7-November, Leg 11
Coloma Bridge to the confluence with the St Joseph River in Benton Harbor
Well, it snowed on Friday and was cold and windy on Saturday so I was a little concerned about paddling the last segment of the river, 12 miles from Riverside to Benton Harbor. After all, it is November in Michigan and sensible people are inside watching football. I was kicking myself for starting a several month project at the end of the summer instead of the beginning. Nonetheless, I put my little 12.5 foot kayak in the water for the last time on Sunday morning. Once again Kenneth Nesbitt and Mary Jo Isbrecht accompanied me [dressed like Eskimos for the cold]. The first few miles of this leg is all floodplain and no development. It helps that I-196 is just west of the floodplain corridor thereby limiting access to this entire stretch of river. Although it was cold to start out [I could still see snow in shady spots] it was a clear day. And best of all, only one logjam to portage across all day long!
Soon after we crossed under the highway bridge, we came to Sarett Nature Center. Instead of forested floodplain, here was a large marshland. Chuck Nelson, Director of Sarett and a local legend, later explained to me that, technically, this wetland is a Flooded River Marshland. What this means is that thousands of years ago as the glaciers were retreating, the level of Lake Michigan was higher so that an arm of the lake came inland up the river valley to form an estuary. Silt from the river settled out along the bottom. Much later when the lake level dropped, the river then cut a channel through the rich, silty soil bottomland. There is very little difference in height between the river and surrounding bottomlands, thereby creating large areas of marsh.
About two hours downstream from Sarett, we came to the confluence with Blue Creek at another marshland preserve it owns: Brown Sanctuary. Chuck explained the history of this area. The land was originally owned by a religious community [City of David, an offshoot of the House of David]. In order to farm the rich bottomland, they built a dike to prevent Blue Creek from flooding into the area. Then they built a large powered waterwheel to scoop water out of the marshland and into the river to dry the land enough for farming. Under Sarett's management, the dike has been breached and the original hydrology restored to the large marsh. I saw hundreds of ducks as I paddled the shallow waters. Chuck is most proud of the fact that there are breeding pairs of Sandhill Cranes here, the first in Berrien County in many decades.
An interesting fact about Blue Creek is that several miles upstream there are fens. Fens are a specialized type of wetland characterized by strong groundwater flow and alkaline water. A federally protected butterfly, Mitchell's Satyr, only lives in fens in a few places in the Midwest. When this butterfly was found along Blue Creek, it caused the delay of a proposed extension of U.S. 31.
Another one to two hours downstream from Blue Creek, and we started to enter the formerly industrialized area of the river near the city of Benton Harbor. Old factories could be seen through the now leafless trees. No more floodplain forest, the shore was now marsh drained and reclaimed in the 19th century. As we made our way through Benton Harbor in the waning daylight, we paddled past the Harbor Shores Golf Course. An incongruous sight: Old tires and industrial refuse on the muddy shore with manicured greens and fairways just above.
I had a surprise as I went under the last Benton Harbor bridge and came out the other side. I heard people yelling at me from the bridge so I turned around and looked up. There were my parents waving and cheering the completion of my trip! My mother was holding a newspaper and yelled," Look, you made the front page!" Sure enough, Scott Aiken had written a great article about my trip, TRC, and the Paw Paw River for The Herald-Palladium.
There was virtually no noticeable current in the river this close to Lake Michigan so we had to paddle the last quarter mile or so past Ox Creek, and past the old ship canal leading to downtown Benton Harbor. The actual confluence of the Paw Paw with the St. Joseph River is somewhat anticlimactic. You go past an old barge and then there is just a big area of open water where the freighters turn around. By now the sun had set and we only had to paddle a few hundred yards down the St. Joe and under the Blossomland Bridge to our takeout... That is all for now. Next week I will write a conclusion about my trip down the beautiful Paw Paw River.
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