50 years of paddling experiences on the Chippewa River

Weaving through Mt. Pleasant, the iconic 92-mile-long Chippewa River is well known by fishermen, kayakers, and canoeists for its recreational enjoyment.

The river’s splendor was recognized by John Buckley over 50 years ago, when he chose to do his graduate fellowship at Central Michigan University. 

“We already had a background in canoeing. So, rivers were no mystery to us,” shares Buckley of his move to Mt. Pleasant with his wife, Donna. “We've been up and down all of Michigan's rivers. And in fact, I kind of chose CMU because of the Chippewa River.”

Photo credit Courtney Jerome / Epicenter Mt. Pleasant.The scenic view of Chippewa River from Buckley’s Mountainside Canoes
As the seasons passed, throughout the years, the Buckleys have endured multiple adventures. They spent 35 winters in the “back country” of the Everglades on a houseboat, working with wildlife, rescuing people, and helping those who had gotten lost. They also paddled the east coast from New York to Miami, then from Michigan to Mexico. Additionally, they’re each competitive canoe racing champions.

John and Donna’s experiences shaped their ethos, instilling a sense of adventure and a willingness to embrace the unknown.

Yet, their love for the Chippewa River has always remained steadfast—a testament to their dedication to fostering a community of outdoor enthusiasts in their home of Mt. Pleasant.

In the warmer months, the Buckleys spend their time either on the shores of Lake Superior, or nestled on the riverbank of their home along the Chippewa River. It’s here, where they first opened Buckley’s Mountainside Canoes—as strong stewards of the river—in 1973. 

This season marks the 50th anniversary of Buckley’s Mountainside Canoes, serving as a haven for outdoor enthusiasts to discover the splendor of Mt. Pleasant’s flagship river via rentable canoes and kayaks.

Liz Busch, the current owner of Buckley's, carries on the tradition of excellence set forth by John and Donna. With a passion for environmental youth education and a commitment to community engagement, Busch has embraced her role as steward of Buckley's Mountainside Canoes since 2011, ushering in a new era of innovation and inclusivity.

Photo credit Courtney Jerome / Epicenter Mt. Pleasant.Buckley’s Mountainside Canoes current owner, Liz Busch
“We moved to Mt. Pleasant in 2004,” Busch shares of her initial move to Mt. Pleasant from New Mexico with her husband, Bob, and their family. “We had three little kids; we wanted to be closer to water and closer to family. One of our main reasons we wanted to move here was because there was a beautiful river, it had a college, and it had a food co-op.”

Before long, Liz and Bob started canoeing with their children on the Chippewa River. She made a personal goal to be on the river for as many hours as possible.

“I don't remember what the goal was exactly, but it was like 300 hours or something ridiculous,” she laughs as she recalls her goal. “We were on the river all the time!”

During that time, the Busch family began building a relationship with the Buckleys, as they would provide transportation to them on their river excursions. 

Photo credit Courtney Jerome / Epicenter Mt. Pleasant.The Buckley’s transport van either drops off paddling renters upstream so their trip ends at the Buckley’s property, or picks them up at the end of the trip and drives renters back to Buckley’s where they originally parked
During a ride with the Buckleys, the Buschs sat in the backseat of their van and discovered that the sale of the business had fallen through, prompting the Buckleys to reclaim ownership.

“I remember being in the backseat of the van with my husband just poking him in the arm!” says Busch of her interest in the business. 

“Over that summer, I basically came right out and said, ‘I have these ideas,’” shares Busch of her conversations with the Buckleys. “I wanted to do more things with bringing kids in schools on the river.”

Before moving to Mt. Pleasant, Busch’s background included being a professional backpacker at the world’s largest youth camp at ​​Philmont Scout Ranch, and she earned a degree in environmental management. 

“I originally wanted to work in environmental education for at-risk youth,” she recalls. “And I thought maybe here's this opportunity where we can do some great things with this established business, and try to do things for the community. So, I was sharing all these ideas I had, and I think they liked a lot of the ideas.”

Photo credit Courtney Jerome / Epicenter Mt. Pleasant.A group of Mt. Pleasant High School students have a field trip on the Chippewa River Wednesday, May 15, 2024
Photo credit Courtney Jerome / Epicenter Mt. Pleasant.While Busch says their section of the river is well respected, they organize river clean up events where they donate cans to charities, and are advocates for environmental protection
As Buckley's celebrates its 50th season, Busch looks ahead with optimism, eager to continue the legacy of her predecessors while charting a course for the future. 

With plans for special events and concerts in the works, Buckley's remains a beloved fixture in the community, offering solace, adventure, and memories to all who embark on its waters.

From special events to discounted rates for local residents, students, and educators, they encourage everyone to enjoy a trip out on the river this summer. 

Buckley’s 50th Season Specials & Events
  • “Buckley’s Yacht Club.” Get a five-weekday-trip punch pass for $75.
  • “Townie Tuesdays.” Locals can have trips for $20/person.
  • $15 per trip for teachers, school staff, and Chippewa Watershed Conservancy and GreenTree Co-op members
  • College students after 4 p.m. are $15/person for trips up to three hours.
  • Thursday, June 6 from 4 to 6 p.m. there will be a Chamber of Commerce Ribbon Cutting event at Buckley’s. 
  • For reservations made online until the end of June, 20% will go towards Karma Kat Cafe’s spay and neuter initiative.
  • On September 15, the Bootstrap Boys will perform on the property, and Buckley’s will offer beer on tap during the concert.

It’s apparent that Buckley’s Mountainside Canoes’s impact extends far beyond a mere canoe livery. It's a sanctuary for nature lovers, a gathering place for families and friends, and a testament to the enduring spirit of adventure that defines Michigan's waters—one paddle at a time.

Learn more about Buckley’s Mountainside Canoes at buckleyscanoe.com.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Courtney Jerome.

With 15 years of professional media experience, Courtney Jerome has found a passion for storytelling and showcasing our region in a positive light. She's written stories for television broadcasts, numerous magazines, and digital publications. In addition, she owns a boutique creative marketing agency that focuses on social media, photo, and video storytelling for small businesses across Michigan and the country — courtneyjeromemedia.com. Contact Courtney, the managing editor of Epicenter, at editor@epicentermtpleasant.com.