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Winter Canoeing Adventure

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A group of college students gathered for guidance for a mid-February trek on the South Branch of the Ausable River. There would be ten of us. Appropriate clothing recommendations were provided along with a list of packing items and how to pack in waterproof containers. I explained wearing a fresh pair of dry socks in sleeping bags would provide better warmth instead of socks worn all day that contained moisture. 

My roommate, Todd, who was joining on the adventure, asked me later why I hadn’t told him that on a previous camping trip where his feet got cold. I did not have a good answer. This trip was my first guided adventure for winter canoeing and I was anxious to get everything correct. I planned to lead many guiding outings after graduating from college. In the succeeding decades, I have lead dozens of exploration outings into wild wonders in Utah, Minnesota, and most frequently in Michigan. I have taken solo backpack pilgrimages in addition to leading backpack trips to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and into Bryce Canyon’s Wilderness.

We rented canoes, secured camping gear in canoes, and set voyage for a pleasant float where Bald Eagles, river otters, mink, and darting fish would make river appearances. Perhaps deer would watch us from cedar swamps where they herded safe from surrounding areas with deep snow. Cedar trees prevented deep snow from building beneath them and deer fed on low branches. One can tell when a deer population is excessive by branches being browsed as high as deer can reach when standing on hind legs. 

The South Branch of the Ausable River is narrower, faster, more exciting, and seems to have more wild areas than the main Ausable branch. Many homes and cottages lined the river but not as many as are now present. Our growing population is usurping habitat nature niches by people seeking wild places to live the year round or to occupy during mild season weather. Increased development results in fewer wildlife.

I figured this river was a good combination of both wild and human inhabited banks in the event we ran into trouble. I did not want to take a novice group into wilderness areas where help could not be found if needed. Most of the float was quiet with sightings of target wildlife. Canoers did expect to see Great Blue Herons wading to fish or to see Belted Kingfishers perched above the water ready to dive for midday meals. 

I do not recall if we witnessed river otters playfully sliding down banks for family fun between their fishing expeditions. I have seen winter play on a few occasions but that is always a lucky treasure.

When we rounded a bend and encountered some rocks protruding above the surface, two of the women hit a rock and tried to straighten the canoe to face downstream. Inexperience resulted in wrong paddle moves and their canoe rolled. Fortunately, it was shallow water but they submerged in knee-deep water. My roommate and I were not far behind so I jumped into the water to first rescue them by helping each stand. Secondly, I hustled downstream to salvage a few items that were not tied securely in the canoe. 

We climbed the bank to a winter residence high on the slope. A couple was home and welcomed our water-soaked paddlers into warmth. They offered to place their clothes in a dryer along with my pants that were wet from the knees down. We joined with others for lunch downstream. The girls had a harrowing story to share. 

We reached a campground for an evening campfire, a hot cooked meal, and cozy sleeping bags for nesting in tents. There was a nice grassy slope above the river with flat land at the base. I inspected the slope for safety hazards and slid downslope on my back. The coat made a smooth sledding surface. We did not have sleds but our coats created a good sled runner. The group sledding adventure was repeatedly used and became a faster run with repeated use. 

Meanwhile our supper fire was burning to cooking coals. In the morning we loaded canoes and floated to where the livery service met us at the end of a wonderful winter canoeing adventure. 

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.


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