Big Adventure in a Canoe

Before the fall season comes to a close, Kristin Bienert, Michigan Travel Ideas editor, sneaks in one last canoe trip on the Sturgeon River in Northern Michigan. Enjoy this adventure with Pure Michigan Connect!

My voice trembles a little as I talk to the Northern Michigan outfitter, who is assessing my canoe skills. Pati, the owner of Big Bear Adventures, politely suggests I go with a guide. I guess my childhood experience of paddling at Girl Scout camp every summer isn’t going to cut it on the Sturgeon River, the fastest in the lower-peninsula.


Indian River is a two-light town. It’s not hard to miss Big Bear, a log-cabin building that shares space with a Subway. If you miss that landmark, look for the bright red and yellow kayaks or the mounted 8-foot-tall brown bear in a glass case.

It’s warm for mid-October. I don’t think I’m overdressed (two pairs of socks, long johns, jeans and a cotton sweater) until I meet my guide, Jamie. He is tan and sporting sandals. At least he’s wearing khaki pants, not shorts!

Before we take off, Jamie suggests I leave all nonessentials in the car. I cram my digital camera in one front pocket and my cell phone in the other. He reminds me there’s a really good chance we’ll tip, and I need to be prepared to get wet. I pull out my iPhone. I don’t want to explain that to the IT department.

I climb in the shuttle van with my lifejacket in tow. John, who’s been busy washing canoes, offers to drive us to Rondo, the drop-in point about 10 miles south of town.

Sitting on the edge of the dock, Jamie reviews the ground rules, most of them common sense: Pay attention, don’t grab any overhanging branches, and if we get into trouble, lean in. I scoot into the seat, trying not to rock the boat. OK, that maneuver wasn’t pretty. I’m glad I can’t see Jamie’s face.

I drag my fingers through the crystal-clear, spring-fed water, trying to touch pebbles. From the back of the canoe, I hear, “Everything’s deeper than you think.” That’s good, because at times it looks like we’re skimming the bottom.

The narrow river twists and turns. It seems as soon as we paddle through one bend, there’s another. Downed trees present a challenge; I let Jamie single-handedly navigate those tricky spots. I understand now why Big Bear sends families out on rafts (no chance of tipping!).

But the straight-aways are fairly easy; the river does all the work.

The scenery is incredible: Pockets of birch and maple burst with gold, red and sienna. There’s plenty of wildlife, too. I spot gray squirrels, which actually look jet-black, plus a whitetail deer, a muskrat and a great blue heron, which Jamie calls a pterodactyl. A flock of mallards barely notice as we paddle by.

Trees give way to homes; we must be close to town. The river officially ends in Burt Lake, less than 100 yards from Big Bear. Walking back to the outfitters, Jamie congratulates me on a successful trip. I think what he really means is, thanks for not tipping the canoe! I second that.

Kristin Bienert, Midwest Living’s Custom Media Editor, loves exploring Northern Michigan.