Rolling on the river

The last time I cruised along the Detroit River was nearly 10 years ago when taking a boat to Boblo Island before the amusement park closed. I didn’t pay much attention to the isle, but danced with others who smiled and clapped to Stevie Wonder booming on the sound system. Last Saturday I traveled on the river again, but this time with a much different purpose. Though the 100 or so people aboard did not dance, the trip was no less pleasant.

The Citizens Environment Alliance, a Windsor-Detroit conservation group, organized the second annual tour – $35, lunch included – to coast along the Detroit River and learn about issues facing the waterway. The boat was docked in Windsor where environmentalists, reporters and other passengers from both countries boarded for the four-hour tour. Last year the cruise covered the west end of the river; this year we headed east.

As we sailed along, recently appointed U.S. Detroit River Navigator John Hartig told us of General Motor’s plans for the strip of land adjacent to the Renaissance Center. Passengers were elated to hear that the automaker intends to do away with acres of concrete parking lots along the river. Green space and a path for walking, biking and inline skating will replace rows of parked cars. Outdoor cafes and retail shops will also line that portion of the river’s coast. And GM will foot the bill, says Hartig.

Detroit and other communities along the river hope to link green ways from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie, he said. "That’s the vision. You will see pieces of it within the year," said Hartig. GM hopes to have its strip completed by 2001, in time for Detroit’s 300th birthday.

Hartig’s bright news complemented a perfect day for exploring the river, with passengers enjoying cool breezes and clear skies as they walked the decks sipping beer and wine.

As we passed Belle Isle, Hartig said that revitalizing the island is a top priority. He described plans to revive the eroding shoreline and the mainland. Wetland habitat and fisheries will be resuscitated and wildflowers will be planted. Hartig said that 90 percent of the Detroit River’s wetland habitat has been lost; the goal is to reverse this trend before the rest disappears.

After dining on vegetable lasagna and other vegetarian dishes, CEA member Lisa Tulen pointed to Peche Island, which Windsor recently purchased from the Ontario provincial government. Windsor intends to preserve the island’s wildlife and surrounding wetlands, which were vulnerable to development before the sale.

Longtime activist Peg Roberts described how her Detroit neighborhood fought with Grosse Pointe Park over the raw sewage it flushed into Fox Creek, which runs into the Detroit River. The stench and sewage flooded residents’ backyards and basements. Next March, the sewage line that runs into the creek will be permanently plugged, said Roberts.

As we made our way back to Windsor, environmentalists continued to tell stories of past feuds to preserve the Detroit River and battles that continue. And their message settled in, at least with this reporter: The river belongs to all of us, and it is worth fighting for.

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