A Trip Down the Ole Muskegon

By: Bekka Neelis
Invasive Species Technician, North Country Cooperative Invasive
Species Management Area (NCCISMA)

Born and raised in Cheboygan, I was new to the area when I accepted a seasonal position as an Invasive Species Technician for the North Country Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (NCCISMA). My main objective was to complete a survey of invasive plant species along the upper Muskegon River. My work required roughly 200 miles of kayaking through Missaukee, Clare, Osceola, and Mecosta counties.

We will use the data collected from this survey to develop an invasive species management plan and to help create a river guide containing information and location on canoe liveries, campgrounds, and public restrooms along the river.

Accompanied by another technician, I began the survey at the end of June and completed it in the middle of August. The perfect time with perfect weather. Thanks to the summer conditions many other kayakers, tubers, swimmers, and anglers joined us on the water.

Missaukee was by far the most beautiful but most challenging part of the survey. High winds and erosion of the riverbank have caused a mess of woody debris. Trees stretched across the river while some were hiding beneath the surface of the water. The high-water levels in early summer made this section more manageable because it covered most of the debris that would normally make the trip nearly impossible to complete. Although potentially dangerous, particularly, to new and unexperienced kayakers, the fallen trees offered interesting and sometimes difficult obstacles to maneuver.

With each river bend came a new adventure. Sharp turns between down trees, building momentum to cross over logs floating just below the surface of the water, and ducking inside my kayak to slide under the fallen trees. The northern part of the Muskegon is mostly quiet forested areas with signs of wildlife at every glance. Birds like kingfishers, osprey, and bald eagles roamed the sky looking for prey. Blue and green herons, and various species of ducks tried to hide out of sight in the cattails and along the bank. Turtles basked in the sun and the sound of pileated woodpeckers carried throughout the forest. In Osceola and Mecosta counties, the river widened, became shallower, rocky, and clear. Peace and quiet was replaced with noise. Geese, gulls and pets replaced the wildlife. Businesses and homes replaced the mysterious green forest, but the shimmering horizon remained beautiful.

One of my favorite but borderline embarrassing encounters occurred the day that I came upon two conifers that had fallen, one from each bank, and just met in the middle of the river. Hoping that there was just enough space to push through the two tips of the trees, I began paddling hard enough to pick up speed to slide between them. Just as the nose of my kayak was about to reach the small opening, I looked to my right and saw a snake enjoying the sunshine on the fallen tree trunk. With a loud gasp, I threw my paddle up about chest height to catch on the branches and bring me to an abrupt halt, filling my kayak with needles. Now, I do not fear snakes but do not wish to share my single person kayak with anything that I don’t invite in myself. However, I did fear the phone call confessing the tipping of my kayak because I was spooked by a small and harmless snake. Needless to say, I chose a different route and pulled my kayak up on the bank to portage around the trees.

Granted, a beautiful sight seen from a boat or riverbank, a peaceful and quiet paddle down the Muskegon River has so much more to offer and adventures to experience. At times the water may seem calm, but it is important to remember that there can be logs, rocks, and a strong current hidden underneath. Different river conditions can be fun but unpredictable, so regardless of age and experience I highly recommend wearing a life jacket throughout your trip and never travel alone. If you did not make it out this summer, start planning your spring or summer trip and be on the lookout for a new river guide to help you on your way. The Muskegon River will not disappoint!