Michigan Earns Its Blue Belt

As Ron Smith paddled his kayak along the St. Lawrence Seaway in the Canadian province of Quebec one foggy morning, a whale surfaced 15 feet away. "I was able to make eye contact as it came up to take a breath before it dove. There was immediate recognition that we saw each other, and I knew there was intelligence in that creature. I had goose bumps the size of the Rocky Mountains for quite a while after that," says Smith, who has kayaked for 15 years and remains attracted to the sport because, "you never know what's going to happen next."

Since 1994, he and his wife Suzie have owned Black Parrot Paddling , a kayaking school that holds classes in the Brighton and Howell community pools, various regional parks, and the Great Lakes. Smith, who trains everyone from beginners to new instructors and adventure racing teams, says he's seen a strong resurgence of interest in kayaking. His winter classes were almost completely filled.

On summer and fall Sundays, Smith is out paddling in one of his favorite places - the lower Detroit River, which is a key segment of the new Detroit Heritage River Water Trail. In 2006, the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition (MAC), a regional civic organization dedicated to improving the region's economy and quality of life, unveiled plans for the region's first water trail.

"It's really under the quality of life umbrella that we've embraced the water trail. Amenities should be improved from an economic development standpoint because we're in competition with other major metropolitan areas for highly skilled, motivated workers," says David Sanders, executive vice president of the MAC. "One of our greatest assets is the water, so it makes sense to promote kayaking," which is "a great way to connect a lot of people with our resources in an urban area."

Take a look at a satellite view of Southeastern Michigan and, says Sanders, "you get an amazing perspective. The region looks very blue and green, yet we have an image of being the rust belt. You'd actually say it's the blue belt." Sanders explains how planners of the Detroit Heritage River Water Trail envision a 120 mile blue belt composed of the 32 mile stretch of the Detroit River (from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie) plus its three major tributaries --the Huron, Rouge, and Raisin rivers. The trail will connect parks, recreation areas, new lighthouses, and other features, such as the Detroit International Wildlife Refuge --a managed and protected 5,000-acre habitat for migratory birds, fish, turtles, and other mammals.

Planning and mapping are already complete for the project's first phase --a 30 mile segment which flows from the city of Flat Rock down the Huron River to its mouth at Lake Erie then north along the lower Detroit River to the city of Trenton. Eager to participate, downriver communities such as Wyandotte have either planned or already installed additional kayak launch sites.

Held every September, the Paddle by Your Refuge event serves as a fundraiser for the construction of a visitor center at the Detroit International Wildlife Refuge, a significant part of the first trail segment. The 2006 event drew almost 300 people for kayaking lessons and a naturalist-led kayak tour to Humbug Marsh and Island, where 300 year-old oak trees thrive. This last undeveloped mile of shoreline along the lower Detroit River still appears much as it did when the early explorers canoed its length over 300 years ago.

According to Sanders, the rest of the Detroit River has already undergone an amazing transformation in its water quality and environment, as evidenced by the return of a "living dinosaur" --lake sturgeon. Whitefish are spawning, something not seen since 1916. And once again, eagles are hatching on the river's islands.

Corporations such as U.S. Steel and DTE Energy are also getting into the act by returning their properties' shorelines to their natural state --increasing aesthetic appeal by removing the concrete seawalls, tapering the land down to the water, and planting deep-rooted native plants-- resulting in improved water quality. From the Kayakers point of view, the positive environmental and physical changes along the route are obvious.

David Howell, chairman of Friends of the Detroit River , a 1,200 member organization which focuses on protecting the river and supporting its shoreline and habitat restoration efforts, feels that southeast Michigan is undiscovered as a kayaking destination. "One of the real advantages for people in this area is that you don't have to drive four or five hours up north to go paddling," says Howell, who has kayaked for six years. "The Detroit River is endless water, with plenty of little nooks and crannies, islands and bays, and animal life."

Howell, a steering committee member for the Detroit Heritage River Water Trail, says that the plan has identified 51 existing and potential sites for kayak launches, thereby making it easier to do short paddles and access a wide variety of areas. Ideally, every three miles, kayakers can pull their boats ashore to make use of campgrounds, picnic areas, and park trails.

Tiffany Van de Hey, an avid kayaker who along with husband Patrick owns the Riverside Kayaking Connection in Wyandotte a retailer who offers classes and serves on the planning commission for the Detroit Heritage River Water Trail, says there is growing customer interest in the trail. "We're seeing people that hadn't thought about kayaking before. People are looking to combine nature and history with the fitness aspects [of kayaking]."

Sandie Schultze, President of the Great Lakes Paddlers, a 70-member club formed in 1992, says the water trail is, "awesome. Urban paddling is much more interesting than people think, with wildlife in the city." Club events include a ten year-old New Year's Day tradition - in what Schulze describes as a "symbolic celebration of the new year." Hardy members meet at Lower Huron Metro Park for a three-mile paddle of a narrow Huron River segment that flows fast enough not to freeze over. Next on the calendar is the St. Paddy's Day Paddle at Island Lake State Park.

The Great Lakes Paddlers are particularly fond of the 100 plus miles of scenic shoreline along the Huron River. The popular river trail not only draws many locals, it also attracts kayakers from Windsor and Toledo. Which is exactly the type of tourism Travel Michigan --the travel and tourism arm of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation-- is promoting.

In 2006, the state launched its Pure Michigan campaign, an effort that "goes back to what is pure about Michigan: the woods and the water," says Kirsten Borgstrom, Media Relations Manager for Travel Michigan. "While you may be able to do similar things in other states, you really can't find that exact experience without coming to Michigan."

Kayaking the rivers and lakes of southeast Michigan offers something for everyone, from gliding through patches of lotus flowers in Gibraltar Bay to navigating amongst freighters on the Detroit River. For Howell, kayaking is, "part recreational, part exercise, and part learning opportunity."

If that isn't the definition of "quality of life," what is?

Tanya C. Muzumdar is a freelance writer and frequent contibutor to metromode. Read her last article, "Profiting From Non-Profits" here.


Photographs © Dave Krieger - All Rights Reserved

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