Take me to the river

To some, the Detroit River is a highway. Its bustling volume of commercial ships prompted Congress to designate it as such in 1819. To others, the river — actually a strait between Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie — is a pretty picture, framed in the windowpanes of high-rise offices and riverfront homes. To more still, it’s a place to drive a motorboat, have a picnic or catch fish.

The river is a byway to freighters and herons alike, and boasts 21 islands, 32 miles of shoreline and 39 square miles of water — and one of the largest rowing facilities in the United States. Many locals don’t consider the waterway a place for exercise, but for the throngs who do — particularly the kayakers, canoeists, rowers and scullers — the river is a hidden jewel. These athletes tout the river’s interesting shorelines, surprisingly clean water and manageable current as assets few other commercial rivers can boast.

Paddlers are a rare breed. Some awake at 4 a.m. to attend rowing practice, hoping to catch the water in its calmest state. Others will take half-day treks through marshes and canals, suffering sunburns, sore arms and, in the winter, bitter cold.

Early risers

At 6:30 a.m., around the time when most commuters are just pouring their second cup of coffee, the sky over Belle Isle is turning pink, the last vestiges of darkness gently pushed away by the rising sun.

The island is quiet save for a light breeze rustling the tall grass lining the river, the chirping birds, the occasional car driving by — and the rowers.

“One, two, three, four,” the coxswain steadily calls out as the boats head back to the dock. The morning practice is over. Boats are stowed and the athletes dry off. Dick Bell, coach of Friends of Detroit Rowing, puts away his powerboat and changes into dry clothes before announcing he needs a cup of coffee. A rower since 1959, early morning practice is nothing new to him.

Friends of Detroit Rowing started in 1971 to raise money for Detroit Boat Club rowers. When the club discontinued its rowing activities in 1996, Friends of Detroit Rowing picked up where the club left off. Now Friends of Detroit Rowing maintains the ramshackle Detroit Boat Club, vacated nearly 10 years ago. Rowers can be found at the club almost every morning.

Over coffee and French toast, Bell describes the changes he’s seen during his nearly 50 years on Detroit’s waterway, such as the growing popularity of women’s rowing. Most changes have been in the river itself.

Bell says the industrialization of America from the 1860s on meant property on the river became less available for recreation. Pollution was a major issue, and Bell remembers having to wipe oil from the bottom of his boat after every practice.

But that’s changed now. According to a 2001 Greater Detroit American Heritage River report, oil and phosphorus waste damaged the Detroit River for many years. But according to the report, a joint project between the United States and Canada to control phosphorus has led to a 90 percent reduction in pollutants in the river. Local industrial pollution control regulations, spurred by the Clean Air Act of 1970 and Clean Water Act of 1977, further decreased river contamination.

While pollution remains a concern, river-watchers agree the situation has gotten much better. A cleaner river might help account for the growing popularity of river sports.

With 790 members and a 36,000-square-foot rowing facility on the Detroit River’s Trenton Channel, the Wyandotte Boat Club is one of the nation’s largest rowing facilities. Club secretary Sal Sclafani says the river he rows on today is nothing like the one of his youth.

“We’re pretty proud of the river and the way it looks,” Sclafani says. “It’s cleaned up over the years. Compared to where I rowed as a kid, it looks like tap water.”

Hidden paradise

But the river is not only for rowers. Kayaking, in particular, has seen a surge in popularity. Kayakers say they like their sport because it gives them access to parts of the river that can’t be reached by larger watercraft, and because it offers solitude and relaxation.

John Thompson, owner of Honest?John’s Bar and No Grill, says that when he gets onto the water, he feels like he’s left the city behind.

“You’re five minutes from the city and in the middle of frickin’ paradise,” says the famously wry Thompson.

On a cool morning, Thompson and Steve Reinke and Jeff Heffnider, employees at Thompson’s bar, set out to explore the river scene. The best place to launch, Thompson says, is off Belle Isle, from the parking lot just east of the Detroit Yacht Club. The advantages include a sandy launching point, something that’s important for beginners who risk flipping their kayak and hitting their heads.

The trek flows through an area that looks more like a northern Michigan wetland than a major commercial throughway. The meandering trip heads toward what Thompson calls “waterworld,” a canal between the Belle Isle golf course and Waterworks Park. Tall marsh grass lines the banks and red-winged blackbirds flit in and out among the trees. Outside the canal, high-rises and industrial complexes dot the river’s shore.

Reinke says he loves pulling in next to large ships, comparing their massive size to his relatively small craft. As he puts it: “There’s nothing like kicking a freighter.”

Meanwhile, Thompson becomes animated with stories from the kayak tours he gave when his bar was located on East Jefferson — the trips launched from Gabriel Richard Park. Most of the tales consist of flitting between bars, and sometimes countries, to celebrate birthdays, vacations and, occasionally, weddings.

Thompson says he discontinued his tours after the bar moved to the Cass Corridor. His kayak tours were becoming a bit of a business and Thompson, an avid kayaker for 14 years, says he didn’t want to make his hobby into a business.

One of the most interesting parts of Thompson’s tour is the lack of recreational traffic. A couple of motorboats and a fleet of junior sailors pass by, but no other paddlers are spotted in the Belle Isle vicinity. Thompson says this is normal, and is why he calls the river “the most unused piece of water in Michigan.”

Downriver enthusiasts

Downriver, however, people seem to be warming up to river recreation. A kayaking trip on Grosse Ile includes several sightings of kayakers and canoeists navigating the river and marshlands. The island boasts two paddling clubs, the Grosse Ile Paddle Club, run by Otis Conway and Dick Weise, and the Sunrise Paddlers Club. Sunrise is the more successful of the two clubs, and boasts 25 members. So far the club has emblazoned business cards, T-shirts and specialized cigar labels (cigar smoking during the trek is a tradition among the club’s male members).

Shelley Schmidtke, one of the club’s founders, is a real estate agent and mother of four who’s been kayaking for five years.

If kayaking around Belle Isle is like entering another part of the state, kayaking off Grosse Ile is like entering another part of the country. The lush marsh grass is home to blue herons and bald eagles. Looking at the greenery, it’s very hard to believe it’s only a 25-minute drive from Detroit.

“It’s really kind of communing with nature,” Conway says. “I took a group out a couple of weeks ago and the first thing we saw was a bald eagle.”

River rivalry

Conway and Weise say they feel no desire to try their kayaks farther upriver, near Belle Isle.

“I have no reason to drive up there if I’ve got [everything] here,” Conway says “There wouldn’t be one thing on Belle Isle that’s not in Grosse Ile.”

But Detroit’s Thompson maintains the “real” river kayaking experience is in his neck of the woods, on the open water, surrounded by seawalls and the city skyline. He says he loves the industrial setting “just for the art of it,” and especially enjoys paddling around Zug Island and its steel skyline.

For up- and downriver rowing teams, competition is all part of the fun.

“There is always a bit of a rivalry, but it’s more of friendly fun,” Sclafani says. He also maintains the Wyandotte Boat Club’s downriver location is more conducive to attracting rowers than locations closer to the city because its calmer waters and lack of boat traffic make the sport less intimidating.

In the end Sclafani acknowledges location doesn’t matter that much. For true lovers of the sport: “It’s all a matter of what you get used to.”

Considering the paddling sports’ increasing popularity, it’s a relatively unregulated activity. Kayakers and canoeists are not required to register their vessels or have an operating license, and they do not have to seek any kind of instruction.

Paddlers agree the lack of regulation is a recipe for disaster. Thompson says lessons are a crucial part of any kayak venture, particularly downtown where there are not many places a tipped kayaker can drag his boat ashore if he or she cannot right it.

Thompson recommends that beginning kayakers start out on a “sit-on-top” kayak. As the name implies, this flat kayak allows the paddler to sit on top of it, rather than inside. Because the boat is completely flat, there are no holes to fill with water if the kayak tips in the river.

Motorized vessels pose another hazard. Because kayakers sit so low in the water, they are often difficult to see from larger boats. Conway recommends kayakers paint their paddles bright colors to increase visibility.

Technically, he says, paddlers have the right-of-way over motored vessels, but Conway advises kayakers: “Don’t take it.”

A better rule of thumb: “Gross tonnage has the right-of-way.”

To help decrease the likelihood of dangerous encounters with larger vehicles, Petty Officer Tim Crochet of the Belle Isle Coast Guard station says paddlers should stay out of the shipping channel, which occupies the middle portion of the river. A good strategy: Stay within a couple of hundred yards of shore.

Drinking booze while paddling is not illegal, but paddling while intoxicated is, says Crochet. He also recommends that paddlers bring drinking water and sunscreen on their treks. Lifejackets are a must, particularly because paddlers can be cited without one, he says.

Flowing future

If river planners get their way, increasing numbers of metro Detroiters will have a chance to paddle the river in coming years. President Clinton declared the river an American Heritage River in 1998, a designation that provides federal funds for river development and a federal employee, called the river navigator, to oversee river-related projects. The Detroit River is also a Canadian Heritage River, making it the only international Heritage River in the country.

As indicated by its highway designation in the 19th century, the river has always been an important part of the country’s. In 1890, more ships were built along the Detroit River than anywhere else in the country. Its importance as a shipping channel has grown with the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959. Today, the river retains its economic importance; in 2000, 17.3 million tons of cargo were processed through the Port of Detroit.

But the river’s newest economic developments are recreational, says former River Controller John Hartig, river navigator for five years before becoming the first manager of the Detroit International Wildlife Refuge in July. He’s also a member of the five-person team formed to fill the River Navigator position upon his departure.

Hartig touts the river’s potential as a selling point for area businesses looking to attract young professionals.

“You can’t just offer them a good job today,” Hartig said. “You’ve got to provide the quality of life that young people are looking for.

“Over the last five years or so, people have rediscovered the river as an unbelievable recreational aspect and important element in economic development,” says Hartig. “For decades we lost that connection, that firsthand experience with the river because there was so much industrial land. Now, we’re gaining back public access.”

David Sanders is vice-president of the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition, the organization that manages the Greater Detroit American Heritage River Initiative. The initiative works to synchronize government, business and community organizations to develop the economic, aesthetic and cultural aspects of the river.

“We don’t have sunshine and the great warm weather that some areas do,” says Sanders. “But we do have wonderful water reserves some of those other areas would kill for. We need to protect them and take advantage of them.”

Sanders and others are working to eliminate the reputation for pollution that plagues the river. The initiative is seeking to increase river access through “linked greenways” designed to connect river-area communities with the water. The project involves 21 communities and hopes to create 121 miles of trails and paths throughout Southeast Michigan, said Anita Twardesky, co-chair of the Downriver Linked-Greenways Initiative and Woodhaven director of parks and recreation.

One of the most visible pieces of the linked greenways initiative is the Detroit Riverwalk, a three-and-a-half-mile trail that’s being built along the river from the Belle Isle bridge to Joe Louis Arena. The walk already links General Motors’ Renaissance Center headquarters to the arena. Hartig says the walk will be completed in time for Detroit’s Super Bowl in 2006.

In addition to linked greenways, the initiative also hopes to begin developing what it calls “blue ways.” These kayak and canoe trails will provide paddlers with launch points, mapped routes and markers indicating areas of historical and cultural significance. On Belle Isle, the city is working to restore the Flynn Pavilion, which will eventually offer kayak and canoe rentals to park visitors.

Once in place, Hartig believes the new launch points will attract privately owned kayak and canoe businesses. Last spring, Tiffany and Patrick VanDeHey opened Riverfront Kayak Connection, the area’s first kayak store, because they wanted to provide paddlers with a wider selection of equipment than can generally be found at sporting-goods stores. So far, Patrick says, business has been good. The couple hopes to provide kayak lessons as part of their goal to “help people get access to paddling and paddling sports.”

Around Detroit, the city provides grant money for the Friends of Detroit Rowing Learn to Row program, which is free for city residents.

Detroit’s lifeline

Whether people enjoy the river from the hollowed-out shell of a dragon boat, in the early morning sun of rowing practice or from a riverside picnic, river-watchers say it’s important to remember that it was this torrent of water that brought settlers to Detroit hundreds of years ago. The river binds us to our land, our history and our city.

“This is one thing we can come together on,” said Hartig. “We all share the river. It’s all a part of our home. It’s something we have to care for.

“We’re always talking about things that divide us. The river unites us.”

Katie Walton is a freelance writer for the Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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