The St. Joseph River starts in eastern Michigan, dips down into Indiana, then turns back North into Michigan to dump out into lake Michigan. The very concept of a paddleable river going right through the city immediately excited me. So not long after moving to South Bend I began exploring it. Even though the river is dotted with urban scenery and extravagant houses, it still delivers a good dose of nature. Keep your eyes open for wading birds, turtles, and even beavers.
The map above can help you pick out a put in and take out spot that works for you. It’s incomplete, but will be updated as I learn more. The current can be fairly swift depending on the amount of rain. Expect to paddle at least 3 miles per hour. There are a number of dams that need to be portaged, so be prepared to carry your boat a little ways. South Bend to Lake Michigan can easily be done in a weekend. Shuttling (making sure there is a car waiting for you at the end of the trip) can take a while for longer trips, but it’s worth it. Hitchhiking back is another option, but is not recommended for those on a tight schedule.
Although I have not yet attempted it, it seems reasonable to paddle the entire length of the river in a single weekend. I will eventually try this and let you know.
Gear you need
A canoe or kayak
Basic camping gear, all in waterproof containers
There are several secluded shores on islands that work great for free campsites.You could pull off onto the various islands (not always legal but harmless). Another cool option would be to try couchsurfing with people in the towns along the way.
The St. Joseph passes through Hillsdale, Union City, Three Rivers, Elkhart, Mishawaka, South Bend, Niles, Buchanan, Berrien Springs, Benton Harbor, and St. Joseph. These are all interesting little cities that are worth checking out if you have the time. Bring a cable lock so that you can lock your boat to a tree or something and take a walk or grab a bite to eat.
Obtaining a boat
If you’re going to be doing a lot of paddling, your best option is to just buy a used canoe or kayak. The beauty of this is that if you get a good deal, then there’s no reason you can’t resell it for the same amount after you’re done with it. The best place to find good deals is craigslist.com. Generally anything less than $300 is pretty reasonable. If you would rather try out paddling before making a purchase, St. Patrick’s park rents out both canoes and kayaks in the Summer to paddle a short stretch of the river.
Already paddled the St. Joe and looking for something different? Try out some of the tributaries such as the Elkhart River and Christiana Creek. Narrower and swifter than the main river, these offer a completely different experience. See the map above for launch information.
Is flatwater paddling not your thing? Are you looking for an addreneline rush this afternoon? Try tackling the rapids of the East Race Waterway!