Last Saturday dawned gray and with the hint of rain in the air. The TV weatherman the evening before, had predicted spotty showers in the Thumb during the morning and moving on by noon. I had high hopes the “spotty showers” would miss our group of paddlers while we journeyed down the Cass River from Vassar to Frankenmuth.
Vassar has a beautiful canoe/kayak launch located just below a rapids where a dam once stood. There is a nice parking lot featuring a handy cement sidewalk down the river making access quite convenient. This is due to the continued efforts of the Cass River Greenway (CRG) that has strived diligently to work with communities on the Cass River to establish such quality accessibility to a historic and absolutely beautiful waterway. Just recently, thanks to the efforts of the CRG, the Cass River has become an official water trail from M-46 downstream to Saginaw, with the hopes of continuing the official water trail further upstream, which is a painstaking process that doesn’t happen overnight.
The key element is to have a community realize the recreational importance of the Cass River and play a role, and the CRG has the means, including obtaining grants for funding, to make it all come to fruition. Ecotourism is a fast growing element which is a very important fact for Michigan with all of its lakes and rivers. For a long time, the (historic) Cass River has been erroneously looked upon by some as being the “Rodney Dangerfield” of Michigan waterways, something I have never agreed with, and what the CRG is striving to change, and why I fully support the group.
This is why I decided to canoe the Cass River from “The Forks” (where the North and South Branches join to become one at Cass City, which is named after the river for this reason) all the way downstream to Saginaw. I have been doing this as planned day trips, covering various river port to river port sections in order for those who wish, to join me on my journey. It is during this process I have come to know some mighty fine folks who also love and enjoy the Cass River and we were strangers who have become as close as family. We are definitely a cohesive team whenever accessing or disembarking the river, while paddling our canoes and kayaks downstream to the various destinations. Everyone never hesitates to lend a helping hand whenever it is needed.
Our first leg involving a dozen participants, from Cass City to Caro’s Chippewa Landing, occurred on Saturday, April 28 and required a leisurely paddle (including a lunch break) of 7 hours. The second leg (involving a dozen participants) of from Indian Fields Park near Caro, to Vassar occurred on Saturday, May 5 and required a leisurely paddle (including a lunch break) of 6 hours. From Cass City to Caro is considered the Upper Reaches of the Cass River, and launching at Indian Fields Park just below the Caro Dam would mark our beginning down what is considered the Lower Reaches.
It was at this point some of us would be using kayaks provided by Frankenmuth Kayak Adventures (email@example.com call 989-652-3400), which offers quality equipment and services. I learned a long time ago that working with a reputable canoe/kayak rental helps a whole lot with the logistics in accessing a river and being picked up later, and I believe it was quite fortuitous that Eric Feilbrandt would open up his new Frankenmuth kayak rental business this spring. Long a devout (Type C) canoe-person, this would be the first time for me to ever paddle a kayak (actually a Type K canoe) down the Cass River. I had gained a deep respect for the maneuverability of kayaks in the multiple (and very exciting) rapids of our journey down the Upper Reaches from Cass City.
At Vassar last Saturday morning, I would climb aboard a comfortable one-person kayak provided by Fielbrandt which is quite stabile and offers what I would call an “easy chair” to perch on above the deck. Fielbrandt also provided a two-person kayak which held our professional cameraman, John Scollon, in the front and was paddled from the back by expert kayaker Russ Fall of Millington. I’ve discovered on this journey that Russ is a good man to paddle a river with, and the cameraman was in excellent hands for the next two days.
There were 14 participants on this day, including several kids, some of whom had their own kayaks and were paddling all around and thoroughly enjoying our trek downstream to Frankenmuth. Having kids along during the adventure down the Cass River this spring has added a certainly animated atmosphere that I truly enjoy. Having kids energetically paddling back and forth around me while I’m simply paddling to the next bend in the river truly revives my spirit, and it is wonderful seeing kids enjoying quality time in the great outdoors.
The “spotty showers” would start up shortly after our launch at Vassar, and would continue during our entire paddle downstream, and at times would turn into a downright downpour, which didn’t dampen anyone’s spirit any, as we were all prepared for it, and it even added to the experience, with large raindrops hitting the water and creating unique bubbles all over the surface. It was actually quite beautiful.
We would take our lunch break at the handy canoe-launch at Tuscola and then continue on to Frankenmuth where we would land at another handy launch site above the Fish Way after a five hour paddle. It was as we neared Frankenmuth that we encountered a riverboat paddling upstream and we waved at the tourists onboard who waved back and were obviously curious about the canoes and kayaks out in the rain.
On Sunday the following morning, nine of us would launch from just below the Frankenmuth Fish Way (which replaced the Dam in 2015 and even features a canoe/kayak portage trail around it) and begin our 5 hour paddle downstream to Bridgeport. A distant church bell chimed a nice tune as we started downstream, and fortunately, although the day featured overcast skies, there wasn’t any rain throughout our trip.
This stretch of the Cass River features more sand than clay on the riverbank, and in certain areas springtime high waters have carved away the soil to expose the roots of gigantic hardwoods, creating what I would describe as a “Sleepy Hollow” effect which is quite beautiful and unique. Like the rest of the Cass River we have travelled thus far, we experienced true and uncluttered solitude that is lined with a forested riverbank, and the air was scented by fragrant spring blossoms. Eagles and ospreys have been constantly sighted throughout our journey which says a lot about the good water quality of the river.
One thing you will notice is the transcending change of the habitat as you venture down the Cass River with the atmosphere in the Upper Reaches featuring a northern Michigan flavor entailing a large mix of evergreens, and the Lower Reaches which begin to ease into a southern Michigan flavor featuring a dominance of hardwoods until seeing any evergreen trees becomes a rarity. All in all, each stretch we’ve covered has expressed its own unique individuality, and definite beauty.
In no time, It seemed, we were landing at the Bridgeport canoe/kayak launch site which is handicap accessible and features a ramp with rollers which allow you to pull yourself up using a railing, and you can easily get out at the top (Frankenmuth has this as well, thanks to the CRG).
The only thing we encountered on the river during that trip was a man and woman fishing from a canoe that was powered by an electric trolling motor (and they were successfully catching walleyes – the Cass River offers excellent fishing opportunities for a variety of species throughout its entire length). Otherwise we were offered complete solitude on an absolutely beautiful river.
Our paddle down the Cass River thus far from Cass City to Bridgeport has entailed four (5 to 7 hour) day trips which were performed in a very relaxing and enjoyable manner. Our next and final trip from Bridgeport to Saginaw will happen in July, and I can hardly wait for it. Canoeing the Cass River from “The Forks” at Cass City, all the way downstream to Saginaw has long been on my bucket list, as I dearly love the Cass River, and having thoroughly enjoyed it since my early childhood, I owe much to it.
Meeting and getting to know some mighty fine folks to share the river journey with is truly the frosting on a very unique and flavorful cake.