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Forest Service looks to restore the Pine River's "Party Spot"

Feb 18, 2016

The Pine River is one of the fastest flowing rivers in Lower Michigan and one of the most popular. But its popularity created a problem the U.S. Forest Service wants to fix.

The project would mean the end of a sandy bank, about 160 feet high, that attracts crowds of paddlers.

The issue pits people’s enjoyment of the river against the river’s health and even public safety.

The Party Spot

Many paddlers who go down the Pine River finish at Low Bridge, about 20 miles east of Manistee.

In the summer, this sandy bank becomes a popular hangout spot.
Credit U.S. Forest Service

Toward the end of this trip, they come to a steep bank that is almost pure sand from top to bottom.

Jim Thompson, a district ranger in the Huron-Manistee National Forest, says it has a few names. 

“Sand Hill, Canoe Slide, the Big Hill, The Party Spot,” he says.

Thompson says on weekends in the summer you can find more than 100 people pulled over here.

“It’s a slower spot in the river so it’s a good place to stop,” he says. “There’s access there, so they raft up their canoes and then it’s a nice place to stop and play around on the sand hill.”

Why the spot is problematic

Plants don’t grow where people play, especially when it’s sandy. So there’s nothing to stop sand from washing off the bank and into the river.  

And sand can be a problem in a trout stream like the Pine. For example, it covers rocks that would otherwise be used by fish to spawn.

And there is another problem.

People slide their canoes down the sand hill.

Some of them are drunk when they do it, and in 2012, a man died when he flew out of his canoe.

“It was definitely a tragic accident,” Thompson says. “But that type of running up the slope and either running down it, cartwheeling down it, doing somersaults down it or riding watercraft, be it either a kayak or a canoe, are not that uncommon at that site.”

A proposed solution

For these reasons, the Forest Service has proposed using a helicopter to fly in as many as 100 trees.

These would stabilize the bank, along with some filter cloth, so plants could grow.

"And so I'm going to suggest that's how you serve the people, you just leave it alone." — Mark Miltner, owner of Pine River Paddlesports

But some, like Mark Miltner, don’t think that is a great idea. Miltner owns Pine River Paddlesports and rents canoes and kayaks.

“It’s neither serving the people that they’re charged with serving nor is it serving the resource, to get this thing to completely vegetate again,” Miltner says.

Sand is a natural part of the river, he says, and it’s also natural for riverbanks to erode.

He says this is one of the few sandy bends left on the Pine that offers paddlers a place to play.

And he says the view from the top, 160 feet above the water, is one of the most spectacular in the river valley.

"On this site, it is expanded because of the use and then it just hasn't had the opportunity to heal or start re-vegetating just because of that continual use." — District Ranger Jim Thompson

“If you took a vote of every person that stops to enjoy either the view of that bank or enjoy the climb to the top of it and the view from the top, and ask them if they wanted to have that taken away from them, or want it left alone, they’d all say they want it left alone,” Miltner says. “And so I’m going to suggest that’s how you serve the people, you just leave it alone, okay? And let them enjoy the magic that’s there and again, increasingly difficult to come by.”

District Ranger Jim Thompson says the hill would not be closed.

It would just be less inviting if it was covered with trees and plants.

He says it is true riverbanks erode, but he says they usually heal in time.

“On this site, it is expanded because of the use and then it just hasn’t had the opportunity to heal or start re-vegetating just because of that continual use,” Thompson says.

The Forest Service is taking public comment about the proposal.

If they go ahead, the work on Pine River would be done in 2017.