By Ethan Lussky
Kayaking is one of those things everyone should try at least once—especially in Michigan. For someone who has never experienced ‘the Great Lakes State,’ our sheer quantity of water is quite incredible. This drenched state supports more surface water per square mile than any other, which makes sense given that we also have the most freshwater coastline in the nation’s lower 48. Indeed, even on the short stretch of the Grand River that my girlfriend, Olivia, and I paddled, we must have seen three or four trickling tributaries, two outlet lakes, and what appeared to be a gushing sewer pipe, draining the city streets.
Olivia had never kayaked before our trip on the Grand, she had only canoed. I have kayaked only a few times, but each occurrence was thoroughly enjoyable, even with the various, unavoidable hitches associated with commanding a tiny plastic boat on a moving body of water. It comes with the turf—or rather, the river.
During summers of my childhood, my mother sometimes took me out to the Rogue River near our house in Rockford to kayak. From the perspective of the river, old oak and maple trees adjacent to the shoreline looked magnificently tall, though their exposed roots close to the water’s edge gave the unsettling impression that one stiff breeze would knock them over. I remember the bugs swarming my head as I heaved a paddle through the thick stream, hitting overhanging vines and ducking for branches habitually. Once or twice a trip, one of us would inevitably hit a log or rock, veiled by the surging brown surface, and flip right into the water, which, on a hot summer day, was not always such a bad thing. Upon exiting the craft to shakily tread on solid ground, my back was sore, thumbs blistered, legs muddy, and a smile on my face.
For a year or so, I have been itching to try my luck at paddling the Grand, though college, figuring out transportation, timing, and weather presented major obstacles. With a clear July sky, low wind, and two kayaks available, Olivia and I felt there was no better day to hit the water. Because my fair skin burns easily, even with sunscreen, I advocated for kayaking in the evening and reaching our endpoint before nightfall. Olivia obliged and we loaded up the kayaks at around 5pm.
Even with a large vehicle to hold both kayaks and a car at our disposal, coordinating transportation of us and the kayaks was dizzying:
“Do you think if we drop off the kayaks at the start point and both drive—”
“But how will we get back to the kayaks?”
“Should we drive the car to the start and you wait—“
“How are you going to drive two cars? Should we just get someone to drive us when we arrive?”
“What if nobody is there?”
“If we take the car to the end point and the SUV with the kayaks to the start, then we kayak down and drive back together while leaving the kayaks in some bushes at the end point, we should be able to drive back together to pick up the kayaks. “
“Phew… That should do it.”
From Johnson Park (SW Grand Rapids) to the Grand River Park, east of Grand Valley State University, “Reach #1” of the Grand River runs a little more than seven and a half miles, which in the case of two young but inexperienced kayakers, turned out to be about three hours on the water.
After dropping off the car at Grand River Park, we drove 15 minutes up the Grand to our starting point at Johnson Park. It was actually somewhat difficult locating where we should enter the water at Johnson Park. We drove around, trying to find an access point, and eventually located a gravel turnaround without defined parking spots, but with a small carry down launch point.
Two men were fishing on the shore, talking with some exceedingly old women with wide brimmed hats, colorful dresses, and wooden canes. One of the men was very friendly and sparked a brief conversation as Olivia and I unloaded the kayaks. As we carefully stepped down slippery mud and roots to the water’s edge, he told us today was one of his first times fishing at this location and he had already caught a bluegill. He held up a clear plastic bag with a bluish fish floating, dead in some water. “Forgot my bucket,” he said with a chuckle.
At about 6pm, we hopped in our respective red vessels and pushed off the sandy shore onto the open river. The water was moving so slowly, I actually paddled upstream for a few hundred yards before realizing my mistake. I turned around to see Olivia shaking her head and grinning. After a few minutes floating downstream, showing Olivia how to paddle without getting water all over yourself and how to spot subsurface rocks and logs, I realized we had left the car key in the SUV and if we wanted to drive back, we would probably need it. Olivia pulled off the river to wait a few minutes while I went back and retrieved the key so we could finally get moving down the river.
The paddle back to the access point was met with the fishermen smiling and whispering to each other. The conversationalist man gave me a serious look and jokingly asked “What did you do with her!?” He and his friend laughed as I sheepishly looked up at them. “Forgot my key.” After the brief, embarrassing sojourn, I hurriedly hopped in my kayak with key in hand and began fiercely rowing back to Olivia.
Paddling on wide, nearly stagnant water has its benefits and drawbacks just like anything else. One upside is that you can really relax without worrying about hitting anything or accidentally shoring yourself. On the smaller, faster Rogue River, it seemed like kayaking was a constant battle against the natural tug of the water towards the shore— out of the precarious, slippery core of funneling water and towards the quiet, still edge— entropy. But on the Grand, the placid surface is inviting and calm, like a kindly old man guiding you along a well-worn path. A drawback is that since it’s so still, rest assured that you will muscle almost every foot you move. Needless to say, paddling is good exercise.
As we approached a bridge, we could hear the motorcycles and trucks passing overhead. The noises fell away while paddling around the first big bend in the river. Young boys and girls were fishing with their fathers and grandfathers. Black, white, and hispanic men, women, and families were gathered for cookouts on the shore while children splashed and hollered to one another along the shallow banks. As we moved down river further, the number of river-goers shrank to only a few old men, seeking respite in the quiet of the Grand with nothing but their fishing poles and their thoughts.
The Ottawa County online route map I pulled up on my phone (in addition to Google Maps) was extremely helpful. Throughout the entire trip, I had cell service and knew both where I was and where the nearest access points were located, if I ever needed to get off the water. Even with a waterproof case and slow-moving water, I didn’t feel too comfortable using my phone the entire time. We both wished there would have been more signs and maps available to us on the river or at the access points.
The route map was accurate with regards to the shallow spots on the river, cut banks, and meanders, but some of the natural features such as the high slopes and notable vine growths were nowhere to be seen. The Grand Lady, a paddlewheel river boat docked at Boynton Farm about halfway on Reach #1 was pulled against the shore with the sun shining through the clouds just above its roof. Just downstream, thick, tall trees provided shade for picnic benches in a well manicured park. Along the trip, we saw several pleasant docking locations for a quick stretch or a light lunch.
Further down the river, we noticed a large amount of construction debris (bricks, slabs of concrete, cinder blocks) in large piles along the shore, most likely dumped during some type of construction or renovation. In addition to the countless small birds, we saw several blue herons swooping overhead and some standing still along the shore, turning their heads silently as they watched us pass by. When sunlight hit the water just right, I could make out large striped fish congregated around a big log just beneath the surface.
After some heavy paddling, I decided to take a break and float down the river and saw some men fishing on a small boat. A low whir filled the air and I looked up to see a small plane flying directly over me and into the distance. While looking up, I noticed a sliver of the moon, high in the sky with a commercial jet soaring miles away. Everything around me was was still and peaceful. I closed my eyes and heard only the slight chirp of some birds, singing their evening songs.
Looking west toward the horizon, the sun was liquid gold as it poured through the trees and spilled out onto the silent sea. We recognized the clean, new boat dock where we left our car in the parking lot of our endpoint and shored ourselves after a wonderful journey down the Grand. A man in waders was standing like a statue near the dock with fishing pole in hand. There wasn’t a bathroom around, so Olivia and I just went quickly in the dark, bordering woods. We noticed a well kept trail and wondered where it went. Tired, hungry, and a little sore, but satisfied, we departed the Grand River Park, already planning our next kayaking trip.
As we pulled away from the riverfront, I watched the sun extinguish behind the trees as the Grand humbly, steadily, propelled billions of unseen particles and gallons of water to Lake Michigan—flowing from one great body of water to the next. Traversing this brief slice of more than 250 miles of river was enough to whet my appetite for more. What’s the old saying? “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.”