greet the day. The rain had moved on so we did too, another mile to a campsite on the riverbank. A maple branch conveniently hung over the shallows where the kids used it as monkey bars. In the afternoon, we day-hiked (without packs) a mile north to a steep dune climb down to the river for lunch and more water bugging. As fast as I could make PBJ on tortillas, they were eaten in between river plunges. We tried fishing but had no luck catching our dinner. The day was spent floating in brisk current, skipping rocks and catching glimpses of a snake, heron, snapping turtle and a porcupine, up close!
Tip: Take your kids, nieces, nephews or friends backpacking. Who doesn’t want to poop in the woods? Hang out in a national forest, experience a river ecosystem, spot a turtle and sleep in a tent? The memories will last a lot longer than a top score on a video game. Plus, we put the kids to work, filtering water, washing camp dishes, gathering firewood and packing tents up/away. They learned that adventures take teamwork and like most rewards, it feels better when you earn it. I asked them all to write their favorite memory:
Jude (8 years old)
My favorite memory was when we all went to the dune and had a picknick. And I asked Aunt Laura for a plate but remembered that we were camping. We also saw a snake and a blue hairon. (Jude’s drawing of his experience is shown below)
Luke (10 years old)
My favorite memory from backpacking was seeing a porcupine walk, drink and eat. Then we had to come up with a name. His full name is Professor Pokey Peter Patterson, and for short Mr. Pokey.
Olivia (12 years old)
Some parts of the trip that was very exciting was the river that had a broken bridge that we couldn’t get across. Some very nice strangers that had Kayaks and paddle boards let us use them and take our packs over to the other side. I got to use the paddle board, but I didn’t stand up I just kneeled down. Another person had hitched a ride with me, my “step cousin” Luke was not very fond of riding on the paddle board but I knew that he enjoyed it in the end.
The very INTERESTING animals that we were able to see were: 2 blue herons, a black snake, an enormous snapping turtle, and a real life Porcupine!!! The food we had was really good for being freezer dried. We had Chilly mac, Breakfast skillet, Chicken Teriyaki, Fajita bowl, pasta, and Granola!! Pb&J was really good too! Aunt Laura had packed us all snack bags which was really helpfully! I really enjoyed pumping water from lake, but it took a long time….Especially the one morning when I had just got done and then knocked my water bottle over!! We had fun times in the water next to our campsite….. We were able to go up about 200 feet on the trail and then float back down in less than a minute if you got in the strong current, it was so strong none of us could stand up. THE BUGS WERE HORRIFIC!!! I can’t wait for next time!!
Our return hike brought us back to the bridge under construction. The workers had the day off, the planks were gone too no doubt removed to keep riff raff from trying to cross. So, Josh swam across with the keys inside a water-tight case to get the car. He drove around the 20-mile detour to retrieve us on the other side.