Family members clad in cloth face masks applauded, cheered and rang cowbells as two “senior citizen” paddlers worked their way to the Grand Haven pier heads early Monday afternoon, completing a multi-year journey to traverse the entire length of the Grand River.
Brothers Tom Neely, 67, and Joe Neely, 65, gave a quick “thumbs up” as they rounded the end of the north pier, then used their paddles to steady their canoe in the swells and boat wake.
The last mile of their journey would be completed on a relatively calm Lake Michigan as they headed to their sister’s home on the north shore. It was formerly their parents’ home.
Joe said he couldn’t wait to get out of the canoe.
“My knees are getting bad and it’s not as easy to get in and out of the canoe as it was five years ago,” he said prior to starting the last 10 miles of the journey Monday morning.
The brothers had been battling a strong headwind for a couple of hours before they stopped for a quick break near the North Shore Marina in order for family members to get in place at the north pier.
“I just think it’s so fun that they did it,” said their sister, Amy Wisner. “I didn’t think they would.”
“We had to finish it,” Tom said. “We came this far.”
Joe said the Grand River was a big part of their lives as they grew up on Grand Haven’s north shore.
The younger brother said they had been talking about doing something like this for years, but were finally inspired to do it when his wife and daughters announced they were going on a trip to Italy.
“We told him about the trip and he said, ‘What about me?’” said Joe’s wife, Linda. “Two days later, he bought a canoe and a pickup truck. He thought, ‘If she’s doing a grand adventure, I will, too.’ ... I’m proud that he did it.”
Joe, of Ann Arbor, sells real estate and works part time at Lowes. Tom, of Grand Rapids, is a musician (drummer) who said he now edits first drafts of romance novels.
They started and ended their journey in a used canoe that Joe bought. The yellow canoe sporting an American flag on the back is named in memory of their grandmother, Billie Verschoor.
“Our grandmother would have thought this was a great adventure,” Wisner said.
Paddling a day or two at a time, the brothers patterned their journey a little like the Grand Expedition that was supposed to have been completed again this year. In fact, Tom clipped articles from the last journey 10 years ago and put them in a book for his brother.
In 2016, Joe got permission to paddle on Grand Lake in Jackson County, where the river actually starts, he said. The brothers then had to walk a “bubbling stream” until they came to water deep enough to float the canoe. Still, they had to walk a couple of miles and pull the canoe behind them.
From Onondaga on, they were able to paddle. This they did, mostly in the summer and on weekdays.
They paddled only briefly two years ago when their mother died. They didn’t paddle at all last year because Joe and Linda bought a house and remodeled it.
Back on track this year, the brothers started in Ada and continued their way west.
The only three-day stretch of paddling they did on their journey of the 252-mile river was the last three days, two of which were straight into strong winds.
On Saturday, they paddled 13 miles, ending up in the Coopersville area. On Sunday, they did three hard hours into the wind for a total of 5.6 miles.
The brothers figured their last day would be just over 10 miles, starting from Indian Channel and ending at their sister’s home. That meant paddling more than a mile on Lake Michigan after clearing the river.
Tom said the best part of the journey was spending time with his brother – “we’ve mostly gotten along well together.”
He said he also enjoyed the solitude of being on the river.
“You feel like you’re in the wilderness, but you are really close to everything,” he said.
A great blue heron flew by as the men talked Monday morning.
“That’s our spirit bird,” Joe said. “We’ve seen a lot of herons.”
Joe said that most of the days they paddled, they were able to return home at night. This time, they camped at Conestoga Campground in Nunica.
“That’s the other thing about this adventure,” he said. “It didn’t cost an arm and a leg.”
The worst thing about their journey was some of the powerboaters and their disregard for the smaller vessel, the brothers agreed.
You can read more about their journey on their blog, lengthofthegrand.com.