Blue Water area bikers, hikers, kayakers and outdoorsy folks have been making strides in recent years, with the creation and development of big-idea trails like the Island Loop Water Trail and the Bridge to Bay Trail. Now the challenge is how to keep that momentum going, and do the work of connecting these projects in meaningful ways to other trail resources in the area.
Land and water trails (or "greenways" and "blueways") are plentiful. In shoreline footage alone, the county boasts 33.9 miles of combined waterfront from Lake Huron; Bouvier Bay; North Channel; the St. Clair, Belle, Black, and Pine rivers; and Mill and Smiths creeks
We talked with David Haynes, director of planning and community development for Port Huron, about what the city envisions as the future of non-motorized transportation in all its forms.
Haynes, a Port Huron resident, has headed Port Huron city planning since 2015 and previously was the director of business attraction for the Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County. The city is currently working on the planning process to update its master plan and connect with other area municipalities.
"We are going through a planning process and looking at how we can improve our connectivity, both for walkability and also using bikes and the waterways with the Island Loop (Water Trail), and of course the access that's available with kayak launches in the area," Haynes says.
Kayaking has grown leaps and bounds in the last several years as the economic downturn had people looking for inexpensive, fun activities close to home.
Kayak launches have been a relatively cheap and easy way to boost kayaking
in the area, and have been steadily added location by location over the past few years, such as a recent Port Huron Township launch in the fall at 40th Street Pond, according to local recreational group Blueways of St. Clair. They help canoers and kayakers explore 16 designated paddling routes in St. Clair County, including the Island Loop Water Trail and routes along Lake Huron.
In addition, St. Clair County Parks and Recreation has a program to fund several canoe and kayak launches each season, which over time should help make it easy to get in and out of the area's waterways for recreational use.
Haynes says Port Huron's location poses some unusual challenges -- while it's always been a water-connected city, the rivers and highways surrounding the city can be obstacles to good connectivity between blueways, or water routes for boating and kayaking, and greenways, or land routes for biking,
hiking, walking, and riding.
"Our plans are looking at what is exactly in our system as far as bike access and sidewalks, how they're interconnected, and how that relates to our surrounding communities," he says. "Some of the issues that we have, it's because we are surrounded by both river crossings and expressways, so we have to deal with how we get around each of those."
And, of course, while logistics are paramount, safety and financing are right behind, making progress on these connections slow in some cases.
"What we kind of look for is where are the locations best suited for crossings, where are the safest locations for crossings, and then how do we gain the funding to put those improvements into place?" explains Haynes.
Plans expand beyond Port Huron
Along with the city of Port Huron, St. Clair County is also working on revisions to its master recreation plan; it's currently available online
for review and comment. Haynes says county-wide initiatives like the Bridge to Bay Trail are just as important when looking at the future of city planning, to determine how they can interconnect and how to do it safely.
The county's master plan doesn't equivocate the importance of recreation to the future of the area.
"The county and its local units must work to create places that will draw people in--places that make residents and visitors alike feel as though that particular town is the place to be. By creating more functional, interesting places, shops and businesses in our downtown areas can thrive, jobs can be created and sustained, and the already high quality of life in the county will increase. Recreation plays a huge role in effective placemaking, because people want to live in places that have options for recreation, options for entertainment, and other options for how they spend their time," according to the master plan’s statement on goals and objectives.
To that end, the county is looking at how to connect local greenways
resources like parks with trails and roads. Some highlights for specific parks:
- A connection between Fort Gratiot County Park and the Bridge to Bay Trail system, including a pedestrian crossing on M-25.
- An accessible walking trail and canoe and kayak launch on the Belle River at Columbus County Park.
- Collaboration between the county and the Michigan Mountain Biking Association on a mountain biking trail at Columbus County Park.
- An accessible walking trail from Woodsong County Park to the Black River, along with a canoe and kayak launch.
Also in the plan are ways to connect greenways and blueways, such as the pursuit of grant funding, additions to the Bridge to Bay Trail--54 miles of paved path across 13 municipalities when finished--and improvements to the Wadhams to Avoca Trail, a 12-mile rail-trail that starts in Port Huron Township and travels northwest to Avoca, including connecting it to the Bridge to Bay with a new trailhead.
While master plans are always subject to change and update, the goals laid out over the next several years for Port Huron and the St. Clair County area are nothing short of ambitious. With the combined efforts of planners, recreation officials, interested residents and recreation groups, the Blue Water area is getting closer each year to a truly integrated and complete trail system, to allow movement and recreation to flow as easily through the area as our rivers.
Kim Eggleston is a Michigan-based freelance writer and editor.