Watershed group explores Muskegon River, making stop in Evart

By Emily Grove

Special to the Osceola Edition

When Greg Davis heard his alarm go off on the morning of June 13, he didn’t jump upand wake camp as he usually would have. After savoring just a few more moments of peace, and rest, he slowly woke the other 13 members of the group and began day six of the group’s adventure.

As the team leader for the Muskegon River Voyage of Discovery, Davis had five days of exhausting river travel behind him and six more to go.

Davis, and the others on the journey, had every reason to be a tired.

They had faced miserable rain.

They had faced complete blockages in the river, requiring logs to be sawed and cleared.

The night before they had been stuffed full of stew and pie by the hospitality of some Evart community members.

With a breakfast of bagels in their bellies, overnight camp packed away and the temperature slowly rising early that morning, they were off to begin their trek of 28 miles for the day.

The voyage, traveling the entire 217 miles of the Muskegon River over 11 days, was sponsored by the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly. As their fifth day of the journey had come to a close the night before, the group members camped along the banks the Riverside City Park in Evart.

When local Evart historian Roger Elkins heard the group would be passing through the area he knew he wanted to make them feel at home.

“A number of us in Evart feel that the Muskegon River is an underutilized river and resource,” Elkins said. “To have a group come through and highlight this river, it only felt natural to help them and make them feel welcome.”

Elkins arranged for free camping and a lumberjack-style dinner for the voyage members. He also gave a presentation about logging in the area during the 1880s. The boom of the logging industry has had some negative consequences for the river. Elkins pointed to erosion and logs found submerged when the dam was taken out near Big Rapids. Dams, he said, changed the natural ecology of the river, creating short ecosystems instead of one continuous ecosystem.

“There’s no question in my mind that having sent logs down river for 30 years left its mark,” said Elkins.

Those marks and damages were some things the voyagers looked for and documented. Part of the mission for the trip was looking at erosion sites, single source point pollution, recording the canopy along the banks, studying native and non-native species and examining water quality.

Marion science teacher Jason Keeler and his son Josh signed up to travel the whole trip, collecting bugs to gauge the quality of the river. After hearing about the opportunity the two had to attend training in Houghton Lake to learn correct protocol. Keeler said flyers were also sent out to get volunteers to learn protocol so anyone could go out and collect data.

“It’s citizen science work,” he said. “It’s important for all people to get a sense of river and be willing to be a part of data collection.”

The work gives possible feedback to groups like the DNR who may not have the time or funding to go out and do this sampling, said Keeler. According to much of their sampling early in the trip, water quality was reasonably good.

“This trip has the potential to be pretty useful in data collection and watching changes,” he said.

Although Keeler and his son were part of the core group, the Voyage of Discovery also welcomed locals to kayak or canoe portions of the journey. On the sixth-day of their trip they were joined by avid kayaker, Sage Radtke.

“The website came up about the Voyage of Discovery and we got all the info from there,” said Hersey resident Deb Elenbaas.

The opportunity, Elenbaas said, sounded perfect for her 13-year-old son, Sage. In the summer he likes to kayak almost non-stop, Elenbaas said.

One of the core travelers was Carl Malsom, the man who initially came up with the idea for the trip.

Malsom sent an email to the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly about the trip taken on the Grand River. Malsom later received a response saying a board meeting had been held and the assembly decided to attempt something similar to The Grand River Expedition.

“It’s important to bring attention to this river because it’s such a wonderful resource,” Malsom said. “We need to make sure to take care of it because it’s in good shape now, so let’s keep it that way.”

This trip will provide a good baseline for the MRWA to be able to compare if they do something like this again in a few years, he said.

Although sampling is an important aspect of the trip, Malsom and the other members hope this trip will also bring awareness and encourage use of the river.

“The people in Evart who had us for dinner (have) the right idea,” Malsom said. “They say: ‘Let’s celebrate this river!’”

After close to eight hours on the river, Day Six ended in Big Rapids. Kayaks and canoes were methodically dragged to shore signifying another day was done. Group members walked around, stretched their legs and wore tired faces, but still held smiles of accomplishment.

After a few minutes of game planning for camp setup that night, Davis stood in a shady spot and surveyed the river through his sunglass covered eyes.

“If we can just get people to come out here ... the voyage and our mission was a success,” he said.