Bicycling Down The River

Steven Gillman

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My river-rafting adventure started on a bicycle. The small daypack I wore carried a hatchet, a saw, some scraps of rope, food, water, a garbage bag bivy sack, a hat, and odds and ends. It weighed less than fifteen pounds total.

It was late May, so Id stay warm in my homemade bivy, without a sleeping bag. I might wear my hat, and pile up some leaves to sleep on. If the mosquitos were bad, I'd use my headnet, which, I had learned, would also trap warm air around my head, keeping me warmer. I had matches and a lighter, in case I needed a fire in an emergency.

Thirty miles of pedaling had brought me from my home in Traverse City, Michigan, down the backroads to the Baxter Bridge, on the Manistee River. It was almost 10 a. m. I pushed the bicycle into the woods, and rolled it along, lifting it over logs, until I was a mile upstream. Looking around at the trees, I knew this was the place to start the river rafting part of the trip.

Sometimes Adventure Involves A Lot Of Work

The first tree was the biggest, and I almost couldn't drag the ten-foot sections to the river after cutting them. They were perfect, however. Dead, dry-rotted Poplar was always good, because it was like styrofoam inside. It cut easy, and floated well. White Cedar was the best quality, but it was more difficult to find, and to cut.

When I had hauled enough logs to the river, I got into the water and pulled the first two pieces in after me. I tied them together, then tied two long thin poles to them perpendicularly near either end. The other logs were guided, one by one, under these two rails, and tied in place.

By early afternoon I was finished. With the last piece of rope, I tied the raft to shore. I cut a good rafting pole to guide me. I was ready.

Tom Sawyer Day

My first river rafting adventure had involved four of us. I advertised it to my friends as an adventure-disaster, sure to get them wet and cold. Three took the bait. Apart from snacks and water, we took only a hatchet, a small saw, and whatever scraps of rope we could find. It all fit into a small backpack.

We parked near the river and hiked a trail upstream until we were a few miles from the car. The plan was to build a raft, using only dead trees and our scraps of rope. We would then get on it and go rafting back to the car.

It was dubbed “Tom Sawyer Day, " and became a much anticipated event among an ever-changing group of participants. Since it was, in equal parts, fun and dangerous, we didn't usually bring beer. Even sober, it was enough of a challenge to keep a thousand-pound pile of logs, with four people on it, from going where it wanted to go. Where it wanted to go inevitably involved pain and cold water, but with each trip I managed to learn a little. Sometimes we even stayed dry.

Sometimes Adventure Involves Math

The first trip, Roland and I were cutting and hauling logs to the river, while Cathy and Leslie cooked hotdogs over a fire. We began to do geometry on a piece of birchbark, trying to figure out how many logs were needed, allowing for the dishonesty of the women's stated weights.

"Cedar weighs 37 pounds per cubic foot, " I told Roland, “leaving a lifting capacity of about 27 pounds, given that water is 64 pounds per cubic foot. " The girls were laughing at me. “The volume of a cylindrical object is pi times the radius squared, times the length, right?"

Roland agreed. We counted out the logs and began to build the raft. When finished, we had a floating pile of old rotten logs and two frightened women.

Sometimes Adventure Involves Getting Wet

Leslie and Cathy sat on a stump in the middle of the raft. Roland and I stood with our poles, ready to fend off the banks of the river and the overhanging trees. We did this successfully for at least fifteen minutes.

Then, when a low, horizontal tree refused to move, Roland pushed us all off in order to regain his balance. We quickly gave up trying to find the bottom of the river, and swam after the raft. Sputtering and cursing at Roland, the three of us climbed back on.

This first rafting trip was in late April, when the water is still like ice. The sun warmed us, but our feet were almost always in the water. It was bad enough that the raft didn't float very high off the water, but then it began to change shape before our eyes and under our feet. “It's a square. No wait! It's a parallelagram. . . Now it's a square again. " The girls decided that there was too much geometry in river rafting, so a few minutes later we let the raft drift close to the shore, where they stepped off into the shallow water.

The water, however, wasn't shallow. Once the girls had resurfaced, and climbed up the sandy bank of the river, we waved goodbye. The trail took them to and from the river on their way to the car.

The next time we saw them, Leslie was hiking in her wet bra and panties. This part of the adventure story was crucial to recruiting other young males in the future. The trail went into the forest again, and the girls didn't see us for thirty minutes.

Sometimes Adventure Involves Running

Actually, they saw the raft first, floating quietly down the river by itself. Soon they saw Roland and I, running along the opposite side, trying to catch up. This was because of a tree that stuck out from the bank, low to the water.

We were unable to avoid it, despite our excellent rafting skills, but we thought we could jump over it as the raft passed underneath. It seemed like a reasonable plan at the time. It didn't seem so reasonable when Roland was pushing my face into the sicks in the tree while climbing over me to get to shore.

The raft went on, not noticing our absence. We ran through swamp and woods, pretending this was part of the plan when the girls saw us. The raft came near the riverbank just as we caught up to it. We leapt for it, and we were back in control. More or less.

"How do we get off?" Roland asked, when we were near the car. We decided that we just had to get close to shore and jump. It seemed like a good idea. Roland was still hanging over the river from a tree when I started up the big hill to the car. Tom Sawyer Days went a little smoother after this first one.

Sometimes Adventure Involves Being Pointed At

After pedaling thirty miles and hauling logs for hours, I was tired, but satisfied. It was the best raft yet, and I was soon rafting down the river, under Baxter Bridge, and into the National Forest. I noticed immediately that these rafts float better with only one person on them. There was just one small group of houses to pass before a long uninhabited stretch. My bicycle stood proudly in the center of the raft, tied in place, with the backpack on the handlebars. The first guy to see me yelled hello, and pointed me out to his wife. The second didn't know what to say. The Manistee is not a well-traveled river, especially not by bicyclists. A few minutes later I was past the houses. Around the next bend, a whitetail deer saw me and backed off through the cattails.

I floated for hours. Apparently my previous river rafting experience was paying off, because I managed to miss the trees, rocks, riverbanks, and to stay dry. I was even able to sit down and soak up the sun for a minute or two at a time. The latter was always interrupted, of course, by the necessity to jump up and use the pole to avoid something.

In the evening, I stopped, disassembled the raft, and began pushing my bicycle through the woods. A mile later I found a trail, and started pedalling. A mile after that I met two guys on a two-track, with there truck. The ice-cold beer they gave me made them instant friends, so I told them that, no, I wasn't out bicycling. I was river rafting. Then they weren't sure they wanted a new friend, so I traveled on.

Sixty miles of bicycling, miles of pushing the bike through the woods, three hours of log-hauling, and five hours of rafting, all in one day, seemed like a worthy goal, so I decided to just head for home. And the mosquitos were worse than I had anticipated.

Sometime after dark I rolled into the driveway, dropped the bike, and stumbled into the house. I took a shower and answered the phone. It was time to go dancing.

Steve Gillman has been hiking, biking, floating and adventuring in general for decades. For more of his stories and outdoor advice, you can visit


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