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The Saginaw River, formed of seven rivers and streams within the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, in a short run from Saginaw to Bay City flows through settings pastoral and urban, with sites (and sights!) natural and historical.
Boats, including kayaks and canoes, are allowed on navigable rivers within the federal refuge, but not its interior lands and waters.
On the Saginaw River we’ve sent deer scampering, watched muskrats transport fresh-cut greenery, eyed eagles aloft 20 yards above us, caught a few fish and watched others catch more — all in or within a few miles of bustling cities.
The Great Lakes Bay Region boasts several stretches of the Michigan Water Trails network, together known as the Saginaw Bay Water Trails. These locally supported routes — designed for kayaks, canoes, rowboats and small sailboats — boast developed access and launch points, plus historical, natural, environmental or cultural points of interest.
The Cass River Water Trail, notably, comprises a series of 13 canoe/kayak access sites from above Vassar down to Wickes Park in Saginaw, where the Cass joins the city’s namesake river. Just before that junction the Cass, like the Saginaw, flows through the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge.
Three universally accessible launch facilities along the Cass allow paddlers of all abilities to enter and exit the water safely and relatively easily. They’re at Heritage Park in Frankenmuth, Hoffman Community Park in Bridgeport Township, and Davis Park near Bridgeport.
The Saginaw River itself is one segment on the Saginaw Bay Blueways Water Trail, the Kawkawlin River another; both connect with the water trail tracing the entire Saginaw Bay shoreline. Float other local Michigan Water Trails on the Flint and Shiawassee rivers, too — with more on the boards throughout the region.
Saginaw Bay itself offers novel kayaking opportunities, albeit requiring some extra attention on the part of the paddler. This is big water; attention and good judgment are required. But in return, you can explore expansive marshes and other wetlands, admire cottages and beaches, or strike off across open water.
Thinking of fishing? This Bay is world-famous for its walleyes, and bass and perch are also regular catches, while a big and feisty northern pike or sheepshead (freshwater drum) just might provide a lifetime thrill.
Friends of mine regularly visit the Kawkawlin River Wildlife Area, an impoundment of the river of the same name in northern Midland County. The vast marshy area can be a challenge to navigate, but it rewards that effort with solitude and abundant nature. This entire region, in fact, is washed by rivers, dotted with ponds. In a rental craft or your own, paddling options abound.
At the base of Midland’s distinctive Tridge, a universal access canoe & kayak launch invites you to explore the Tittabawassee River or its tributary the Chippewa River — or both, as the two meet beneath the three-legged pedestrian bridge. (I’ve caught scrappy smallmouth bass on the Tittabawassee, and watched sleek otters swim beneath my kayak on the Chippewa. Lovely memories.)
A similar barrier-free launch is upstream on the Chippewa within the Chippewa Nature Center, interpreter-guided kayak trips among its many offerings.
Midland’s Golfside Boat Launch near downtown also provides kayak, canoe and boat access to the Tittabawassee. Or, one can paddle the Tittabawassee in either direction from Midland’s Caldwell Boat Ramp downstream of The Dow Chemical Company.
I’ve made my way upstream to the ‘Dow Dam’, to drift and fish my way back down and collect the makings of a walleye dinner. (A portage path leads both ways around the dam.)
Downstream, Freeland’s Festival Park features a kayak launch, and there’s a DNR boat access site on the river at Center Rd., near Saginaw and its namesake river.
In Bay City, Float Paddle Center offers single and double kayaks and stand-up paddleboards for adventures on the Saginaw River and beyond. It proudly proclaims itself the only rental facility on the Saginaw River, the first encountered as one travels north along I-75. (Rental kayaks and boards are also available here for adventures elsewhere.)
In rental segments as short as two hours, prowl the river and take in the majestic “tall ship” Appledore from water level. Listen to a riverside park concert. Spend time, too, with the marsh’s abundant wildlife — ducks, egrets, herons, songbirds, gulls, terns, muskrats and more.
At Linwood, Cattail Kayak Rental specializes in adventures on the Saginaw Bay itself, with single and double kayak rentals by the hour or four-hour chunk. Launching is at the Bay County Pinconning Park, for which a daily or annual pass is required.
In Midland, Ike’s Mobile Kayak Rentals provides kayaks and, as its name implies, portable access to the many waters and launch sites of the area. Ike’s’ fleet comprises stable, 12-foot sit-on or sit-in kayaks, single or double, for guided or on-your-own adventures. Rentals range from one to eight hours. Group rates, fishing trips or longer reservations are available.
Ike’s also holds special events through the season: sunset trips, kayak/yoga events, fall color tours and more, and owner Glen Isenhart often works with agencies serving people with special needs.
Serving Midland and beyond, Nor’East Outdoors presents a full menu of paddling experiences, from scenic day trips to private outings and delivered paddlecraft rentals. Shuttles, instructional sessions, guiding and group discounts are among offerings.
A mobile outfitter, Nor’East brings kayaks and paddleboards from a fleet of more than 30 — beginner kayaks to family-friendly dual kayaks to openwater ‘sea’ kayaks to stand-up paddleboards — to the river or lake you dream of exploring. Among Nor’East specialties are adventures on the Tittabawassee, Chippewa and Shiawassee rivers, including some scheduled weekly outings.
New for the 2022 summer season, Nor'East Outdoors' second in-region location will offer daily kayak and paddleboard rentals within Bay City State Park. On single and tandem kayaks or stable, versatile stand-up paddleboards — each available in two-hour, half- or full-day rentals — paddlers can enjoy easy access to the open waters of Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay.
Frankenmuth Kayak Adventures sets you adrift on the gentle Cass River, another Saginaw River tributary, as it winds its way to and through the charming town of Frankenmuth, renowned for its German heritage.
Rent kayaks (single sit-in or sit-on, or tandem sit-in) by the hour, or for the two- to three-hour trip from Tuscola to Frankenmuth, land transportation provided. Bring your own kayak, canoe or paddleboard — and paddle and life jacket — and for a small fee you can arrange a lift to Tuscola to paddle downstream to your vehicle.
Kayakers are often asked by newcomers, “What kind of kayak do I want?” It’s the one that feels best after you’ve tried several!
Retail outlets can help, too, and the area’s rich with them, notably Frank’s Great Outdoors in Linwood, Northwoods Wholesale Outlet in Pinconning, Cabela’s Outpost and Dick’s Sporting Goods in Saginaw, and Dunham’s Sports in several locations.
Steve Griffin, a Midland-based, full-time freelance outdoors writer, has been covering that beat for newspapers and magazines for longer than he likes to admit. He began with a manual typewriter and a film camera — and says that in every way outdoors, these are the "good old days"!
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