Tent and kayak on the shore of the Au Sable river

Kayamping the Au Sable

I will begin with a one sentence summary of paddling down the Au Sable River: I will absolutely be going back for longer trips, probably even this season.

Needless to say, I enjoyed the trip.

Carlisle Canoe Livery
Carlisle Canoe Livery

Carlisle Canoe Livery is absolutely fantastic. They have a program where you drive up, drop your gear, then follow them in your pickup vehicle to your end point so they can shuttle you back. What this means is that, at the end of your trip, you can throw your gear into your own vehicle and take off. No waiting for shuttle service, no double-loading gear. I’ve never seen that setup before, but I adore it.

After placing my Jeep near Parmalee Bridge, I was transported back to Grayling by one of the owners of Carlisle…who happens to have my dream retirement gig in running a livery on the river. Along the way he shared several great points of interest along my trail, some tips about the river, information about the upcoming Au Sable Canoe Marathon, and the correct pronunciation of Au Sable (awe-si-bull). Back at the livery, it was a dock launch onto cool, clean water and away I went.

All along my route, folks that I passed—both on the river and along the bank—had just one question:

“Do you think you’ll beat the storm,” they asked.

It seems that a storm that I was anticipating that evening had pulled itself up a little bit and was looking to hit sometime during the early part of my trip. My new goal became hitting my first break point at Barton’s Landing before the storm hit—especially now that it was upgraded to a severe storm warning with lightning and high winds. It would be ideal, though, if the storm were to be so kind as to miss me entirely.

It didn’t miss, and I didn’t make it.

Jer in the rain
It gets a bit wet in those rain storms…

Because my waypoints along the river were rough estimates at best (oh, you’d better believe that I took the opportunity to improve them on this trip), I really wasn’t sure how far from safety I was when the sky suddenly darkened. Moments later, as the lightning started flashing around me and the rain was coming down in earnest, my goal became simply getting to the first available pull-out point. Fortunately, that just ended up being my planned break point just 5 or so very tense minutes up the river.

Once I was out of immediate danger, I was able to relax and enjoy the weather. The rain was warm, the wind felt nice on such a muggy day, and the lightning itself stayed several miles away according to the space between the light and the sound…and it was awfully pretty.

While I watched the groups I had passed along my morning route come in, Team Alaska, out training for the upcoming marathon, rocketed around the bend seconds after a chest-rumbling peal of thunder accompanied three blindingly bright lightning flashes in rapid succession. As they beached, they pointed out that they didn’t have thunder and lightning like that and we chatted briefly about the prospects for the weather (for once, not mere small talk) before they ducked into their chase Jeep to wait out the storm. For my part, I enjoyed a nice rain that I suspect would probably have been the thing my wife would have enjoyed the most on my adventure so far.

Three-quarters of an hour or so later, the lightning had stopped and the wind had slowed, and I was back on the water under a gentle shower that ended as the sun beat back the clouds.

It might not sound like it, but it was a pretty perfect start to my trip.

 * * *

The sun was shining and warm for the remainder of the day. One nifty feature of the Au Sable River its effect on the temperature around it. The river itself is spring fed, so the water is much cooler than what I’ve been used to on the Huron; it couldn’t have been more than mid-70s. The net result was that weather in the mid-90s felt easily 10 or so degrees cooler around me, perfect weather for paddling.

I hit my camp site, Whitepine Canoe Camp, considerably earlier than I’d expected, which was my first indication that I was likely to not have planned enough river for my trip to run two nights. My 6-8 hours of paddling were done in under 5 even after my unscheduled break. I spent my bonus sunny hours setting up camp, drying my rain-soaked gear, and relaxing in the shade.

Whitepine is a tent-only canoe camp that charges $13 for up to 6 people to spend a night on a first-come, first-served basis. The sites are all immediately alongside the river, and each have shade, a fire pit, a picnic table, and a gorgeous view. The campgrounds also have pit-type toilets and a pump for clean drinking water.

Every single time I camp, I forget at least 1 or 2 moderately important things. When I got ready to crash for the night, I found what I had forgotten: a blanket. Of all of the lucky, low-impact misses, a blanket is pretty much as good as it gets. With overnight lows in the 70s and a cooling breeze coming in off the river overnight, I was still comfortable sleeping with no rain fly in a sleeveless hoodie and sweat pants.

It was a pretty perfect night.

Whitepine canoe camp on the Au Sable river
My campsite alongside the Au Sable

 * * *

The morning began with an odd alarm clock shortly after daybreak. From way down river I could hear a harsh honking noise followed by its dwindling echo. Moments later, the sound repeated, this time closer and more loudly. By the fourth repetition, I could make out that what I was hearing was a duck emitting a single, loud, clear HONK followed by a chorus line of tiny ducks trailing behind trying with varying degrees of success to emulate the noise. The net result was a 5 minute long train of ducks paddling their way upstream, honking merrily away from one end of the range of my hearing to the other.

My only regret was that I didn’t get any video of this; trust me when I say it was ridiculously cute.

Camping hot chocolate on a picnic table
Who even owns camping hot chocolate?

After I woke the real drama started; I found the other thing I’d forgotten. Somehow in my packing and preparing I had managed to mis-pack. I had thrown a bag of what I thought was camping coffee into my sack, and it turned out to be hot chocolate.

Hot…fucking…chocolate. WHY!??

Even starting my day sans coffee couldn’t put a damper on a gorgeous, relaxing morning. My duck-enforced early start allowed me to eat breakfast, break camp, and load up the boat all well before 9 am to start 5-7 hours of paddling.

It became fairly apparent that I was going to have a timing problem when I hit the mid-point of my trip ninety minutes later. I took a brief break and made a decision—if I reached the end of my second day’s travels before noon, I would just paddle to my car and head home instead.

I reached the campsites just before 11:30am.

All in, it was a great 35 miles of travel along a beautiful river. Next time, I think that I’m going to plan on going all the way to Parmalee on day 1 and travel to Mio dam on day 2. Alternately, I have discussed with my wife doing a trip and staying in the cabins located along the way. I can’t wait to get back up there.