Trip Report: Au Sable River 2008

Ever wanted to paddle the Au Sable River from the headwaters near Grayling all the way to Lake Huron at Oscoda? Canoe racers in the annual Au Sable Marathon do it in 14 hours, but mere mortal paddlers take somewhat longer, so this year we’ve broken it up into four weekends. Part I of the trip took place this past February 23-24 as the 27th Annual Au Sable River Overnight. Part II of the journey went from Parmalee to FR 4001 on April 26-27, and Part III went from FR 4001 to Five Channels Dam on May 10-11. Part IV will go from Five Channels Dam to Oscoda on June 21-22. Click “keep reading” for story and photos.

Part II – Parmalee Bridge to FR 4001
This leg of the trip commenced at Parmalee Bridge off M-72 between Grayling and Mio on Saturday morning, April 26. There was a good turnout of kayakers and canoeists despite the weather forecast for temps in the 50s on Saturday and possible rain on Sunday. Ann and Steve came over from the Traverse City area; Kees, Dave, Loretta, and Jay came from the Lansing area; and Mary from Flint brought her sister Linda, who was visiting from Colorado and had never paddled or camped before (she had a great time).

This stretch of the Au Sable features swift current and lots of bends, but the river is deep and wide, with no obstructions to portage around other than Mio Dam. Mio Pond backs up about eight miles behind the dam, and the open water can get choppy if the wind picks up. With the waves on the pond breaking over the deck of the kayaks, we decided to give the canoeists a break and take out three miles before the dam. Jay continued his tradition from the February trip of creating a takeout from a cottage owner’s back yard. He and Steve hiked out to go get the vehicles and caught a ride into town with some sympathetic cottagers, while the rest of us hauled the boats and gear up to the road.

At the access point below Mio Dam we said goodbye to Ann and Steve, who were only there for the day, and the rest of us continued three miles downstream to one of the campsites that line this stretch of the river. Dave opted to paddle the remaining two miles to Comins Flats access and take out there, while the rest of us set up camp in one of the backcountry sites that line the river between Mio Dam and Alcona Dam. It had been sunny but unseasonably cool all day, and as the sun went down we were glad to have a campfire.

The temperature hit 33 just before sunrise, but by launch time it was comfortable weather for paddling, and the forecasted rain never materialized. We had 18 miles to go to the takeout but the current was so swift that it felt like half that distance, and we reached FR 4001 in four hours not including lunch stops. In all, a great early season trip.

Part III – FR 4001 to Five Channels Dam
Two weeks later we met at FR 4001, the takeout for the previous trip, to launch for Part III. The weather forecast was almost identical—sunny but chilly on Saturday, with possible rain on Sunday. This time it was Mary, Dan, Loretta, and Jay who made the trip. Sunny skies on Saturday kept the temperature in the low 60s, and the rain forecasted for Sunday didn’t appear until halfway into the drive home. The only major change was that the black flies had hatched.

This stretch of the Au Sable is similar to Part II, but even nicer, with more mature forest, very few cottages on the banks, and very little road access. There were no power boaters, canoe renters, or fishermen, and we only met one other party of private boaters who were day paddling on Saturday. For most of the trip there were no man-made sounds—no motors, no dogs barking, no people hollering; just the wind, the water, and the birds.

We had two dam portages on the trip—one on Saturday around Alcona Dam, and a second one on Sunday around Loud Dam. The ponds were less windy than Mio Pond had been on the previous trip, but on Sunday, with a stiff wind in our faces out of the east, I appreciated having my sea kayak for the seven miles from our campsite to the Five Channels Dam takeout.

Part IV will cover even more open water, making it appropriate for sea kayaks. By then the weather will have warmed up, making the trip more inviting for camping. Hope to see some of you there.


3 responses to “Trip Report: Au Sable River 2008

  1. Nice report. These two sections are by far my favorites of the whole river. The winter trip feels like wilderness because most of the cottages are snowed in and unoccupied, but you would not have the same experience in the summer as Grayling to Waverly Bridge is the most trafficked section of the river.

    From Parmalee down to Five Channels Dam it is primarily Federal Land in the Huron-Manistee National Forest with the exception of the ponds and some State Forest Campgrounds. It provides a very Canadianesque experience. And if Canadianesque isn’t a word, it should be.

    Probably the coolest thing from the trip so far was waking up in the middle of the night at campsite #11 above Loud Pond and not hearing a single sound. It was unbelievable. It was the like the entire world was holding its breath. I was afraid to even move because the slightest rustle was deafening. The frogs had quit peeping, the night birds had stopped, and the coyotes were silent. There was no wind in the trees and even the river slipped soundlessly past. How can you experience THAT and say you aren’t in the wilderness?


  2. Also, it was nice to break my streak of taking out at private cottages like Parts 1 and 2. As I wrapped up the paddle through Five Channels Pond I kept thinking “there aren’t any cottages, so where will I take out?” Silly rabbit. Use the boat launch next time.
    Jay 🙂

  3. Well, Jay, you’ll get one more crack at the cottage takeout strategy in Part IV. Should be more cottages down near Oscoda for you to choose from.

    Be sure to pick one with a really steep slope.

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