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Paddling the Ditches of Okemos

February 05, 2004

The land east of the Grand River in the Lansing Area is mostly swamp. In fact East Lansing would be about a third of the current size if a Professor at Michigan Agricultural College hadn't decided to pursue the creation of tillable land by the creation of the Remy-Chandler drain system before the turn of the century.

The whole northern part of East Lansing and much of Meridian Township is habitable because of a system of drains. (Holy sacred swamps Flying Mouse Man--you mean that conservationists who live in Okemos, Haslett and East Lansing may be tacitly supporting the destruction of wet lands?)

In 1993 these drainage ditches were cleaned out to keep them functioning properly. This makes many of them paddleable when the water is high and the bugs are low. One of my favorite is the one that runs into the Red Cedar River about half way between Okemos and East Lansing in the area of the busy Grand River Ave. Viaduct and railroad tracks.

Getting to the start of the creek is a bit of a paddle. The only put-ins are at least 30-40 minutes of paddling to get to the confluence. Finding the creek is the hardest part. There is a small island about halfway around a pond in the river. If you look around it you see where the creek enters under an old bridge. It doesn't look nearly as appealing as the river or pond so the tendency is to ignore it.

Take 'the road less traveled' and you can have a nice little side trip. It's probably the remotest water you can get to in the area and it's right under all our noses!

Under the old bridge, it's about a hundred yards to passage through a really neal culvert. Long enough to echo and usually smooth enough water that the reflections of your own boat waves and wakes are mesmerizing.

Exiting that culvert you head back toward railroad tracks and behind Campus Hill Apartments. A couple of bends later you fork away from the buildings and parallel to the tracks. You are now on the way to Behind The Mall.

We often have found places where the passage appears to be blocked. Usually a small branch will get stuck and stuff will pile up on it. I've even had one that we had to climb over and push the boats underneath. However a strong boat and some heavy strokes or a little lifting and lugging have only required us to portage once or twice in the last five years.

This creek (somehow I can't bring myself to call it a drainage ditch--we are paddling it after all) parallels the railroad tracks for about 3/8 of a mile. Watch for deer on the railroad land and owls on the other side as you go through the woods.

The old skinny dippin' pond-p;surprisingly close to town--is still alive and well just across those tracks and down a sandy trail past a field of wild strawberries. In the heat of summer, with the sound of the cicadas, it's great relief to decamp to the pond and get even further away from it all. Funny how after just a few hundred yards you don't notice the noise anymore of that suburban freeway they call a local road.

About 2/3 of the way up this stretch of creek is the falling down remains of an old walking bridge that should pose no problem--but I did manage to embarrass myself by getting a kayak paddle stuck cross ways in the underpilings a couple of years ago. Tom Cannon says it was one or the funniest sights. He'd seen me lugging at the paddle and trying not to get tipped out of my rather tender racing kayak.

That old walking bridge is behind the Apartments, but who from there walks anywhere? It's not missed. The local free spirits have their own trails to get back to the pond...and their own ditches, I mean 'creeks', to paddle.

Oh, did I say: there is current in creeks. Straight, no whitewater, but in a well defined ditch it is there and will be part of the experience.

A little further up and the course changes and the creek heads for Okemos Rd. I've even seen some large steelhead trout in this region. It's amazing that they come to a place that usually has just chubs and pollywogs. The ditch narrows up about a third here and the water gets a little faster. There is barely room to turn a canoe around at this point. Just 50 yards or so below Okemos Rd. is a small tree down over the creek. This has been a trip stopper for a number of years but this summer it has become possible to squeeze through and get past. The Okemos Road Bridge is interesting. Very low--even at low water. If there is enough water to get to the bridge, it will be a challenge to get under it.

I haven't tried to portage Okemos Road, but with the greatly increased traffic, rather fast speeds, and new wider pavement it could be a bit touchy.

Now that you are above Okemos Road the next goal is Marsh Road. The creek narrows up some more in this stretch (and the current increases) so you will push a huge bow wave upstream. And there are a few little zigzags, rocks and trees breaking up the straightness of the ditch line. Bring your sense of humor 'cause you are going to get ping-ponged off the shores and feel totally inept in your attempts to avoid doing so.

By paddling, pushing off shore, poling off the bottom, and working fairly hard, you will pass behind the Meridian Mall and after 1/2 hour you will reach busy Marsh Road.

You'll also have had a new vantagepoint of the township park behind the mall. The creek flows all along the edge of it. You probably won't see anyone and it'll still seem like a lush Eden back there, with the grasses hanging over the bank, water flowers and the intimate water of the creek so close at hand. It's surprising there's this much nature so close to the ugly strip malls that are our 'town.'

Watch the barbed wire across the river just above the culvert under the road. There is not enough room to turn around at this point so find a place you can get out and pull the boat up on the bank which is quite steep.

The ditch continues upstream and goes under Tihart road back into the countryside and heads toward Mud Lake. This looks paddleable, but I haven't made it that far because going that far and back is a good long paddle already, 2-4 hours.

I don't recommended trying this trip downstream only (an obvious choice it would seem). There are no really good takeouts and if the creek has stoppers it could be a long haul through a swamp to get out (or a long paddle back up to where you started) and none of the roads have good places to stop a car.

This is one of those little gems that is a little hard to get to but surprisingly pleasant for being in the middle of all that development.

So try small-creekin' it. You'll get a new perspective. There'll not be much to worry about: Just you, some scenery really close to hand and a handful of nice clear water on either side.

[Ed.'s Note: Well, that was great background for me about our Land of Ditches. Nice to know where they came from and why finally! I grew up around the ditches. Sadly, they were my only childhood streams. Made me use my imagination! Karl's tale shows that life in the margins is still hangin' tough. Makes me smile.]

[KP is a casual and great coach. He sneaks improvement and safety into you without you knowing it. He's an all-around outdoor sports stylist and editor of one of the finest boating magazines in the land---and it's just the little local boat club newsletter. Are you get tired of national magazine boating fare? Just send $20 to LOAPC, POB 26254, Lansing, MI 48909. You'll get all forms of kayaking, canoeing, and rowing as well as friendly club life discussed with color, wit and inside knowledge. An extended family camoflaged as a monthly newsletter. If I read it, I don't even have to paddle! --A side effect Karl is annoyed with me about. He doesn't mean to be that good.]

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