By Howard Meyerson
BANGOR, MI — The heat of the day seemed to slip away as our group floated into the shady reaches of the Black River where its gentle current carried us forward and the overhead canopy offered cool respite from the sun.
The river was dark and serene, lush with vegetation, a place where birds make their home, where brilliant Cardinal flowers grow. The route was filled with moss-covered logs, yielding only hints of the corn country and farm fields that surrounded it.
“The feel of the trip is what we hoped for,” said John Mitchell, my host and the president of the Bangor-South Haven Heritage Water Trail Association. I had joined Mitchell and few board members for their celebration paddle through the recently opened, four-mile “wilderness” section of the Bangor-South Haven Heritage Water Trail, a 21-mile route that his group has cleared over the last eight years.
“In other parts of the river you have little moments where you don’t hear civilization. On the majority of this section you don’t hear cars or motors,” Mitchell said. “The guys who did the chainsaw work did a fantastic job of leaving the wilderness feel on this section.”
Ahead of me, the group paddled on. Their colorful paddles rose and fell slowly like butterfly wings. They clustered together talking, each excited about the trip. The wilderness section was the last bit to clear.
Don Harrell, a South Haven doctor and one of the trail founders, was especially excited.
“There are places where the water is running out of the river,” Harrell said as we floated downstream. “There are five little waterfalls that go over clay ledges. It’s like Mother Nature provided little surprises.”
Mother Nature, indeed.
Wild-feeling is an apt description for the Black River water trail. It meanders through a
tumble of downed trees and courses through country with high banks. Ferns and moss grow on shaded logs adding mystery to the mood that prevails through much of the route. Only the occasional irrigation pump suggests that civilization is near.
The wilderness section is not for beginners. It requires constant maneuvering, sometimes through narrow slots, sometimes under tree trunks with only little clearance.
It is best negotiated by the intermediate or better paddler, preferably by small groups to avoid back-ups when obstacles block passage.
“It is easier than I thought it would be,” said Roberta Mitchell, John Mitchell’s wife. “A little bit of challenge is a good thing along with keeping it natural.”
On this day the river was low. Its darkened banks told a story of water levels that had dropped at least a foot. New obstacles had been exposed in the weeks since the chainsaw crew cleared the path.
Some required that paddlers get out their boats. But others were passable with a good lurch or shove provided the paddler was willing to risk an unstable moment.
At one well-exposed tree trunk, Mitchell mentioned the change.
“When we came down before, there was water trickling over this. We could pull ourselves over where now we have to get out of the boat,” Mitchell said.
Wild is what the group had in mind. Other parts of the river are obstacle free. This
section was intended to feel wild and reasonably passable for those who would take it on.
“We will probably tweak it a little bit, but it won’t be cleared to the extent of the other sections.” said Bill McKinney, of Lawrence, an association member who joined seven years ago after learning about the project. “It won’t be as family-friendly as other sections, but, it will be passable for anyone that has experience.”
McKinney and others are planning a two-day trip from Bangor to South Haven yet this summer, but the river trail offers several options for those who just want to just come for a day. A map of the 21-mile trail is available online. The entire route is open to public. Association members will now turn their attention to further developing access sites.
“It’s been a labor of love and will continue to be,” said Ronnee Harrell, a former board member and Don Harrell’s wife. “This is a big deal getting this wilderness open. It’s beautiful back there and it is a good trip for people who like adventure.”
Our trip this day would take nearly four hours with a relaxing lunch stop, one that required eating in the boats and enjoying the scenery in sun-dappled shallows. The wilderness section, like the trail as whole, is enjoyable paddle trip. If you get a chance this fall, be sure to get out and try it.
This story appears on MLive Outdoors.