Join These Hardy Souls in Michigan For Winter Rafting on Cold Rivers
By Deb Thompson
Born, raised, and never strayed, I’ve lived in Michigan my entire life and have never adapted to the winters.
After years of low-key grumbling through the winters I finally forced myself to find at least one winter activity I would enjoy and that’s how I stumbled upon winter rafting.
The Sturgeon River
My first-ever winter rafting trip was on the Sturgeon River and I fell in love with the activity. I have to say it’s been one of my better “crazy” ideas. That trip was incredible.
The temps were frigid, well below freezing, but there was just something about floating on the river, surrounded by peace and quiet, seeing the world coated in white that was magical.
What started as a one-time event has now turned into an annual tradition as invites are extended to friends, family, and strangers. Generally, I find enough brave people to fill two river rafts.
The phrase “the more the merrier” is true for this activity. A big group of friends makes the adventure a lot more fun.
Some years the weather is sunny and thirty degrees, some years the snow pummels the car and thickly covers the roads, once it was a full-on snowstorm with low single-digit temps as we drove north towards Jordan River Valley Outfitters in the small northern Michigan town of East Jordan.
There are years we have questioned our sanity of taking the trip when the temps are brutal, but we’ve yet to tap out of a trip and we’ve never regretted it.
When we arrive at Jordan Valley Outfitters, we check in with our guides and even in the worst weather they assure us they are a go for being outside.
I shouldn’t be surprised. The guides are true Michiganders with an affinity for all types of weather and seem to really love winter.
On one trip the temps hovered around 10 degrees, occasionally dipping into single digits, with blowing in-your-face snow.
Why it’s never the pretty, fluffy snow I’ll never understand. But here’s the thing, regardless of the weather this is such an enjoyable trip that you just cope with what mother nature deals out.
Bundling Up for Winter Rafting
After checking in, we bundle up in our winter coats, snow pants, boots, hats, and gloves and load up in the van to head to the put-in point a couple of miles down the road.
People often ask if I worry about falling in the water or if I get wet while winter rafting and my answer is always a solid no. However, getting to the launch point to the river to the raft can be tricky and if something is going to go wrong it will be here.
Down a Snow-Covered, Slippery Hill
To access the river, we walk down a short snow-covered, slippery hill. We take our time and watch where we step and arrive at the bottom without any slipping and falling.
Next, we navigate from the riverbank into the raft. The guides have tons of experience helping people in and out of the rafts so we depend on them to get us into the raft and not the river.
As we push away from the shore we are gently caught up in the slow-moving current and our rafting trip has officially begun.
Most years snow-laden tree branches hang heavy over the river and freshly fallen snow coats the shore. The weather on the river is usually calmer than it is during the drive.
The temps will still be cold, but snowfall is generally less aggressive.
As we settle into the float our guide occasionally yells out commands to paddle once, paddle a couple of times or paddle in reverse to keep us away from fallen tree branches and off the riverbank.
Stories about Northern Michigan Life
Some guides share stories of northern Michigan life, others give up the best fishing spots, and others talk about the ecology of the river and the changes over the years.
As our raft gently floats along the Jordan River, sometimes moving forward and sometimes sideways, we feel the tension of daily life leaving our shoulders and we relax into enjoying the surrounding landscape knowing there is no other place we need to be.
At times when fallen trees create river-wide obstacles, it requires us all to practice a reverse limbo dance move as we lay back and try to make ourselves as flat as possible to float under the tree branches.
Around the halfway point our guides pull our rafts to the edge of the river and we all get out for a stretch and a hot beverage and snack.
After a 15-minute break we continue our float and are fortunate to spot several deer as they dash off through the forest as we float by.
Insider tip–if there is more than one raft on your trip, get in the first one because it increases the likelihood of seeing wildlife.
What seems like a hot minute, but is closer to 2 hours later, we see the takeout point and are all a little sad that our journey has ended.
After carefully getting off the raft we load back up into the van and head back to the rafting headquarters.
Winter rafting is one of those core memories that you know will stay with you forever. I never would have thought my adventures would ever take me down a river in the middle of winter let alone that I would love it.
I said it before and I’ll say it again, winter rafting is simply magical. It’s peace and serenity and a connection to nature that we seldom get in the rush of our daily lives. It’s also exactly what we need to break up the winter blahs.
If you ever find yourself in northern Michigan in the winter, I HIGHLY recommend taking a guided winter rafting trip.
Just a note about the river–there are no rapids, no drops, no waterfalls, it’s just an easy, gentle float down a northern Michigan river in the middle of winter.
Where To Go Winter Rafting in Michigan
There are currently three locations offering winter rafting in Michigan. You won’t go wrong with any of them, but we always go back to Jordan Valley Outfitters due to their location so that we can have lunch at Short’s Brewing in Bellaire afterward.
Plus, Jordan Valley stops for a hot beverage break, and at the time of this article, the other two do not.
Note, that both Sturgeon River and Big Bear paddle the exact same portion of the Sturgeon River. While Jordan Valley Outfitters paddles the Jordan river. Both are great rivers to raft in the winter and kayak in the summer.
What To Wear for Winter Rafting
You don’t need any special gear. You’ll just need to layer up and wear what you would typically wear to play outside in the snow. Snow pants, winter coat, winter boots, and warm clothes. Don’t forget gloves and a hat.
Deb Thompson is the publisher of Just Short of Crazy, a travel blog based out of Cadillac, Michigan. She is the author of Secret Cleveland: A Guide To The Weird, Wonderful & Obscure, Reedy Press 2017; 100 Things to do in Cleveland before you Die, Reedy Press, 2018