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Canoeing the Paint River in Michigan's Upper Peninsula

Jun 7, 2015
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This video documents an early April canoe trip on the North Branch of the Paint and the Paint River proper in the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Since I talk about potential put-in and take-out options and camping opportunities, it may be of interest to others contemplating a paddling trip on the Paint.

My original plan was camp at the Paint River Forks campground and spend 3 days doing day trips on Cooks Run and the North and South Branches of the Paint. All three of these streams as well as the first five miles of the Paint proper are federally designated National Wild and Scenic Rivers (see https://usfs.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=48262db980954ea48dac65dec8cdf01c).

After arriving at the Paint River Forks campground, I scouted the put-ins and take-outs for Cooks Run and the North and South Branches of the Paint and found that while the North Branch looked fine, Cooks Run and the South Branch appeared to not have enough volume to comfortably float a canoe. Note, due to low snow fall over the winter and an early melt, this was a low water year. Judging by the relatively good parking area and put-in on Cooks Run, I would think that Cooks Run and much of the South Branch must be floatable in most years. However, a word of caution is advised as some of the forest service roads between Cooks Run and the Paint Forks campground still had sections that were snow and ice covered and rutted sections. Gibbs City Road which is used to access the North Branch, while gravel, was firm and passable by any vehicle.

Given the relatively low water, I decided to amend my plans and skip Cooks Run and the South Branch and instead do 1 day on the North Branch of the Paint followed by an overnight trip on the Paint from The Forks to Crystal Falls.

Day 1
I paddled an 11-mile stretch of the NB of the Paint from Gibbs City Road to the Forks. There were no obstructions and plenty of water for paddling. There are several riffly stretches up to easy class I. There were a couple of short stretches that were narrow thru alders, but they didn't present a problem. Scenery was very good with minimal development. Wildlife was outstanding. I saw several otters, 2 swans, an owl, and numerous deer, mallards, and wood ducks. I didn't see much for camping opportunities. It took me 3 hrs 45 minutes to paddle 11 miles. Next time, I'd start 5 miles further upstream at Forest Hwy 16 (where there is a good landing and small parking area).

Days 2 and 3
I paddled 30 miles from the Forks to the power dam at the north end of Crystal Falls. The shuttle is about 30 miles each way (which I did solo with my truck and motorbike). There is a good landing on river left just above the dam in Crystal Falls.

Even though maps show that most of the route is in the national or state forest, there must be a lot of private in-holdings because there are a surprising number of homes and cabins along the route. There are good camping opportunities in the vicinity of the mouth of the Hemlock River, at Upper Hemlock Rapids, and at the mouth of Chicagon Slough. You could eke out a spot for 1 tent at a few other places, but the above named places are really the only decent spots for multiple people.

There are good landings at the defunct Block House campground, at Bates-Amasa Road bridge, at Erickson Landing on Sheltrow Rd (about 5 miles upstream of Crystal Falls) and at the Crystal Falls dam. There is supposedly a public landing on river left about 2 miles downstream from the confluence with the Net River. There is a landing there, but the access road near the river is for high ground clearance vehicles only and away from the river it's just a muddy 2 track, so not a good option in the spring. The landing at the Bates-Amasa Road is paved and workers were there installing a floating dock when I passed by. Erickson Landing is a good landing operated by Biwabik State Park, so a Michigan Recreation Passport (i.e. state park sticker) is required.

There is good current down to about the confluence with the Net River, then it slows down for several miles. There are a couple of short class I-II wave trains after the slow stretch.

I camped at a beautiful spot among large white pines near the start of the portage trail around Upper Hemlock Rapids. There is space for about 3 tents. This is obviously a well-used site as someone has constructed a 3' tall metal grill/table over a fire ring and there is a large metal cooking pot (suitable for a fish boil) suspended from a rope. In spite of that, the site is clean and otherwise not abused.

Upper Hemlock Rapids itself is just a little more challenging than I felt comfortable running by myself. There are 3 pitches to it. Any one of the pitches by itself, or if the water had been warmer, or if I had been with a group, I may have been tempted to run it. But since I was by myself in the early spring, portaging was the prudent option. I’d estimate the portage was about ¼ mile long. There were a few downed trees to maneuver around and a hill ~2/3 of the way through, but it was better than risking a swim in the ice-cold water.

Upper Hemlock is followed by about 1/4 mile of flat water before you get to Lower Hemlock Rapids. Lower Hemlock Rapids is much more challenging than Upper Hemlock. I'm not even sure I'd run it in my fully outfitted Outrage X (at least not at this water level) let alone in a tripping boat full of gear. The guide book I have (Canoeing Michigan Rivers by Jerry Dennis and Craig Date) makes it sound like the portage around Lower Hemlock is much more challenging and longer than the one around Upper Hemlock, but I found that not to be the case. If anything, I think the Lower Hemlock portage is easier as it's slightly shorter and flatter. There is a long boney class I run out after the meat of Lower Hemlock Rapids, so perhaps if you portaged that whole stretch, the Lower Hemlock portage would be worse than the Upper Hemlock portage.

It did take me about 2 1/2 hours to get through the Upper and Lower Hemlock stretch, but that’s doing 3-trip portages and spending quite a bit of time looking at the rapids. But I was relieved in that it seemed less arduous than I had anticipated given the guidebook description.

Below Lower Hemlock, the river alternates between moving water and calm water all the way to Crystal Falls.

It took me about 7 hours to get from my campsite at Upper Hemlock to the take-out in Crystal Falls (including the 2 1/2 hours I spent at Upper and Lower Hemlock). There were houses scattered throughout, so character of the river is not as wild as I remember from when I last did this stretch 24 years ago.