Michigan Heritage Water Canoe and Kayak Trail

The St. Joseph River was a superhighway for Native Americans, the French fur traders, farmers and merchants.


Story and Photos by Jane Ammeson

A Canoe and Kayak Web Exclusive – 4/27/06

Glide down the streams of St. Joseph County in southwestern Michigan past the site of a Native American village that stretched for miles and catch a glimpse of how things used to be. See a trading post from the early 1800s that was replaced by a Georgian-style manor, a blacksmith shop from the 1870s that is currently a museum, and evidence of an 1850s era sawmill, including the remnant of its dam and millrace, that once sent lumber to Chicago and Milwaukee.


Thanks to a small band of paddling enthusiasts and amateur historians, these sites-and more-are now the first part of an ambitious state project called the Michigan Heritage Water Trails.



Canoes or kayaks can be launched at all but a few of the 37 marked historic sites on the waterways.


“The St. Joseph River was a superhighway for Native Americans, the French fur traders, farmers and merchants,” says Tim Peterson, chairman of the St. Joseph County Michigan Heritage Water Trails (and author of a just-completed master’s thesis on “Paddling Through History: A Plan for Heritage Water Trails in St. Joseph County, Mich.”).


St. Joseph County is known as River Country because it has the most navigable rivers and streams in the state, so it’s fitting that it’s here on Aug. 21 that the first water trail will officially open. Peterson and others have spent years researching historic sites related to the 46-mile sections of the St. Joseph River, the Portage River, Nottawa Creek and a tiny snippet, some 100 yards, of Little Portage Creek that comprise phase one of the project. Eventually, in River Country alone, the trail will total 150 miles and include nine “streams” (the general term used for a flowing body of water).


Canoes or kayaks can be launched at all but a few of the 37 marked historic sites on the waterways. “The goal is to eventually establish Heritage Water Trails throughout the state,” says Peterson.


According to Peterson, the idea for the heritage waterways started when a group of students in the 4-H Youth Conservation Council were looking for innovative ways to bring together the cultural and natural heritage of Michigan.


The route is set off by a series of markers that tell the history of points along the way and are lettered by waterway and numbered from the starting point on each stream. For example, SJ-11 (the 11th marker on the St. Joseph River trail) is where, “after a battle in 1802, the captured daughter of Chief Elkhart lived in this area with a scout named Dead Eye.” P0-5, the fifth marker along the Portage River route, is the site of Floyd Child’s cabin, built in 1834, later replaced by a frame house, then by the present brick home in 1862.


At Site NC-4, the 131-year-old Rawson’s King Mill stands above a millpond on a little crook of Nottawa Creek near a cascading waterfall. Lumber cut in the mill was floated down the creek to the St. Joseph River, which flows west running into Lake Michigan.


“The land on the north bank of the creek all the way from the mill to a little west of Mendon is said to have been an Indian village,” says Peterson. ” The village stretched for 8 miles- 12 miles. I often think how amazing it would have been to be an immigrant from New England coming here and floating mile after mile down the river past this seemingly endless village.”


The small town of Mendon is at the juncture of two streams on this first section of the trail-the St. Joseph River and Little Portage Creek-and boasts three markers. One of the sites here is the 1843 Mendon Country Inn (SJ-8), which was once a stagecoach halfway stop between Detroit and Chicago known as the Western Hotel. After being rebuilt in 1873 by Adam Wakeman, who used bricks made of St. Joseph River clay and fired on the property to redo the large and rambling inn, known as the Wakeman House. The cozily furnished inn has eight-foot windows, high ceilings, fanlights and a winding walnut spiral staircase that leads from the lobby to the second floor.



Just a half-mile down river from the inn is the Marantette iron truss bridge (SJ-9), built in 1873. There’s a small beach here where paddlers can pull ashore for a walk across the bridge to the Georgian-style home of Mendon founder Patrick Marantette, built in the mid-1800s on the site of the Marantette Trading Post. The perfectly restored home is private, but the house and its extensive gardens can be viewed from the road.


As the St. Joseph winds its way west of Mendon towards Three Rivers, the ending point of the first phase of the trail, it passes under the Langley Covered Bridge (SJ-12), built in 1867. The 282-foot bridge, named after a local pioneer family, is the longest covered bridge in the state as well as one of the few that remain.


Amish sightings from both the river and on land are common as River Country has the largest Amish population in Michigan. There are many small Amish businesses in the area-cabinetmakers, bakers, small grocery stores that sell bulk items, quilt makers. Horse and buggies are often seen on local roads.


The trail offers something besides a cultural experience. A rare sighting is that of a family of mountain lions who wander between two rural communities in River Country.
“They’re seen every few years,” says Peterson.


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