Scenic streams crisscross the forests around Grayling. The Boardman, Manistee, Pine, Rifle, and Au Sable Rivers meander through wetlands, across dunes, and past tree-covered hills. Canoeing ranks among the area’s most popular pastimes, with a number of liveries offering adventures on the Au Sable and other area rivers.
Even novice paddlers can handle the easygoing currents of these waterways as they scan the shoreline for deer, beaver, black bear, and winsome river otters. The area’s canoe liveries are concentrated in Grayling.
Flowing east out of Grayling, the Au Sable coils through the Au Sable State Forest. Designated a state natural river with stretches of the main stream protected as a national wild and scenic river, the Au Sable flows past wooded islands and stretches of white sand. At night, weary paddlers can bed down at one of several state and national forest campgrounds along the river’s shore. For day-trippers, the most popular take-outs are at Stephan Landing (about a four-hour leisurely paddle from Grayling) and Wakely Landing, a 5.5-hour trip at a similar pace.
Recognized for its excellent trout fishing and often overlooked by paddlers, you can also launch a boat in the Au Sable’s South Branch. You’ll find landings at Chase Bridge on the south end and at Smith Bridge, 11 miles to the north.
The Au Sable can be a victim of its own success, though, with raucous crowds sometimes floating the river en masse on hot summer weekends. If you’re looking for a party, this is the place, but be aware that local authorities watch for intoxication carefully and fine liberally. (Glass containers, kegs, and Styrofoam coolers are prohibited on the Au Sable to keep down the partying and the littering.) If you’re looking for a more peaceful experience, avoid the party set by departing during the week or arranging to paddle a stretch farther outside Grayling, if you can talk an outfitter into it. Alternately, many paddlers find the Manistee River less of a scene. For a complete list of liveries in the Grayling region, contact the Grayling Visitors Bureau (213 N. James St., 800/937-8837, www.grayling-mi.com).
As a testament to its paddling popularity, Grayling is the site of one of the country’s only canoeing festivals, the AuSable River Canoe Marathon (www.ausablecanoemarathon.org). Held in late July, the 120-mile route runs from Grayling to Oscoda on Lake Huron and ranks as North America’s longest and most difficult nonstop canoe race.
An estimated 30,000 fans turn out, many following the world-class athletes in the 120-mile nonstop race down the river, which requires some 55,000 paddle strokes and more than 14 hours to complete. It’s worth going just to watch the thrilling 9 a.m. shotgun start, when more than 50 teams carrying canoes on their heads race through downtown Grayling to the launch site.
by Laura Martone from Moon Michigan, 3rd Edition, © Avalon Travel