The Cass River that welcomed paddlers Saturday featured high water, bald eagles, turtles, herons and other creatures.
“Today we saw an eagle, lots of turtles and I had a muskrat swimming right next to me in the river,” said Donna Stange, 57, of Tuscola County’s Millington Township, who rode her kayak in the Cass River Paddle & Swim that took dozens of paddlers from either Vassar, or Tuscola, to Frankenmuth.
“If the river was a little lower, we’d surely see fish jumping, and I enjoy that,” said Stange, whose husband, Don, 66, also kayaked the river.
Most paddlers launched at the Tuscola Township Park off VanCleve Road in the eighth annual event celebrating efforts to improve the river’s recreation opportunities, environment and appearance. About 40 watercraft floated downstream from either Vassar or Tuscola.
Audrey Kaschinske, 7, of Saginaw County’s Bridgeport Township, said she counted 26 turtles while riding in a canoe with her mom, Katrina Kaschinske; dad, Daren Kaschinske; and brother, Carter, 5.
“We saw turtles on banks, branches, rocks and on trees coming out of the water,” said Katrina Kaschinske, 46, a financial consultant at Thrivent Financial in Frankenmuth.
“We’ve done this event a couple times and we’ve seen turtles in the same couple spots.”
“One tumbled over and then fell in the water,” Audrey Kaschinske noted.
“He got startled as our canoe came closer, and he flipped over and fell in the water,” Katrina Kaschinske said. “This makes for great family time, and I love the natural questions that (children) come up with. It’s a way to be able to explain – outside the classroom – God’s great creation.”
Katrina Kaschinske’s Thrivent Financial co-worker, Eric Baarck, and his wife, Stephanie, also rode in a canoe in a group of paddlers launching near Bill Zehnder’s home along the Cass River in what Baarck calls “Tuscola Heights.”
“The water conditions were perfect,” said Eric Baarck, a participant in all eight Cass River Paddle & Swim events.
Recent heavy rains made the river level high “and the river was fast enough so you didn’t have to paddle too much but it was high enough so you didn’t have obstructions,” Baarck added.
“For beginners, this is actually nice, because you don’t have to try to get around rocks and that kind of stuff.”
Donna Stange, a Tuscola Intermediate School District employee, took part in the event with co-worker Marchand Bauer and Bauer’s daughter, Meredith Bauer, 8.
“We like to come and enjoy the Cass River with our family; it’s very beautiful,” said Marchand Bauer of Saginaw County’s Blumfield Township, noting she has kayaked since she was a child but adding this was the first time her family has taken part in the Cass River Paddle & Swim.
Swimmers were supposed to launch from an address along Ormes Road and swim to Frankenmuth, accompanied by observers in pontoon boats, but high water this year canceled that portion of the event.
“The river is higher than usual and faster than usual, so nobody is swimming this year,” said Lori Payne, administrative assistant to Zehnder, president of Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn.
“Normally, when the river is average depth, there would be one to two pontoon boats on the water to give the swimmers a little break when they need it.”
Participants received a free hot dog or bratwurst, courtesy of the Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn and grilled by the Frankenmuth Jaycees, at Frankenmuth’s Heritage Park where paddlers finished their route.
“The Cass River is a jewel, and I don’t think we promote it enough,” said Mike Redford, 60, of Frankenmuth, who kayaked Saturday along with his wife, Kris.
“They redid the (Frankenmuth) dam to enhance the sport fishing, and we just want to support that as well,” said Mike Redford, who works for Wellspring Lutheran Services of Frankenmuth.
“I’m part of the Frankenmuth Noon Rotary Club and we’ve done a lot to enhance the waterway. We created the walking paths and have done some other enhancements, so they’ve always been big promoters of getting down by the river.”
Steve Szymanski, 71, of Frankenmuth Township turned heads paddling his 19-foot red cedar canoe, which he launched in Vassar on Saturday morning.
But the river, in bright sunshine and with temperatures in the 70s, was Saturday’s star, too.
Bob Zeilinger, 71, of Frankenmuth, chairman of the Cass River Greenway group that strives to improve the river, said Cass River Paddle & Swim, coordinated by Zehnder, gives area residents a new perspective.
“We started with the event just to get people out on the river so they can see what we have to offer,” Zeilinger said. “They get out there and say, ‘Hey, it’s pretty nice.’ The river looks a lot different when you’re paddling down it rather than driving over a bridge.”
Zeilinger said expanded recreational opportunities on the river include the Cass River Water Trail (www.cassriverwatertrail.org) consisting of 13 public-access points starting at M-46 where the highway crosses the Cass in Tuscola County, and traveling downstream to a launch at Wickes Park in Saginaw.
The access points “are for the most part about five miles apart, so it’s an easy couple hours to paddle,” said Zeilinger, stressing that kayakers using the launch where M-13 crosses the Cass River in Saginaw County can paddle through the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge.
Tom Gilchrist is a staff writer for The Advertiser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.