Traversing the Tamarack: Behind the scenes with a backyard treasure

By Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 8:34 pm on Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Jim Kersjes of Grand Rapids, a volunteer with the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly, prepares to help kayakers portage around fallen trees in the Tamarack Creek. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

group representing the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly recently kayaked down a local tributary, and I went along for the ride.

A banner boasting the epic title “Voyage of Discovery” was on display last Friday morning at Minnie Farmer Park on the east side of Howard City. The voyage covered about three miles of the Tamarack Creek from Minnie Farmer Park’s artesian well to Artman Park on Howard City’s west side.

Our group of 17 was warned there would be some portage along the way (the act of carrying boats and gear from one navigable point of water to another).

Arguably, we portaged as much as we kayaked. Fallen trees awaited us around every other bend in the stream. Some we snuck under, others we slid and wiggled over while spiders of various sizes and other creepy crawlies snuck or fell into our vessels. Many fallen trees forced us out of the creek altogether.

Kayakers exit Tamarack Creek to portage around fallen trees. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

That’s not to say the trip wasn’t enjoyable. On the contrary, it was a blast.

Finding ways over, under and around the fallen logs was an adventure. Riding the occasional small set of rapids was exhilarating. The scenery was beautiful. At times it felt as if you were traversing the backwaters of the Everglades, only to remind yourself you were simply sneaking through the backyard of Montcalm County’s Panhandle.

Plus, I burned about 1,700 calories, according to My Fitness Pal smartphone app.

The Muskegon River Watershed Assembly was created by volunteers in 1998 to help address the needs of the Muskegon River and to assure that future generations are able to enjoy the river, which travels through 12 counties in Michigan. The assembly was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2000 and received grants from the Peter Wege Foundation and the Great Lakes Fishery Trust in 2001, allowing them to hire two full-time employees. Another part-time employee was hired in 2011 to help with clerical responsibilities. Ferris State University provides office space and technology support for the organization on the college’s Big Rapids campus.

Montcalm County Commissioner Tom Lindeman of Greenville rode along on Friday’s voyage. Montcalm County Commissioner Ron Baker of Howard City was in attendance as well, but only for moral support (he helped send us off by taking a group photo, waited at bridges to warn us of future obstacles and cheered us on as we arrived at the end of our journey).

The voyage took us about four hours. Normally it would have taken half the time, but our group tried to stay together, which often meant waiting for others to catch up during portage.

Kayakers on the Tamarack Creek will travel under a number of bridges in varying states of disrepair near Howard City. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

Our group had a generous share of mishaps. Just moments into the voyage, one gentleman got his kayak wedged alongside a fallen tree. Within a matter of seconds, his vessel filled with water, tipped and sank, sending him into the depths. He briefly disappeared beneath the fallen tree before emerging soaked and sputtering on the other side of the log. Others were unceremoniously dumped into the water as well. Some of us successfully kept our vessel balanced but nonetheless sustained sopping wet pants from the occasional gush of water while we were sneaking underneath a fallen tree.

Muskegon River Watershed Assembly Treasurer Ken Johnson was our official guide for the day and he did a fine job.

Muskegon River Watershed Assembly Executive Director Terry Stilson came along for the ride, as well as to update participants about recent grant funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to improve water quality and reduce pollutants in Tamarack Creek. The EPA will fund almost $257,000 of the total $440,500 project, which is underway now through September 2017.

Using grant funds, the assembly aims to stabilize the banks of the Tamarack Creek to slow down ongoing erosion, which has placed the creek on the assembly’s “critical” area in its watershed management plan. The assembly plans to use soft engineering with the help of coconut coir logs to preserve the creekbanks at Artman Park and Minnie Farmer Park. The assembly is also partnering with Tri County Area Schools to have students plan native plant buffers along 60 percent of the creek’s shoreline.

The watershed assembly also plans to implement some agricultural best management practices with local farmers in the Howard City and Lakeview area in the hopes of reducing the amount of nutrients going into the Tamarack Creek, which eventually enters the Little Muskegon River, the Muskegon River and then Lake Michigan. The assembly plans to work with local farmers to create 24 acres of riparian buffer and filter strips, 10 acres of grassed waterways, livestock steam crossings and 2,000 acres of cover crops.

Friday’s voyage was Stilson’s first time kayaking down the Tamarack Creek.

“It’s not a normal creek for paddling, but if someone wanted to make some trails through the downed trees it would be a great creek to paddle from park to park,” she noted. “It would also be an attraction for Howard City and its businesses.”

Volunteers are always needed to join the Muskegon River Monitoring Program and help monitor local streams each spring and fall to gather data for the watershed assembly and the state of Michigan to be used in water resource management and protection programs. Call Project Manager Dixie Ward at (231) 591-2320 or email

For more information about the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly, or to peruse the assembly’s extensive repository of documents and links to local watershed-oriented data, visit online or email Stilson at

Seventeen people participated in the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly’s Voyage of Discovery last Friday on the Tamarack Creek through Howard City. — Courtesy photo

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