Explorer’s Guide to the Muskegon River

Last spring, MRWA office manager Patricia Jarrett received an interesting message from Richard Pierson. As it turns out, Rich is a serious canoeist who had scheduled a spring trip on the main stem of the Muskegon River and was looking for information that would help in the planning.

Never one to ignore a request from a Muskegon River enthusiast, Pat searched her files and gathered up a bundle of maps covering the appropriate stretch of water.

Thus prepared, Rich and his brother in law Jerry Bancuk launched their Merrimac “Traveler” 17-foot Kevlar canoe on May 21st 2021 at a launch site known as Church Bridge near the Consumers Energy plant 8 miles south and east of Marion Michigan. They paddled down the Muskegon for 140 miles (seven nights) before taking out at the Milliron Road boat launch in Muskegon on May 28th.

No one who has experienced a long stretch the Muskegon in a canoe will be surprised at Rich’s reaction at journey’s end: “Great trip. We are planning to do it again. Now that we know what to expect, the second trip should be even better. It is a beautiful river and well worth the effort to paddle it. We are hoping for less rain and warmer temperatures, but that’s what makes it an adventure”.

In the interest of sharing information, Rich generously offered to document the trip with a detailed report including daily observations, maps, photos and charts. Interested parties can find it on the MRWA website by following these links. It is must reading for anyone contemplating a similar adventure and we wish to express our sincere appreciation for an outstanding contribution to our knowledge base.

Canoe-Trip Overview PDF
Canoe-Trip Details PDF

Perhaps more importantly, he has asked some pointed questions and raised some important concerns:

“For what it is worth, and as noted in the write-ups, there is a lack of information for overnighting on the Muskegon. My brother-in-law and I have done the AuSable 3 times and we feel the Muskegon is just as nice, so we were surprised at the lack of detailed mapping and rustic-riverside camping. The AuSable has over 100 canoe access remote rustic sites

For our trip this year, we are hoping to find some alternative camping spots along the river rather than stay in the commercial campgrounds that are noisy, expensive and simply not conducive to a quality trip down the river in a canoe.

We are wondering if an effort should be made to “promote” the river’s “canoe-ability”, which if there were more remote style campsites, offers canoeists a great 7-8 day trip.”

Several MRWA board members and staff responded positively to these concerns, an indication that this is a problem that deserves a solution.

Ken Johnson MRWA Board Chair:
I think a paddle trail is a good idea and I think we should pursue it. WMSRDC had been pursuing a kayak trail on Lake Michigan and I do not know what ever came of that. Perhaps we can collaborate with them on a more extensive project. Marty could you bring Scott into this conversation and let’s talk about it at our next meeting.

Marty Holtgren MRWA Principal Watershed Scientist
I agree. On the Manistee there are hundreds of campsites (on federal land) and areas where you can pull off and just camp without a designated campsite (state land). Hmmm…is there a role for MRWA in changing some land use? I think one issue is all the private land.

Scott Faulkner MRWA Executive Director
I like this idea a lot- it has a ring of “blue trails” about it that DNR and Parks tends to like. Having a plan for paddlers is a great idea- and our Board could probably come up with a lot of good ideas. Given the history with the Voyage of Discovery, we kind of have a working plan already, right? Perhaps Sarah could repackage what we know?

George Heartwell Mayor, Grand Rapids (retired) MRWA Consultant
You know, I don’t completely disagree with him, but I had a somewhat different experience. When my grandson Gabe and I canoed it four years ago there was only one night, around Leota, where we couldn’t find a campground (well, there was one other where we decided to pass by our campground and push on for two more hours), then another night when we stayed at our house before the final push from Maple Island to Muskegon Lake. A night at Big Bend hardly qualifies as wilderness camping, but all of the others were far less commercial. We often had the campgrounds to ourselves. It does require planning and the willingness to paddle 25 miles/day.

His idea about promoting canoeability is a good one. I had some connection to a project to create a “paddle trail” on the Grand River from Lowell to Grand Haven and found the idea quite compelling.

Here’s the Q: I know MRWA has a ton on its plate; is there room to add a Muskegon River Paddle Trail? We might better encourage the county parks systems on the river to work together on the project. Maybe the article could help launch the effort.

Thanks again to Richard Pierson and his brother in law for focusing attention on a glorious resource and recommending a path forward for improvement.