By Howard Meyerson
Fall is a great time to canoe Michigan rivers. Air temperatures are cool. The bugs are gone. And northern woods are typically ablaze with color.
But fall weather can be fickle, so paddlers need to be ready. It can be sunny one hour and cloudy the next. Seasonal winds bring cold air in from the north and cool temperatures can result in a chill.
As such, a bit of forethought is recommended. For those with children it is especially important. Good planning is essential to assure they remain warm and dry while riding in a canoe.
Here are a few things to think about if you are planning a family canoe trip this fall:
Lifejackets: In a pinch they can be worn for added insulation and warmth. Put a rain shell over it to keep the cold air and moisture out. But more important, make sure everyone wears one while on the water. Accidental spills typically occur when no one expects it.
Extra paddle: Carry a spare just in case one gets away from you.
Painters: Bring two 10- to 20-foot lengths of 3/8-inch or larger line. Tie one to the stern and the bow of the canoe. They allow you to easily secure the canoe to something on the bank during a lunch break. Use them also to line the canoe through shallows if you have to get out.
Waterproof boots: Consider an inexpensive pair of knee-high muck boots for shallow wading, either along a river bank or through shallows if a canoe requires dragging. Size them big enough for a pair of warm socks. Warm feet are happy feet.
Hat and gloves: I can’t say enough about knit or fleece hats. I carry one, and light gloves on every outing. Both take up little space. A ton of body heat is lost from an uncovered head. A warm hat is essential for conserving heat and staying comfortable on a chilly day.
Extra dry clothing: Pack an extra change of clothes for everyone in case of a dunking. Keep them dry in a sealed dry bag that is secured to the canoe.
Dry bags: These are a great investment if your family paddles frequently. They come in a variety of sizes.
Commercial dry bags can be expensive, but an effective budget-conscious alternative is to line an inexpensive nylon stuff sack with a durable, plastic garbage bag. Stow clothes inside, squeeze the air out, and seal the plastic bag by twisting the top tight and tying an overhand knot to seal it. Then stuff the end inside the nylon bag and pull the drawstring closed. The nylon can withstand more abrasion than the plastic bag.
Emergency gear: Accidents do happen, so it is always a good idea to pack a small first-aid kit. Consider also a compass, flashlight or headlamp, a map of the area, a knife, some fire starter, waterproof matches or lighter, and a small reflective space blanket for helping someone rewarm.
Small waterproof case: A water-soaked cell phone is usually a dead phone. Use the case to keep it and spare batteries dry. Some are large enough to also stow car keys. Stow the case in the dry bag or day pack you bring for gear.
Secure the gear: Your emergency gear does no good if it floats away. Secure all the bags to the canoe with nylon straps, line or bungee cords.
Have a float plan: Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. They can notify the authorities if you don’t show up on time.
Layering: This tried and true dressing strategy continues to be the best approach for variable conditions. Think: inner layer that wicks moisture away from the body, one or more insulating middle layers, and an outer layer to stop wind and rain. Peel them off or add them as conditions change.
Remember: Cotton clothing can be a hazard. It dries very slowly and wicks heat away from the body when wet causing people to chill more quickly. Leave the cotton hoodie at home and a pack rain jacket and rain pants, or at minimum a rain poncho and a belt to secure it in high winds.
Food and drink: Pack high-energy snacks for the day and some extras, whether fruit and nuts, peanut butter sandwiches, energy bars or full-blown lunch fixings. Consider bringing an insulated bottle with hot coffee, tea, cocoa, or soup. Hot drinks are always welcome on chilly days. And don’t forget full water bottles too. Staying hydrated is important.
Trip length: Over the years, regardless of the group of individuals I have paddled with, most are ready to get out of their canoes after four- to five-hours of paddling. Consider the trip duration and the weather when choosing a river segment. Five hours is long if it is windy, wet and cold.
Michigan is a great paddling state with many rivers to choose from. Some travel through developed areas while others are more remote. Fall is a beautiful time to see any of them. So decide what type of outing you prefer and learn more about the river routes available.
Good resources for finding routes include the following: “Canoeing Michigan Rivers” by Jerry Dennis and Craig Date; “Paddling Michigan” by Kevin Hillstrom; “The Paddler’s Guide to Michigan” by Jeff Counts; and the series of canoeing guides by Doc Fletcher. A list of canoe liveries around can be found at the Michigan Association of Paddlesport Providers website.
This column appears on MLive Outdoors