Part Misery Paddle Tour, part actually fun paddle trip: the Otter Traverse has it all. I set out on this trip solo in July 2020 on the North Branch Otter River from where it crosses Chassell-Tapiola Road. If you're familiar with the Keweenaw you might be thinking, "Surely he must be joking, there's no river there!" You're mostly right. At above average water for mid-summer, the North Branch Otter is barely passable, which is good enough for me. Unfortunately, the alder crowd the riverbanks to an extent that I've never seen before. Truly, these first five miles of the North Branch Otter River are THE WORST paddling you can do in the Keweenaw. In the first image below, you can see the sort of conditions I had to contend with. For six. Hours. Straight.
That in itself would have been a great Misery Paddle Tour, but I had bigger goals in mind. I was ultimately aiming to return to Chassell, which meant traversing the length of the Otter River system. Once I hit the Sante River, the North Branch became wide enough that the alder couldn't slow me down. Fallen trees and log jams were another story, and I won't sugar coat it by saying it was 100% smooth sailing. By my wicked standards though, it was a walk in the park. I stopped for dinner at the Michigan Tech Forestry Cabin before setting up camp on a sandbar at Mile 21 between two rapids below the junction with the West Branch of the Otter River. At that point, my body wouldn't let me go any further.
Day Two was more fun on the Otter River. Class I rapids sped me along on one of the most beautiful stretches of river around. I'll be back out here for sure with friends who would normally run at the sound of me inviting them on a paddle trip. Even the 'epic' log jam on the lower Otter River was easy by comparison to what lay further upstream. There was even a well-trodden portage around it, how quaint!
The real challenge for me on the homestretch was the sheer length of flat water to traverse in my 9' kayak. Normally a tiny kayak is preferred for navigating obstacles and hauling over downed trees. They're a terrible choice when you want to go anywhere with purpose. From the southern end of Otter Lake to Chassell via the Sturgeon River there is almost no current to carry you along. That's over a dozen miles of straight paddling... all after busting myself up something good on Day One. This trip was bookended by misery!
All told I traveled 43.5 miles on some of the most treacherous and beautiful river in the Keweenaw. It was exactly what I hoped for.