Extreme Social Distance: Paddling the entire 182-mile length of the Manistee River in Northern Michigan

For the most part, paddlers are outdoor people, so when you tell them they have to stay indoors and not paddle in events, a little crazy starts to happen. Now there is regular crazy, when you tear the “do not remove” labels off your pillows, and then there is Daniel Novak crazy.

Dan is no stranger to “off-center” thinking, his last big adventure was a 52-mile one-day unassisted trip from Lake Superior to Lake Michigan on the Au Train and Whitefish rivers. It was no huge surprise when Dan came up with the idea to paddle the entire 182-mile length of the Manistee River in Northern Michigan. What was a surprise was that he convinced other people into joining him. Among Dan’s co-conspirators for this epic adventure were a pair of last season’s top-ranked Midwest Paddle League finishers Alex Sandler (2) and Bret Schapman (4).

Alex and Bret, photo Alex Sandler

Alex Sandler is a super strong and fast paddler and makes his living in the fitness-related industry, besides he’s Russian. He runs races, and climbs mountains. The dude has adventure in his bones. He’s a perfect fit for this sort of thing.

Bret Schapman on the other hand, is in great shape, is a fierce competitor, but is a soft-spoken farmer that doesn’t quite have the same level of experience living inside the bubble of extreme adventure. The most interesting angle for this story is what makes this sort of extreme adventure appealing to those of us who have yet to undertake such an adventure. To dig into what motivates a person to undertake the extraordinary, we need to get inside the head of someone who made the commitment, persevered, and ultimately achieved. I sat down with Bret to get his perspective.

Bret Schapman photo Dan Novak

Bret, how did you get roped into to Dan’s madness?

It started with a social distancing paddle meet up with Alex on Pontiac Lake. I suggested to Alex that we should load up the boards and visit Dan for a day or two of paddling as it appeared our race season was getting pushed back further and further. Unbeknownst to me Daniel was already in the planning stages of the Manistee trip. Alex planted the seed of “Wait to see what crazy stuff we are planning”, and I was hooked.

What was attractive about this particular adventure?

I was ripe for the picking as I had been listening to several podcast of long-distance paddling from Paddlecast with Chris Parker featuring the likes Bart de Zwart and Casper Steinfath. I needed to see if I had the mindset that was needed to complete a Yukon 1000 or a Campus to Coast canoe race.  I felt a bit honored to even make Dan’s list of possible paddle mates.

Alex, Dan, Bret, Kyler Bradley photo Sylvain D.

How did you prepare for the trip? 

I was fortunate to have been paddling since mid-March but even so my longest paddle was only 10 or so miles. I felt my conditioning was acceptable not know the toll of 50-mile days but at that point I felt a taper might be needed in my training schedule. I only had about two-weeks’ notice of the trip and really only one to start acquiring the needed supplies The most challenging part was purchasing the right gear for the trip having never done anything of the sort. With most retail stores closed, Amazon was my only option.

What did you carry with you on the board?

Everything had to be lightweight but quality for the unassisted trip. I was worried that a failure in any of links in the chain would have been disastrous. Sleeping Bag, Hammock, emergency blanket, first aid kit, sunscreen, bug spray, extra fin, Leatherman, hand and body warmers, tooth brush, soap, etc. Food totaling around 15,000 calories which consisted of nuts and granola and dried fruit (fats), beef jerky (protein) and Vitargo in my Camelbak for Carbs. 3 liters of water and an extra bladder for the Camelbak. Extra clothes like rash guards top and bottoms, stocking caps, gloves, tape, shoes and ding kit for fixing holes. 15,000mah power bank for charging watches, phones and head lamps.

Dan Novak, photo Alex Sandler

What were your feelings leading up to departure and getting started?

What was going to fail first? My equipment, my body, the mind? I wanted to be prepared for anything. Definitely pumped with excitement but trying to plan for the unknown was unsettling.

How did your feelings evolve and change during the trip?

At points, I asked myself if it was real? I had never done much paddling on rivers with current let alone the rapids. The speeds at times were awesome like downwinders but the ride/glide was for a mile. Ducking under branches and missing submerged logs and rocks by mere inches to gain time became a bit of a rush.

What kind of challenges in terms of river conditions did you have to overcome?

The first couple miles were a struggle with beaver dams, unseen stumps and obstacles. I probably spent as much time on my knees as I did standing. Dan warned us in the first 50 feet that you had better start practicing dropping to a knee, as he effortlessly would hit obstacles glide over them and jump to front of his board to clear his fin. I definitely swam the most with 5 or 6 full capsizes let alone multiple face plants to the front of the board. The first 40 or so miles were filled with the chorus of log left, keep it tight to the right and “Take a knee”. If you missed a stroke or let your guard down for a few seconds you were probably swimming. I got educated on reading a river and taking corners very quickly. At times lying on your board flat to clear logs, needing assistance from your spotter in the back to clear your camelbak because there simply wasn’t room to spare. We did paddle into the darkness on Saturday, ending around 10:45 pm but it was on the head waters of the Hodenply Dam pond. A little eerie paddling in pitch black but from where we had come from it seemed almost relaxing. Side note we were wearing full PFD’s in the dark and upper river technical portions.

Navigating a beaver dam, Kyle, followed by Alex, and Bret, photo Dan Novak

Did you ever hit a wall? How did you get through it?

I never hit a wall but at times my right of left trapezius would burn so bad you would have thought it was on fire. I would switch paddling hands to the next inevitable corner and hoped the lactic acid had cleared.  I learned that shoes are an integral part of the equation and might not have made it without them.

What kind of support did you get along the way? Did people bring you food and water?

The only real support we had was a case of water that Dan had strategically placed under a bridge on day two to allow for refilling of the camelbaks. We did stop at one Canoe rental spot but I only purchased two bottled waters as a precaution. On the second night we did stay in a campground at a friend of Dan’s, I slept in my hammock and Dan and Alex on their boards with the fin removed as the night before.

Luxury Accommodations, photo Alex Sandler

How did you stay fueled?

Lots of condensed macros that were preplanned and stashed in my camelbak as we never really stopped to eat.

What was your calorie intake?

My Garmin showed 13,000 plus calories for paddling hours plus sleep etc. I would guess it to be about 5,000 a day for the three day trip.

How much sleep did you get? How/Where did you sleep?

We paddled for about 15 hours a day Friday and Saturday and 10 on Sunday. Friday night we made camp around 10:00 pm on the side of the river on some scouted high ground. We slept till about 5:30 am packing camp and dry sac bags to hit repeat. I did have an unfortunate swim around 8 o’clock on Friday night which left me wet for two hours before making camp. I then learned that I had planned for more sun than cold with my hands and feet becoming numb by the time we stopped. We knew the temps Friday night would be in the 30’s but I wasn’t expecting to be wet. I will pack warmer dry clothes next time. I was surprised to find Ice/frost on my board Saturday when we were leaving camp.

How many miles did you do per day?

Friday was a hard and technical 52 with the first 4 miles at a pace of 24 minutes per mile according to Garmin. Saturday was around 80 miles and Sunday around 50. The amazing thing was at almost any point Daniel could tell you where we were at and how far to the next bridge or landmark. His planning was meticulous and photographic memory of miles and maps was surreal

Alex, Dan, Bret putting in miles, photo Sylvain D.

What did it feel like to finish?

The finish was welcoming after a headwind coming into Manistee. I was a bit beat up from the sunburnt lips and ankles and my feet more specifically the balls were starting to ache so much as I tried to dip them in the water to subside the burning sensation. I remember at mile 167 that told myself to take it all in because the trip was almost over. I was maybe a bit sad because it was ending and I wanted more. I hadn’t broke yet and I wanted to find what it was? I wanted the failure that I was trying to prepare for from the onset.

Bret, Dan, Alex Crossing the finish line, photo Sylvain D.

What did you learn about yourself?

That I can probably push through most pain and that my equipment will fail before I do. The six plus miles races are fun but I want more distances or obstacles to dance with.  There is a want for more rivers and specifically a time clock to push the limits of control and intensity and thus comfort and stability.

Kyler Bradley was also on the trip with us until mile 98 when he dropped because of the pain in his ankles. Sylvain D. from Traverse City allowed us to sleep at his house on Thursday night and also dropped us at the starting line on Friday morning. He meet us at the Tippy Dam on Sunday to Canoe to the finish. We then returned he and Dan to the Dam where they returned to Traverse City and we drove home.

Trip mastermind, Daniel Novak added:
“Awesome experience grows much larger if shared with friends. I’m thankful for Bret joining, finishing and getting hooked.  I count Kyler and Sylvain in for whatever comes next. Keep on going until you get there (destination is your choice)”

Alex Sandler:
“With Covid’s Spring appearance in Michigan, our race schedule had been delayed— big time! We were itching to get back out there in a big way and didn’t feel quite like waiting it out for the next race, so we went ahead, packed up our stuff, and moved forward with an idea that had been in the works for months! Originally, we had planned to paddle for 160 miles, but since we had already accomplished that last year at the Campus to Coast race, we decided to up the crazy factor and shoot for 170! After all was said and done, our insanity spanned… 183 miles!!!

We made it to the finish line, thanks to Dan Novak, who has just jaw-dropping orientation and mapping skills. He made sure no one got lost along the way. His encouragement, words of wisdom, and immaculate knowledge of calories burning, energy spending, and cadence, were so spot on that we arrived at each stop within minutes of his planned arrival time.

Big shout out to our support crew -Sylvain, who was a great international (French, Czech , American, and Russian) team member from the get go! We were just so blessed to have the water and the weather this year and, aside from some plummeting night temps, had an absolute blast. I’m not sure my body could move much the next day, but it was SO worth it. Will do again.”

Alex Sandler selfie

In the grand scheme of things, Stand-Up paddling is still a very new way of having an adventure. Each and every day people are doing things on a paddleboard that have never been done before. Like paddling the entire length of a river like the Manistee. While many of these adventures are undertaken by intrepid adventurers like Dan Novak, there is still a lot of opportunity for people like Bret Schapman to do something that has never been done before.

What’s in your backyard that’s never been done before? There are so few things in life where we can be the first to do something. Maybe history remembers you, maybe it doesn’t, but wouldn’t it be cool to be able to say, “I was the first to do it on a paddleboard”?

Get out there, adventure awaits.