Blazing A Water Trail Along The Huron

Today, if a paddler wanted to take a trip down all 104 navigable miles of the Huron River, she'd need a couple of things beyond the standard paddling equipment: some sturdy hiking boots and nerves of steel.

That's because while many sections of the Huron River are terrific for recreation, some dangerous dams and tricky portages around them make paddling the entire river a rather harrowing experience.

"Some really intrepid paddlers have done it," says Elizabeth Riggs of the Huron River Watershed Council.

But the HRWC - as well as the many communities through which the Huron River runs - would prefer that all of the approximately 100,000 recreational paddlers who utilize the river each year also have the opportunity to explore the entire river. That's why the Ann Arbor-based non-profit is leading the way to create The Huron River Water Trail.

The proposed Huron River Water Trail project is not a trail near the water, or through the water, but rather, would be a series of improvements to the river itself to make it navigable from the Proud Lake State Recreation Area, north of Wixom, straight through to Lake Erie. As Ann Arbor is located right at the heart of the river, the city could become not only a major player in the project, but a primary beneficiary of the results.

"There are several dams on the river," says Riggs, "and one of the tasks is to see if we can remove the dams, or trying to improve the portage around them."

Outside changes to the landscape of the river itself, the project would include branding, coordinated trail signage, improving canoe landings, supplying adequate parking, and amenities like bathrooms and lockers for personal belongings.

"Consistency will be one of the main things," says paddler Ron Sell, owner of Dexter's Unadilla Boatworks. "There are lot of parks along the river right now, but there's no consistency with markings and river access. If you didn't have to figure out where to go and what to do in each community you go through, it would be a lot better."

It's easy to see why outdoorsy folks are excited about such added recreational opportunities, but the HRWC would admittedly have a tough time getting the multiple municipalities of the Huron River Watershed area involved in the project if it was only about recreation. According to Riggs, the reason that Ann Arbor, Dexter, Milford and Flat Rock have already signed on to participate as pilot communities in the project is the economic development opportunity the water trail presents.

"Whether or not [one] views themselves as user of the river, they can capitalize on this great resource," says Riggs. "The healthier the river, the healthier the community."

And "healthy" doesn't just mean clean. It means busy.

The HRWC's theory is that with the improvement of the water trail come the river tourists. Naturally, the local canoe liveries and outfitters could expect to benefit, but the plan is for the water trail to have a much broader impact. With multiple places along the Huron River to stop, use the restrooms and take a break, paddlers will also patronize the local restaurants and shop in the downtowns.

The local businesses are hopeful the project will do just that.

"Anything that helps Dexter helps everything for us," says Peter Theocharakis, owner of The Dexter's Pub. "There's been talk of putting a connector from the river right to this neighborhood. That would be great for me."

The proposed project in question would direct paddlers from the Huron River into Mill Creek. The creek now leads to Warrior Park, which could be outfitted with a place to park and store boats as well as an informational kiosk explaining where to eat and shop in town.

"Dexter is a great example of a place with restaurants and ice cream shops that are easily accessible from the river," says Sell. "You can go up a creek the short way, leave your boat there and walk on up to the pub."

Of course that is all in theory now, and theories about economic development are always helped by precedent. According to a 2002 study of water trail impacts in North Carolina and the Great Lakes Region, water trails showed that destination paddlers will spend $88 apiece in water trail communities. Canoeists in the Kickapoo region of southwest Wisconsin spend more than $1.2 million annually. In eastern North Carolina, it's estimated that the water trail system has an economic impact of $55.14 million each year.

Those are the kind of economic development numbers that could get any city official sitting up and listening.

"Innovative communities managing water trails within a dynamic local economy will be rewarded," writes study author Lindsy Johnson of the University of Oregon.

As a center for tourism and outdoor recreation in the area, Ann Arbor promises to be a major hub along the way.

"Ann Arbor will take a big role," says Cheryl Saam, facilities supervisor for the city of Ann Arbor Canoe Liveries. "With 350 boats, we're the largest canoe livery in Michigan. [With the water trail] we'll grow more."

In proportion to the Huron River Water Trail's potentially large impact, the project is expected to take some serious time to complete. The HRWC has been working on the concept for a year now, and though exciting progress has been made creating partnerships with the four pilot communities, there's still much work to be done.

"It's essential to create partnerships," Riggs says.

Right now, those partners are busy with meetings and assessments and more meetings. The pilot communities, like Ann Arbor, have been talking about what their top water trail needs and comparing those to the other communities.

"It turns out there are a lot of similarities," says Riggs. "They are working on some of the concepts now, and then it will mean going back to their DDAs and local governments to ask for their participation."

Ann Arbor, of course, is leading the pack on water trail improvements. The current portage around Argo Dam will be demolished this summer and be replaced with a river pathway around the dam. It's not the best option - dam removal would return the river to its natural, uninterrupted course - but it's a marked improvement over the current situation.

"It will improve canoeing so much in Ann Arbor," says Saam. "Taking that portage out will allow us now to run rafts with senior groups or school groups."

The plans don't end there. Saam also has visions for interpretive signage relating the history of the Huron River in Ann Arbor, handicap accessible docks, increased programming and more.

If all goes well, the HRWC hopes to have the water trail up and running in the four pilot communities by July 2012.

Slow though it may be, the impact of the Huron River Water Trail project is anticipated to be well worth the time and effort.

"It's been proven across the nation," says Saam. "Water trails bring people to town."

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer and the news editor at Capital Gains. Her previous article was Michigan's Next Step: A Conversation with Bruce Katz

All photos by Doug Coombe


Elizabeth Riggs at Bandemer Park

Ron Sell at Mill Creek in downtown Dexter

Peter Theocharakis at Warrior Park in Dexter

Cheryl Saam at the Gallup Park Canoe Livery

The Barton Dam portage

And if you're dying to experience the speaker event Take Me To The River, featuring the Huron River Watershed Council's Elizabeth Riggs, we've got the next best thing... a video.

Video streaming by Ustream
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