Rivers’ history makes for perfect paddling

Published 6:09 pm Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sarett Nature Center naturalist Rob Pearce kayaks the St. Joseph River. Photo by Terri Gordon

Southwest Michigan rivers are “unique and interesting” due to their geological history, says naturalist Chuck Nelson of Sarett Nature Center in Benton Harbor.

Three rivers — the Galien, the St. Joseph and the Paw Paw — are known as drowned river estuaries. In processes spanning thousands of years, water from melting glaciers carved river tracks and flowed into the Great Lakes basins and out through the St. Lawrence sea way. At points along the way, various forces of nature blocked the outlet, damming the lakes. Water levels rose and were forced up the river channels.

“The lakes went up the river bottom so the rivers were the start of the lake,” said Nelson. While the riverbeds were part of the lake, they smoothed out and became covered with rich deposits from up the river. Eventually, the “dams” were released, and the lake levels dropped again, exposing the wide, flat valleys — perfect for the growth of sedge meadows and fens — specialized habitats with the specialized plants and animals adapted to them.

“Miles of meadows are gone,” said Nelson, “but you can still experience them, in some spots more than others.”

The Galien River best shows the structure of a drowned river, according to Nelson, though its vegetation has changed. Along the Paw Paw, especially where it is part of Sarett, remnants of fens and sedge meadows flourish.

“The St. Joe is probably the most messed-up,” said Nelson, “with dredging and boat traffic.”

Kayaks and canoes are one of the best and most popular ways to explore the rivers of southwest Michigan.

Naturalist Wendy Jones of Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve in Niles likes to canoe the St. Joseph River from Niles to Buchanan, a three- to four-hour paddle.

“It’s a nice, calm stretch of river with not a lot of development along it,” she said.

Great blue herons and snapping and painted turtles are plentiful.

“We’ve seen snakes on tree branches on the side of the river,” said Jones.

Ospreys have been sighted too. Dragon and damsel flies abound, often landing on canoes to rest. The St. Joseph from Fernwood to Berrien Springs is a longer, more wild passage.

Rob Pearce, a Sarett naturalist, often kayaks the St. Joseph from Berrien Springs to Jasper Dairy road.

“It’s a stretch that changes with the water level,” said Pearce.

At it’s lowest, paddlers must contend with sand bars, at its highest, with rushing water and submerged trees. At its best, it is a leisure “float,” with soft-shelled turtles sunning themselves on logs, belted kingfishers diving for fish and the songs of warblers and other birds trilling over the water. Exposed sand and gravel beaches provide rest stops and further areas of exploration.

Pearce also likes the Paw Paw, which enters Berrien County from the east and meanders down to meet the St. Joseph in Benton Harbor, and to empty into Lake Michigan. He likes to paddle the stretch from Hartford to Watervliet. It is a long trip, but can be taken in parts if shorter trips are desired. The wildlife is much the same as that seen on the other rivers, with the addition of beaver. Trees abound along the Paw Paw too.

“It’s shady,” said Pearce. “On a hot summer day, I’d rather a shady stretch of river.”

Love Creek, with Sarett and Fernwood, co-owns two replica 35-foot “Montreal” voyageur canoes.

“These were originally used by the French voyageurs in the 1700s to take trade goods from Montreal in the spring, through the Great Lakes system to upper Canada, where they traded for beaver pelts and then returned to Montreal before winter would freeze things up,” explained naturalist Pat Underwood of Love Creek Nature Center in Berrien Center.

Love Creek uses the canoes in Grand Mere, on the St. Joseph River and in the New Buffalo marsh on the Galien River.

“Many of our trips have been in the New Buffalo marsh,” said Underwood. “It is one of the few Great Lakes marshes left on the west side of Michigan, so it is fun to explore this unique habitat as a group in the large canoe. There are many unique plants, such as swamp rose mallow, and nesting and migrant bird species, such as marsh wren, least and American bitterns, also mink and other aquatic mammals.”

Fernwood, Sarett and Love Creek all provide guided canoe or kayak trips of Berrien County’s rivers and inland lakes. These trips are nice for people new to canoeing, or unsure of their skills, or for people wanting a more educational experience.