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Go Float Your Boat

Kenny Kornheiser, Kalamazoo River Watershed Council vice president, and his sidekick, Lucy, float in a canoe down the Kalamazoo River alongside kayaker Pat Fisher.
Paddling the Kalamazoo River can be a ‘wonderful’ experience

In June’s issue, Encore took an in-depth look at the Kalamazoo River, its ancient and recent history, the way it’s been abused, and the means by which it is being restored. This article focuses on the river’s recreational value, especially for canoeists and kayakers, many of whom also take to the water to catch game fish.

The dream of pleasantly dipping a paddle, floating down a river and maybe wetting a fish hook exists as a possibility for people in Southwest Michigan thanks to abundant waterways, including those of the Kalamazoo River watershed. The main showpiece of the watershed is, of course, the river itself.

Wending from two headwaters east of Albion, the river flows 130 miles northwest to Saugatuck, where it joins the waters of Lake Michigan.

The rise of rental and livery services on the river, as well as the popularity of sports such as paddleboarding and kayaking, have made getting a river’s-eye view of the area more accessible than ever. And, according to experienced paddlers, the river does not disappoint.

Kenny Kornheiser, vice president of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, has paddled the entire river downstream from Albion. He says the Kalamazoo “offers a wide variety of paddle experiences.”

“It’s very varied in its terrain,” he says, “with agricultural land, urban land, sand dunes near the Lake Michigan shore, and areas that are nearly unpopulated and relatively wild, particularly in the Allegan State Game Area.” In the backwaters of dam impoundments, the water is flat and the flow is slow. But Kornheiser adds that there are “a few patches with more rapids and swift water with ripples.”

Nate Strong, another experienced paddler and a member of the Great Lakes Adventure Club, says the river “has mostly a wild, rural feeling to it. You don’t see a lot of houses. Unfortunately, the towns haven’t incorporated the river into their culture. When you paddle through a town, it has more of an industrial feeling. But most of the time, it’s scenic.”

Dan Burton, who has paddled the river’s entire length and created the Michigan Water Trails map for the Kalamazoo River (see link on page 20), says the river near Ceresco (between Marshall and Battle Creek) is “a really fun stretch … rocky and bouldery, reminiscent of rivers in Northern Michigan.” He has a special fondness for the North Branch and the South Branch above their confluence in Albion. “These are a little more challenging and quite nice, with some wetlands. The headwaters are very pretty, especially with the golden colors of leaves in the fall,” he says.

Liveries and launch sites

Getting on the river is not a problem. For those with their own watercraft, there are dozens of put-in and take-out points along its banks. Some have ample parking for vehicles and trailers; some offer only roadside pull-overs — all of which are nicely defined by the Michigan Water Trails map.

And with four rental and livery services serving the river, those who don’t have their own vessel can still enjoy a few hours on the water.

The Twin Pines Campground and Canoe Livery is located on the South Branch, between Hanover and Albion. Owner Cheryl Travis says this part of the river is “very calm, not real deep, good for first-timers and families with kids, with lots of nature, like deer and ducks.”

Lois Heuchert, owner of Plainwell Kayak Co., speaks with passion about the part of the Kalamazoo where her customers paddle, primarily from D Avenue to Plainwell and Plainwell to Otsego, with some paddlers starting in Parchment or Otsego. “It’s a beautiful, flowing river with clear water that provides a wonderful recreational experience,” she says. “It’s not real deep in most places, and it’s not a fast-flowing river most of the summer.”

Farther downstream, near Fennville, Julie Hulsey, owner of WaterTrail Ventures Kayak Rental, says this downstream part of the river “is quite gorgeous, one of the most scenic sections on the Lower Kalamazoo. It’s all natural. A lot of wildlife and beautiful scenery. No docks and no homes all the way from Allegan Dam to our landing in New Richmond.”

Hulsey also mentions Ottawa Marsh, “a huge marshland with a lot of migratory birds,” the entrance to which is accessible from this part of the Kalamazoo. However, Hulsey and paddlers who know the marsh and its numerous, potentially confusing channels, warn that first-timers should not go there alone. “We’ve had a few people who don’t have a GPS or a guide get lost and not know which way to go to get out,” she says.

Ryan Gerard at Third Coast Paddling, in Douglas, says that paddlers are fortunate to be able to access the part of the Kalamazoo River where it widens considerably before flowing into Lake Michigan.

Gerard’s company, located between County Road A-2 and US-31/I-196, is on the east side of a section of the river called Wade’s Bayou. From there, he says, because “the strength of the river is significantly reduced,” it is possible to easily paddle a canoe, kayak or paddleboard downstream into Saugatuck and back or explore the wide bayou, which he describes as “a beautiful stretch of water that is essentially wilderness with a lot of wildlife and very little boat traffic.” This is the only part of the Kalamazoo River where paddling does not require “spotting cars” downstream or hiring a livery service to transport watercraft upstream.

“Spotting” a vehicle

Paddlers who own their own vessels and don’t use a livery service to shuttle them back from the take-out point will need to “spot” a vehicle at the take-put point and then leave another at the put-in point.

This involves at least two vehicles and three people, or two people and a means to lock the watercraft to prevent theft.

Spotting vehicles involves driving both vehicles to the put-in point and leaving the vessels there locked up or with a third person to prevent theft. Then both vehicles are driven to the take-out point, where one is left. The paddlers then return in the second vehicle to the put-in point.

After paddling to the take-out point, they leave their vessels there (again locked up or with a third person.) Two paddlers then drive back to the put-in point, retrieve the other vehicle and drive both vehicles to the take-out point to load the watercraft. If “spotting” with only two people, paddlers should be sure to take locking cables with them when paddling. (The author of this article, paddling alone, has accomplished this “spotting” procedure with his vehicle, a bicycle and a security lock.)

Whether “spotting” vehicles or using a livery service, paddlers should be sure to take with them on the river what they might need at the end of the paddle: car keys, tie-down straps, locking cables, a towel, dry clothes. While tipping over into the water is not likely, splashes happen. Put anything you want to stay dry, including your phone and camera, in a waterproof dry-bag and secure it to your vessel.  


Improved launch sites

As more and more folks begin to appreciate the Kalamazoo River’s recreational potential, communities along the waterway are embracing that potential as well.

The city of Parchment is in the early stages of installing a new launch site downstream from the Mosel Street Bridge, near the local post office. This site will feature a chute for canoes and kayaks — but not motorboats — that corresponds with the riverbank’s natural features. The project will also involve partial removal of an unused railroad trestle a few yards farther downstream. The section not removed will be transformed into a fishing pier and pedestrian observation deck.

Cheryl Lyon-Jenness, chair of Parchment’s Parks and Recreation Department, encourages paddlers who pass through Parchment to pause at Glenn Allen Island, a land mass 2,000 feet long and 500 feet wide that bifurcates the river due west of Parchment Middle School and is accessible only by water. The south end of the island is a heron rookery that is also visible from the walking path on the east riverbank.

Lyon-Jenness says the stretch of the river from Parchment to Plainwell, is “an amazing resource, a delightful river trail, a hidden jewel people can get tremendous pleasure from.”

An outing from Parchment to Plainwell can take several hours, depending on the speed of the current and the rate at which paddlers paddle. A popular mid-point to either put into or take out is near D Avenue. The current launch site is on private property immediately north of the D Avenue Bridge on “river right” (a term paddlers use to denote a side of the river as one floats downstream). The fee is $1 per vessel, plus $1 per vehicle to park, and paddlers need to bring exact change.

Cooper Township Supervisor Jeff Sorensen reports that the township owns property on river left just upstream (south) from that bridge. “There’s a trailhead there that the township leased to the Kalamazoo County Parks Department to expand parking for the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail,” he says.

Representatives of the township, the county, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources have had a few initial discussions about possibly constructing a kayak and canoe launch there too. “That would be a nice stopping point, starting point, or a place to get out and relax,” Sorensen says.

Another lovely relaxation spot is the Kalamazoo Nature Center’s two miles of undeveloped river frontage between Parchment and D Avenue. The nature center has a network of pathways from its interpretive building to an observation platform overlooking the river. With its audible current, this platform is a highly restive and restorative place that currently is accessible only on foot or by paddlers who are experienced enough to deal with a very challenging docking maneuver.

However, Tom Springer, the Nature Center’s vice president of development, says his organization is “trying to secure funds to put in ramps with rollers that would make it easier for kayakers to get up and pull their boat on shore.”

“We would like to use the river to invite more people to the nature center,” he says.

Water safety

Even though much of the river is wide and flat, Plainwell Kayak Co.’s Heuchert advises, “Make sure you know what the river conditions are before you go out.”
Strong, of the Great Lakes Adventure Club, also urges caution, especially for novice paddlers and people who want to take their kids out for the first time. “It’s important to understand river safety,” he says, “especially in the spring when the water’s high (due to rain and snowmelt). You’ll hear people say, ‘Hey, the river’s up! Let’s go!’ But experienced paddles will say, ‘That’s not a good day to go.’ If the river’s too high, it’s not safe.”

To help determine the safety of the river, Heuchert recommends looking at a website hosted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that shows the river’s flow rates. “When the cubic feet per second gets over 1,400 to 1,500, people seem to have trouble,” she says. “Really experienced kayakers will tell you that faster water is more fun to them, but the average or inexperienced kayaker does better when the flow rate is under 1,000 feet per second.”

With monitoring stations on the river near Marshall, Battle Creek, Comstock, Allegan and New Richmond, the USGS provides an interactive map on its web pages to show this flow-rate information along with other river data. The climate research and outdoor recreation organization SnoFlo also provides the same data in simple numbers. Search for “flow rate on the Kalamazoo River today.”

But, the best advice for beginning paddlers? Go with experienced paddlers who know river safety and can help with “spotting” vehicles.And, as you float, enjoy the abundance of nature at every bend.


Ready to get your paddles wet?

Here are links to liveries, maps and organizations mentioned in the main story:

Liveries & rentals


Plainwell Kayak Company: 211 N. Main St., Plainwell. 269-365-2926. plainwellkayakcompany.com. Offers a three-hour trip from D Avenue to Plainwell: single-person kayak, $55; tandem kayak, $110, and a one-hour trip from Plainwell to Otsego: single-person kayak, $30; tandem kayak, $60. Shuttle service for those with their own kayaks: $15 per kayak.

Third Coast Paddling: 26 Bayou St., Douglas. 269-932-4575. thirdcoastpaddling.com. Offers paddling on Wade’s Bayou: single-person kayak, $25 per hour; tandem kayak, $30 per hour; stand-up paddleboard, $25 per hour. Also has other rental sites on the Paw Paw River near St. Joseph/Benton Harbor, the Galien River near New Buffalo, and Lake Michigan at Silver Beach, in St. Joseph, and at Warren Dunes State Park, near Sawyer.

Twin Pines Campground and Canoe Livery: 9800 Wheeler Road, Hanover (southwest of Jackson). 517-524-6298. twinpinescampgrounds222653671.wordpress.com. Offers three-hour trips: two-person canoe, $35; single-person kayak, $30. Shuttle service for privately owned vessels, $10 per vessel.

WaterTrail Ventures Kayak Rental: 3151 57th St., Fennville. 269-547-1884. watertrailventures.com. Offers trips along the Lower Kalamazoo ranging from two hours to a full day: single-person kayak, $30–$40; two-person canoe, $40–$50; guided wilderness tour, $55 per person; shuttle service for privately owned vessels, $40 per kayak or $50 per canoe. Also offers multiple-day paddling and camping trips.

Maps and organizations


Robert M. Weir

Robert is a writer, author, speaker, book editor and authors’ coach. You can see more of his work at robertmweir.com.

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