Report: Dicey conditions on the PawPaw River in SW Michigan

On 8/23 this week I tried to paddle the Paw Paw River downstream from Riverside Park in Berrien County (on my way home from qajaq training camp on Lake Michigan) with my cousin who lives in Buchanan, MI, and wanted to try kayaking. I was in a pretty nimble 16’ by 22" sea kayak with some rocker and she was (unfortunately) in a borrowed 8’ by 32" Sundolphin rec boat. I had been told that the Paw Paw was an “easy slow creek” and expected a pleasant and unchallenging float for a newbie. Had also been told that the snags had been cleared from “most of it” this Spring.

Turned out to be rather nasty: stronger flow than I would have expected on a meandering rather level creek after a week of only a little rain. Wasn’t obvious from the launch dock until we rounded the first bend, but I have never in my life been in a waterway with so many large snags and sweepers. Every 50 feet on average was some sort of shallow blockage of most of the width of the stream and with the flow rate it required attentive maneuvering to keep from being pinned, grounded on the sand or gravel bars or, worst, becoming entangled in large bobbing treetops. I got swept into one that snagged and almost capsized me. Low chance of drowning due to it being so shallow but it could have been ugly to extract oneself with that flow rate if pinned in the large branches

After 30 minutes of hellish progress weaving and dodging obstructions I was honestly relieved to see that the entire width of the river was completely blocked ahead (only about a mile downstream) and I could insist we turn back. As I feared, my cousin really had to struggle in the fat wide tub of a boat to paddle upstream against the current, which the mass of snags channeled into strong eddies. Good thing she is a tough cookie (regular equestrian who mucks out stalls nearly every day) because she had to paddle like a madwoman to keep from being swept backwards downstream the whole way back. I had equipped her with my carbon Werner spare so she at least had a decent tool for it. But it was not a pleasant outing.

I would recommend avoiding this section of the river until those who maintain the Water Trail are able to do a seasonal clearing of the deadfall, which will take a Herculean effort, based on what I saw.

That’s a shame. I always paddle upstream first and if you go upstream from Riverside Kayak Park it’s open for at least 6-7 miles. Same if you paddle upstream from the Third Coast Kayak rental spot. Kind of surprised to hear the “strong current” comment.

Snags a and sweepers can kill people. Sorry you had a rough time.
On most rivers, there is no one “in charge of maintaining rivers.”
Floods normally take them out.

Next time just turn around, so you don’t have to wait to be relieved by a totally blocked river.

Yeah, I should have bailed 10 minutes in. But my cousin was so enthusiastic about her first kayak outing I kept hoping the conditions would ease “around the next bend” and the stream would open up as we got closer to the river’s outlet to the lake. I had tried to persuade her to choose a local pond for her initial outing but she had “heard good things” about the PawPaw and was very up for it. violated my own usual caution about never paddling a new river without having damned good data on conditions before launching including gauge readings. The tangle there was worse than I remember from venturing up into the Everglades from Chokalossee 10 years ago, but at least there was no discernible current in the Glades.

I doubt we could have paddled from the launch upstream since both channels passing the midstream island were fast-running clogged rapids, one with rocks and the other a mini lowhead dam of collected deadfall that I wondered might have been a partially collapsed beaver dam. No way would that Sundolphin have been able to push upstream on either side nor did I want to attempt it with a composite sea kayak…

Though we had a lovely weather day near the Big Lake there had been regional warnings of localized thunderstorms so I suspect there may have recently been one upstream.

I know there is nobody “in charge” but I gathered from the research I had done on the PawPaw water trail that there is a group (or groups) of volunteers who regularly organize trash and strainer sweeps of it, just as we southwest Pennsylvanians (myself included) do for the streams we frequent hereabouts. The stormy summer may have outpaced such efforts in MI as it has in PA. I still have a 60’ storm-downed tree completely blocking my back yard from one of tge many that swept through here this season. Not gonna be safe to tackle the thing until the crown branches collapse and stabilize it.