Tubing down a river on a hot summer day is one of Michigan’s most popular pastimes. But after years of alcohol-fueled floats, the National Forest Service banned alcohol on the Au Sable, Manistee and Pine rivers.
The Forest Service has since backed off that ban due to public outcry. In its place, conservation officers have pledged to educate river users and ramp up law enforcement.
Now the question is, will it work?
Relaxing on the river
The 50-mile stretch of narrow, winding water makes the Pine River a premier spot for kayakers and canoers. It’s sandy cliffs, topped with pines also appeal to tourists looking for picturesque northern Michigan views. But there’s a third reason why people love this river: it’s a party spot that attracts large groups who canoe out coolers of beer and hang on river banks.
On a Sunday in late July, a group of people are relaxing and drinking on a sandy bank near Low Bridge. A man named Tom, who declined to share his full name because he was intoxicated, says he hasn’t seen many problems caused by alcohol.
“Maybe one time over the last 27 years I’ve been coming,” he says.
When asked why he thought the Forest Service would want a ban, the man blamed a few bad apples.
“You’re always going to have somebody that screws it up, right?” Tom says.
Nearby, a group of twenty-year-olds are listening to music and tossing a frisbee around. Joe Duke, from Gregory near Lansing, says his group has been camped out on the Pine River for days. He says they weren’t told by anyone the consequences of drinking too much.
“No, actually it’s been pretty much the same as every year,” Duke says. “No difference foreseeable. We saw the Forest Service for the first time in a few years.”
He says the officers told them where they were allowed to park and left.
Overall, it’s a pretty mild scene. People having a good time, no one visibly drunk.
But the Forest Service says that’s not always the case. They say at times the drinking has gotten so out of hand, they’ve had to rescue people. Some families also complained of indecency and litter.
So instead of an outright ban, the Forest Service and local businesses will try to educate people on how to be respectful on the water.
Enforcement on the water
But the same issues are still there. Forest Service budgets have gone down, so there isn’t money to pay for additional recreation officers.
And Assistant Ranger John Thompson says when it comes to writing tickets or making arrests, there isn’t a lot the Forest Service can do.
“As far as bad behavior you know that’s a tough one for us. If they’re impeding passage on the river, there may be state statutes. We’re going to talk with those individuals,” Thompson says.
Plus, local law enforcement can’t be there all the time. Getting to parts of the Pine is hard; the river runs through a forest with steep, sandy banks.
Leslie Auriemmo, the forest supervisor of the Huron-Manistee National Forests, says it’s a balancing act. She hopes having more officers around to explain the rules may influence a few individuals.
“But when you go down a river and in two hours you see ten, twelve groups of people [and] they’re all feeding off each other,” Auriemmo says.
The stakes for local businesses
Jacob Miltner, the owner of Pine River Paddlesports Center, is less optimistic.
He has been helping his father load canoes into the river since he was a kid. Over time, Miltner says the family has lost business after people had bad experiences on the water.
“It’s impossible to reach up and grab an 'F bomb' out of the air before it hits a little kid’s ears,” Miltner says. “It’s impossible to you know the beautiful girl that’s paddling down the river with her friends and there’s a group of drunks of the bank and they throw [the girls] beads and ask [the girls] to expose themselves. I can’t ever stop that or erase that memory.”
On the other hand, many local businesses rely on groups who like to drink, rent watercrafts and buy beer at nearby stores. So Miltner says the new efforts from the Forest Service are not going to work.
“I think that it will end up in a ban because no matter what at the end of the day I still think that alcohol will be abused if it’s allowed,” he says.
For now, the Forest Service says it is monitoring the waters this summer and will share observations with the community in the fall. At which point, they may reassess.
This story was featured on Points North, you can find the full episode here.