For hundreds of years, the St. Joseph River has been the superhighway of Michiana. It’s been paddled by Potawatomi tribes, French fur traders, and now the South Bend Adventure Club. On Friday, immediately after work, a group of nine of us launched our fleet (some owned, some borrowed) from a friend’s house, paddled through downtown South Bend (portaging around the dam at Seitz Park) and then off into the sunset. Our final destination: Lake Michigan.
There was actually a surprising amount of daylight left in the evening, and we took advantage of it, paddling until after 9:00. When we reached the French Paper Mill Dam portage in Niles, we were getting tired and decided to camp for the night in a hidden spot in the woods. There are mixed feelings about wild camping on public or private land without permission. My protocol is to make sure there are no signs explicitly prohibiting it, and to be as inconspicuous and non-invasive as possible. This means leaving nothing behind. In the unlikely case that someone does discover you, be courteous, apologize and most of the time people will be reasonable. The site was overgrown and buggy, but comfortable enough and free so we stayed.
We woke up Saturday morning and started the day with a long portage around the Niles dam. The portages are probably the most exhausting part of the entire trip because they require you to carry your boat and all of your stuff much longer than you would like. We had four portages on the trip (the South Bend one, this one just before Niles, one in Buchanan, and one in Berrien Springs). I had designed an axle with wheels to help with canoes. But otherwise, there’s no real easy way to get past dams (this is one of many reasons you should oppose any dam construction projects in any way you can).
Saturday was our powerhouse day where we covered the majority of the miles. Throughout the day we passed through the city of Niles, Lake Chapin, and Berrien Springs. The current in Lake Chapin was painfully slow and about half of the group jumped in the water to cool off. Two group members decided to end their adventure at Berrien Springs and called for a pickup from home. The others pressed on. That evening, we stopped at a few different spots searching for a campsite before we came across a perfect little chunk of cleared land that looked promising. We set up camp, cooked some dinner, and passed out from exhaustion.
We woke up Sunday and kept paddling, despite our sore arms. The section following the Berrien Springs dam moved pretty swiftly and we covered lots of distance very fast. This section was also the most undeveloped part of the river. For the whole weekend, the banks had been pretty regularly covered with ornate houses (palaces would be more appropriate for some). But here, the houses thinned out and it was mostly dense wilderness. In the late morning, houses started to appear again and we were soon in the outer edges of St. Joseph. We had shuttled our cars to a friend’s house in town so they were there waiting for us. Some of the group opted to end the paddle a few miles short of the lake and avoid the treacherous wind and waves to come. One even made it to within sight of the lake and then decided it was out of his league. But three of us pushed onward, determined to make it out into the lake no matter what the cost.
The river ultimately feeds you into a corridor that runs between two piers into the lake. To officially paddle to the lake, we had to paddle past and then around the pier to land on the beach. As soon as we were along the piers, several large motor boats passed us, creating wakes that echoed back and forth between the piers and turned the entire corridor into a giant wave pool. The waves were over our heads and our little canoe and kayak bobbed up in down in the turbulence, but we pushed on. Beach goers watched us in amazement from the piers. Eventually we paddled around the end of the pier and headed for Silver Beach. Now we were being slammed from behind by lake waves and our boats came dangerously close to tipping over about every ten seconds. We surfed our way back to shore and the trip was finally over. All that was left was some shuttling of cars. Some of the group went out for a victory meal at a local brewery before heading back to town.
With most of northern Indiana and southern Michigan covered in cities and cornfields and very little of it kept natural, it can be hard to find a real wilderness adventure in the region. Rivers are one exception. They act as a wild corridor and can allow you to escape the structured world of parks with entrance fees, rangers, and regulations. On the river, you’re on your own. While much of the St. Joe’s banks are developed, it still has enough wildness to feel like you’re getting away from civilization for a little while.
Total miles paddles: 57
Total time spent paddling: 15 hours
Average speed: 3.8 miles per hour
Number of boats: 2 canoes, 5 kayaks
Wildlife seen: Bald eagles, river otters, turkeys, blue herons, deer, slugs, mosquitoes, damselflies
Total trip cost: $10 for gas