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Liquid Therapy

Three Rivers couple’s canoe and kayak livery puts people to paddling

Karen McDonald and Ernie Manges happened to see a brief TV commercial one morning about a canoe-and-kayak business in Three Rivers that was up for sale. The TV spot ended up turning the South Bend construction workers into livery owners, and now they’re in their seventh year of putting paddlers on the rivers and lakes of St. Joseph County.

“It was a three-second coincidence in our life,” Manges says. “We were eating breakfast at home, watching the morning news on TV and having a conversation when we glanced up and saw this ad. Other than that, we’d still be working construction.”

Manges, who’s 51, had spent 30 years doing residential and other construction, and McDonald, 49, had worked in construction for three years and had her own landscaping business before that. They both loved paddling in their spare time, McDonald since she was a kid growing up on a lake in South Bend, Ind., and Manges since a buddy invited him to take a trip down the Dowagiac River about 15 years ago.

“The beauty and peace and tranquility was just awesome,” Manges says. “After 15 minutes, your shoulders would relax and you’d forget about work, about bills, about people who bug you.”

McDonald says she first took Manges out in a canoe when they were in high school, but he didn’t paddle on his own very much until shortly before they started dating. They’ve been living together now for more than 10 years.

“My ex-husband didn’t like water,” she says. “When Ernie and I hooked up, I dusted off my orange canoe and we started paddling together. When we worked for a construction company, we would go out after work and put the canoe on a little river by my house. It was kind of like sitting on your back porch, but the scenery kept changing.”

The couple thought about starting a paddling business in South Bend, but then a friend told them about the Rocky River, which flows into the St. Joseph River at Three Rivers. They checked it out and thought Three Rivers was “a cool little town,” McDonald says.

The TV commercial gave them the final push they needed to venture out in a new direction. They contacted the real estate company that ran the ad and then talked with the livery owner. The livery was located in a park owned by the city of Three Rivers, but the city had canceled its contract with the previous owner. After discussions with the city and inspections of the boats that were for sale, the couple decided to buy their own boats. The city drew up a new contract that leases them the livery space and has them taking care of the city-owned Conservation Park, located just south of the Main Street-Michigan Street intersection, along the St. Joseph River. (The former owner now runs a livery in northern Michigan, McDonald says.)

The couple gave their livery the name Liquid Therapy. Manges says they chose that name because “the liquid was the water and our refreshment, and the act of paddling was therapeutic.”

McDonald describes the decision to start Liquid Therapy as a way of getting off one sinking ship and gaining a fleet of better vessels. “We used to work for a construction company in Elkhart that was building trailers,” she says. “We saw that ship was sinking so we took our 401(k)s and bought several ships.” They purchased 21 canoes and nine kayaks, to be precise, and recently bought 10 more kayaks because they found kayaking is becoming more popular among their customers, as it has nationwide.

The couple now spends the warmer months living in a camper at Hidden Pond Campground, in Nottawa, to be closer to the livery.

From Grasslands to Whitewater

St. Joseph County has about 150 miles of navigable rivers and creeks, more than any other county in Michigan, according to the River Country Tourism Council and the St. Joseph County Conservation District. “We’ll put you in on any of those on off times,” McDonald says, “but during busy times we stick with the closer ones.”

Kayakers and canoeists who use Liquid Therapy typically have their choice of five rivers. In addition to the St. Joe or the Rocky, they can paddle the Fawn, Portage or Prairie rivers.

Each river offers its own flavor of outdoor fun. The St. Joe is the largest of the five, flowing wide and slow in the stretch from Three Rivers to Constantine and taking paddlers under the longest covered bridge in the state, the Langley Covered Bridge, near Centreville, built in 1887. The portion of the river upstream of Withers Road seems a bit like the Everglades, Manges says — without alligators, of course.


The Rocky is the St. Joe’s opposite: a narrow, winding river with a short whitewater segment near the end that fearful paddlers can portage around. It earns its name only in that final stretch; upstream it has mostly a sandy bottom.

On both rivers, paddlers can opt for a two-hour or four-hour trip. But sometimes paddlers stretch it out even farther. “One couple on the two-hour trip on the St. Joe camped out on an island for the whole weekend,” McDonald says.

The Fawn River weaves quietly through prairie fields and marshes near the Indiana-Michigan border and offers opportunities for birdwatching and an occasional glimpse of a muskrat or fawn. Manges and McDonald are hoping to offer overnight trips on the Fawn River someday, but currently they offer a three-hour trip on the Fawn.

The Portage and Prairie rivers are also narrow and winding, traversing mainly woodlands. Paddlers who put in to the Portage River at Portage Lake, northwest of Three Rivers, paddle about seven hours before reaching the livery, but shorter trips are available. Paddlers who put in on the Prairie at Centreville, southwest of Three Rivers, and travel west toward the St. Joe can choose trips of two-, three- or four-and-a-half hours.

McDonald says the Portage and Prairie rivers are especially good for wildlife viewing. She’s seen a raccoon sleeping in a hollowed-out log, an owl’s nest, baby owls, baby fox, osprey, eagles, herons, swans, turkey and deer, among other animals.

She also says she likes having so many river options to offer paddlers. “If we have partiers, a church group and a newlywed couple on the same day, we can put ’em all on different rivers,” she says.

The Rocky River is the most popular among kayakers, and the St. Joe among canoeists and large groups.

Rolling down the Rocky

On a recent summer day, McDonald took Encore photographer Erik Holladay and me out for a paddle on the Rocky River. We had to skip the whitewater stretch to avoid getting the cameras wet, but we got a thrilling little taste of fast water even after we portaged the canoe around the rapids.

McDonald and Manges like to take their dog Joy out on the rivers with them, and this day was no exception. McDonald chose a sit-on-top kayak and let Joy stand on top behind her. The dog lost her footing only twice on the two-and-a-half-hour trip, and McDonald was easily able to help Joy back on board by grabbing the handle atop the dog’s Outward Hound life vest. But McDonald chose to shoot the rapids without Joy, who whimpered for her owner on shore as her temporary guardian held tight to her leash.

Asked if many paddlers choose to brave the whitewater, McDonald replied, “It depends on how much liquid courage they’ve had.”

For most of the journey, a great blue heron stayed just ahead of us, searching for fish near the riverbank, then spreading its wings and taking off downstream when we came closer. Bright-orange orioles and red- winged blackbirds flitted through the trees and grasses, and iridescent-aqua dragonflies landed on our boats and paddles. A few small turtles lounged on logs jutting into the river.

The Rocky was easily navigable most of the way, with only a few tricky turns around fallen trees.

Clearing the way

It’s a big job in the early spring and again in the fall for McDonald and Manges to make sure the rivers are cleared enough to allow for the passage of kayaks and canoes. “We go down in a canoe with a chainsaw and loppers and a handsaw,” McDonald says. “It can be hard, especially when the best place to cut is in deep water. We generally get in the water. I wear waders, and Ernie wears a wetsuit. He cuts, and I pull stuff out of the way.”

“The first year we were open I never ran a chainsaw in my life,” Manges says. “It was all learned experience. No one really taught me. I never lost a saw, but I came close. One time it took an hour and a half to get one out of the water.”

The Fawn doesn’t require much work, and there’s nothing tall enough to fall all the way across the St. Joe, Manges says. With the other three rivers, they try to cut passages just big enough for a canoe and leave as much natural habitat as possible. “If you clear-cut a river, your fish will move out and then the heron that eat the fish,” Manges says.

They also try to make sure the deepest sections of river are cleared because, as summer goes on, water levels drop drastically, especially as farmers begin to draw water from the rivers to irrigate their fields. But sometimes it’s impossible to cut through a really large tree that has fallen.

“I’ll make notches in it so as years go by that will put a weak spot in it,” Manges says. “Trees don’t last long in the water.” In the meantime, he and McDonald warn customers that they’ll have to pull their boat over a tree or two.

Smiles are best reward

Liquid Therapy attracts between 1,500 and 2,000 paddlers a year, according to Manges. Customers often come from campgrounds in St. Joe County like Cranberry Lake, Hidden Pond and Camp Tavor, a summer camp for Jewish children and teens. Other paddlers come from Kalamazoo and Portage, and some from as far away as Chicago or Ohio.

At the peak of the summer, Manges and McDonald work as long as 11 or 12 hours a day. McDonald generally works in the office, and Manges hauls the boats. They’ll put people on the water between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. any day between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but they might have to pick them up as late as 6 p.m. And as part of their agreement with the city of Three Rivers, they also work hard maintaining Conservation Park.

“They mow, keep the park clean, paint when things need to be painted. I think they’re doing a great job,” says Terry Loomis, a secretary in the Department of Public Works who has worked for the city for 33 years. “I paddle myself so I know Karen and Ernie, and they’re always real pleasant to talk to. It’s really nice to have them here.”

Liquid Therapy is open weekends from early April to Memorial Day, and again from Labor Day until late October, and takes reservations in the off-season. But business drops off suddenly after Labor Day.

“It’s like a light switch,” Manges says. “There’s beautiful colors on our rivers, but we just can’t get a grip to get people to come.”

During the winter, the couple do small construction jobs to make ends meet, mostly for family and friends, but they hope the livery will eventually support them year- round. “Our goal is to earn $50,000 to $70,000 a year,” Manges says. “We don’t have to have what the Joneses have.”

When they’re not working, Manges and McDonald love to get out on the water themselves. But even when they’re back at the office or hauling boats, they still feel a great sense of satisfaction.

“We’re not going to be millionaires or anything” Manges says, “but when customers come back laughing and smiling, that there’s worth its weight in gold itself.”

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Southwest Michigan Liveries

If you live in the Kalamazoo area and don’t have your own canoe or kayak, it’s not as easy to find a livery as it used to be. In fact, the only liveries we could find still operating on the southwestern Michigan stretch of the Kalamazoo River are based in Saugatuck, Douglas and Holland.

“I think the economy has had a big effect,” says Skip Lee, of Lee’s Adventure Sports, a longtime Kalamazoo business that sells and rents canoe, kayaks and paddle boards but does not offer transport services. “The upfront cost to buying equipment is fairly steep. To be competitive you have to have a decent price range for your rentals, and that doesn’t necessarily give you a fast payback. If economic situations take a turn or there’s funky weather, that can have a big effect on small seasonal businesses.”

The Enbridge oil spill on the Kalamazoo in 2010 didn’t help either. Shady Bend Campground, in Augusta, used to offer canoe and kayak trips on the Kalamazoo but went out of business after 22 years because of the oil spill. And even though the spill did not affect the portions of the river from the Morrow Lake Dam, in Comstock Township, to Lake Michigan, Lee says, “I know for awhile people wondered whether they should be on the river.”

A livery that used to put people on the Kalamazoo from D Avenue to Plainwell and on Portage Creek at Celery Flats stopped operating several years ago. Kayaker’s Run, in Plainwell, took over on the Kalamazoo, but that livery is now out of business, too. The owners of Kayaker’s Run, also owned the longtime business Old Allegan Canoe, and shut down both liveries at the start of this season.

Nevertheless, if you’re willing to take a drive, you can still find many area liveries that will give you a chance to experience river paddling. Some are open only in the summer; some have limited fall hours. Check websites for hours, rates and other details.

ST. JOSEPH COUNTY

En Gedi Campground River Resort
30321 Covey Road, Leonidas Twp.
Phone: (269) 689-7490
E-mail: engedicampground@gmail.com
Website: engediresort.com
River: St. Joseph

Liquid Therapy Canoe & Kayak Rental
221 S. Main St., Three Rivers

Phone: (269) 273-9000

Website: liquidtherapycanoeandkayak
Rivers: St. Joseph, Rocky, Prairie, Portage and Fawn

CASS COUNTY

Doe-Wah-Jack’s Canoe Rental
52963 M-51 North, four miles north of Dowagiac
Phone: (888) 782-7410

E-mail: info@paddledcri.com

Website: paddledcri.com
River: Dowagiac

BARRY COUNTY

U-Rent-Em Canoe Livery
805 W. Apple St., Hastings
Phone: (269) 945-3191
Website: urentemcanoe.com
River: Thornapple

Indian Valley Campground and Canoe Livery
8200 108th St., near Caledonia

Phone: (800) 810-8579

Website: indianvalleycampgroundandcanoe.com
River: Thornapple

GR Paddling
Based in Grand Rapids; offers guided trips in Barry County

Phone: (616) 558-2609

Website: grpaddling.com
Rivers: Thornapple, Coldwater

ALLEGAN AND VAN BUREN COUNTIES

Kayak-Kayak
Based in Holland but rentals available near South Haven and Allegan

Phone: (616) 366-1146

Website: kayak-kayak.com
Rivers: Black and lower Kalamazoo (and others)

Big Lake Outfitters
640 Water St., Saugatuck
Phone: (269) 857-4762

Website: biglakeoutfitters.com
River: Kalamazoo

Running Rivers Kayak Rental
Wade’s Bayou Memorial Park, Center Street, Douglas
Phone: (616) 218-5021

River: Lower Kalamazoo

BERRIEN COUNTY

Harbor Shores Canoe & Kayak Rental
200 Upton Drive, Benton Harbor
Phone: (269) 985-3747

E-mail: info@harborshorespaddle.com
Website: harborshoreslife.com
River: St. Joseph

Outpost Sports
105 W. Buffalo St., New Buffalo
 (South Haven and St. Joseph locations do not offer livery service.)

Phone: (269) 469-4210

Website: outpostsports.com

River: Galien

Paw Paw River Campgrounds
5355 M-140, Watervliet

Phone: (269) 463-5454

Website: pawpawrivercampgroundandcanoes.com
River: Paw Paw

St. Joseph River Canoe & Kayak Livery
602 Fisherman’s Road, St. Joseph
Phone: (269) 277-4434

E-mail: info@fishermanswharfsj.com
Website: fishermanswharfsj.com
Rivers: St. Joseph and Paw Paw