Muskegon River Voyage

George Heartwell
Director, MRWA

“Let’s take this one to the left, Papa.”
“Wait, wait! Maybe right would be better.”
“No! Wait! I think we can just squeeze under through the middle.”
“Uhhhh….too late!”

Day two of a source-to-mouth canoe trip on the Muskegon River. My youngest grandchild, Gabe, and I had already spent more time out of the canoe, it seemed, than in it. Hauling the craft over sandbars; over, under, through…and only when we had to, around…deadfalls that reached from bank to bank. The 14-year-old seemed to be holding up better than the 69-year-old but we were both determined to see this through.

The “Mighty Muskegon” starts as a modest flow out of Houghton Lake and gathers waters from marshes and creeks in what is called the Deadstream Swamp, backed up by Reedsburg Dam. Below the dam it starts to look more riverine, though, as noted above, it was choked with fallen trees and, in drought-wracked early August, would certainly have benefitted from six inches more water. The first smart thing we did was to drop our 100 pounds of gear at White Birch Campground, our first night’s stop, and proceed bare-boat through the first day. Then there was an incredible act of kindness by White Birch owners Dave and Lindsay Howard who Sherpa-ed our gear to Leota; and the gracious act of Susan Heartwell – who reminds me that I owe her big-time – to schlep it from Leota to M-61. From that point on we could carry the gear with us and be dependent on no one.

Well, that’s not exactly true.


At the end of Day 4, feeling strong and having reached M-66, our intended stop, earlier than expected, we pushed on, confident we could find a place to stretch our camping hammocks for the night.  The rumble of distant thunder soon came closer and louder and no suitable camp sites presented themselves.  We passed a home with a wooded side yard and a man working outside.  One look at this bedraggled crew and he said “Sure.  Pitch you camp in my yard.”  River people are good people!  Thank you Noel Senneca!


There were, of course, three major power dams to portage: Rogers, Hardy and Croton and they tested our endurance and commitment.  There were the Class II rapids at Big Rapids to navigate.  But on the ninth day the river opened into Muskegon Lake.  What a sense of accomplishment!


What did we learn?


First, like Brahma of Hinduism, this river-god shows many faces.  He is at times wily, serpentine, darting here and there.  Then he is raucous, rolling, with one rapid after another.  Then he is serene, quiet, lake-like.  Just about the time you embrace that serenity he shows a towering dam and, below it a mighty river.  One face is solitude, the quiet of the upper reaches, miles and miles of shoreline with no signs of human habitation.  Another face is shore-to-shore inner tubes, kayaks; or, on the “ponds”, wake-boats and water skiers, houseboats and pontoons.


Second, we learned that animal life recedes as human activity increases.  We kept a tally of Bald Eagle and Osprey, Great Blue Heron and Green Heron, deer, bank beavers and muskrats, and more Kingfishers, Ducks and Geese than we could count.  But on Day 7 – Brower Park on Hardy Pond to Newaygo – a hot, sunny Saturday, we saw nothing but humanity!  In fairness, everybody was having a good time…and the river belongs to everyone.  But still I wonder: what are its limits?


Third, we saw everywhere the fingerprints of history in the life of the Muskegon.  Ancient saw logs lay like pick-up sticks on the river bottom and it takes little imagination to see the devastation on the “roll-aways” where logs would cascade down hillsides taking sand and soils that cover gravel spawning beds even to this day.  Anyone spending time on the Muskegon has seen the remnants of logging walls built to steer the massive log floats to their destination saw mills.  The power dams did their part in changing the history of this river: blocking spawning runs, warming waters, taming rapids.  Of course, lumber and electric power both have their roles in building the great nation we know.  But still I wonder: is the damage irreparable?


Evident though the past is in the life of the Muskegon River, its future is less clear.  This beloved water faces a host of threats: storm run off from agricultural fields and highway parking lots; bank erosion and resulting sedimentation from human activity; invasive species from as far away as the Black and Caspian Seas; and over-use for recreational purposes.  Our Muskegon River is “Mighty” but even the mighty can fall.


Seeing the river in its entirety over nine days drove home for me the importance of protecting this natural wonder.  Our Muskegon River Watershed Assembly is dedicated to protecting, yes even enhancing, the river.  Tree planting to shade the tributaries means cooler water entering the main river.  Farm grants to provide buffer zones from fertilized crops means less phosphate in the water, less “food” for toxic blue-green algae production.  Soil erosion projects stabilize banks and keep further sediment-wash from the river.  Riparian property owner education means smarter use of the border between water and land.


And YOU!  You are part of the solution to keeping the Mighty Muskegon majestic for generations unborn to enjoy.  We need your help.  No…the River needs your help!  Your membership in the Watershed Assembly and your financial gifts to our work will go a long way toward ensuring the future of these waters.


I imagine this scene:  Gabe (now a 69 year-old grandfather) and his 14 year old grandson; the year is 2073.


“Let’s take this one to the left, Papa.”