It's A Beautiful Challenge In February
By Bill Semion
Even on a good summer day, negotiating the oxbows and hairpins stirred and sometimes ravaged by the swift current that the Sturgeon River provides is tricky.
Throw in a frigid mid-winter water temp a few degrees north of freezing, spiced with equally cold air, and you’ve got a several way cool ways to enjoy a winter adventure that’s been available on this northern Michigan trout stream for at least seven years now.
I’d known about the trip offered by Indian River’s Big Bear Adventures for a few years, and usually if I’m on a river in early February, trying to hook a steelhead is the goal.
However this time, the goal was easier last winter: enjoying the scenery that only a trip like this can bring. Granted, the snowpack was lower and the air temp higher than usual, but that was good. There was less of a chance of having not only snow and ice, but also high water to contend with.
Regardless of weather, paddling a raft with friends followed by a visit to a cozy local eatery is a perfect way to experience and celebrate both northern Michigan and a Michigan winter.
We started from Big Bear’s headquarters in Indian River, where Gary Phillips, general manager, signed us in and handed out paddles and the mandatory life jackets to fit over our layered winter gear.
Big Bear has been hosting fun on the Sturgeon for years. In summer, it’s the local headquarters for both canoe and kayak adventures for those skilled enough to handle the river’s current and twists. In winter, however, BB runs guided trips only, due to the inherent dangers of getting wet.
Phillips said the idea came about as a way to keep their strong summer business going all year.
“We’re one of the few places in Michigan we know to do this,” he explained. “We were looking for something unusual to offer in winter and obviously this is a different animal, so we can’t do the same procedure we can in summer.
“The trip is long enough to do on any winter day if we don’t have any extreme situations,” he said. The portion floated is checked prior to trips for obstructions and course changes so the guides know what to expect, especially if there is a big snow or a big melt. Safety is the utmost and while high water occasionally shuts down trips, the Sturgeon is fairly quick to recover, often within one day.
Once everyone was squared away, we piled into vans and headed upstream to the South White Road crossing south of Indian River for our 90-minute, 2 ½-mile float to the next takeout at the North White Road bridge. That may not sound like much time, but again, given the vagaries of northern Michigan weather, it’s plenty in winter. Summer trips can go as far as Burt Lake near Big Bear’s base.
Our group was in two, six-person rafts, and we were piloted by guides Jamie Jacklitch, Big Bear’s outdoor recreation manager, whom Phillips credits with first spurring on the idea of the winter trips, and Rick Meisterheim.
We were told to dress prepared, as all rafters in winter should be: with plenty of layered fleece and waterproof gloves and warm boots. Some of us wore balaclava-style hoods, while others depended on fleece or wool hats.
We trundled to the riverside and donned the life jackets as Jamie and Rick went through what they expected from us: to paddle on either side or together as conditions warranted, and most of all, to have a great time and hopefully see some wildlife along the way that may include critters from steelhead in the river to deer or feathered wildlife beside or over it.
While the guides held the rafts steady, we climbed aboard, and braced our feet against our partner’s on the opposite site for a stronger paddle, while sitting on the rat’s tubes. With a “Forward” command from Jamie, we pushed off, under the bridge and into the woods.
The river carried us quietly past closed up summer homes on the bluffs above us, and under canopies of cedar, pine and hardwood forest.
Jacklitch knew the river well and prepared us to paddle left or right, back or forward, and soft or hard for a sharp right or left, or to achieve just enough forward momentum to brush us inches from a snag. At one point, we even approached one hairpin backwards to be properly positioned to handle the swirling current and the next turn. After a few commands from Jacklitch, it was no problem for our crew, however.
Those tricky spots were almost always followed by gorgeous straight stretches where we could put down our paddles and photograph the river, friends aboard and our fellow rafters, with whom we occasionally switched the lead boat position.
Everyone in our group also kept watch for shoreline wildlife, which turned out to be pretty shy that day. Often, Jacklitch said, paddlers encounter deer in the woods as well as otter and mink scampering over riverside logs. Finally, we caught a glimpse of just what we came for as we rounded one bend: a mature bald eagle perched downstream that took wing as we approached.
But the lack of close-up wildlife bothered no one as we beached the raft at the end of our trip, and snapped photos of our fellow travelers as they rounded the last bend.
We looked forward to warming up at lunch inside the nearby log-cabin-style Brown Trout Restaurant on Old U.S. 27.
We’d all come away with an experience we hadn’t before, on one of northern Michigan’s most scenic streams, during one of Michigan’s most scenic seasons. Wildlife or no, that’s what it’s all about.
When You Go
While summer floats on the Sturgeon can be first-come, first-served, reservations are a must for winter trips. Several area businesses, including Boyne Mountain’s Solace Spa also offer package trips. To contact Big Bear adventures, go to www.bigbearadventures.com, or call 231-238-8181.