Guest Blogger: Tom Woiwode

Tom Woiwode has worked for decades to preserve natural spaces, create greenways and otherwise make a greener state, region and planet. He was the founding director of The Nature Conservancy of Michigan, and for 20 years served as an officer of the international Nature Conservancy organization. In 2001, he developed the GreenWays Initiative for the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan, serving as director of that initiative ever since.

Facing the Huron River

The Ann Arbor-based Huron River Watershed Council recently published and released the Huron River Water Trail Paddler's Guide. The waterproof flip-book format guide provides maps and descriptions of the Huron River, from above Kensington Metropark near Milford to the Lake Erie Metropark along Lake Erie near Gibraltar. It's a wonderful, handy guide for those interested in enjoying the natural beauty of the river by canoe or kayak.

The Paddler's Guide is one of the many ways that the Huron River is being highlighted these days. One of the goals of the Community Foundation's GreenWays Initiative is to connect people throughout southeast Michigan to community assets, including the beautiful natural waterways in their communities. The Huron River is an important focus of our work, and we are working with many communities along its 100-mile corridor—including Ann Arbor—that are looking to the river for community vitality, economic development, and recreational and cultural activity.  

Three years ago the Huron River Watershed Council and its partner, the Great Lakes regional office of the National Wildlife Federation, came to the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan with an idea about using the Huron River as a way of bringing the communities along and near the river together—a blue ribbon that connects the communities, with a resource shared by all.  

The objective was to encourage communities to rethink their relationship to the Huron River.  Rather than the Huron River being an afterthought to the cities it served, it would become the front door, the focal point of those communities. They would turn and "face" the river, focusing on the tremendous economic, social, cultural and recreational values that the river provides the cities it serves. It was an exciting vision, and one the Community Foundation was happy to support with seed funding.

Out of that vision came RiverUp!, a program that celebrates the renaissance of the Huron River.  The goal is to develop a vibrant, robust and fully restored river, in three ways: by investing in its recreational infrastructure; by improving the ecological health of the river; and by facing the communities toward the river and transforming the river into a premier destination.  

Early accomplishments of RiverUp! include the development of safer, more accessible portages for paddlers; the stabilization of streambanks to protect property and restore stream flows; working with partners to develop an Ypsilanti river district that capitalizes on the Huron River for economic and business development; the design of a new Art on the River Trail; and, of course, the Paddler's Guide.

It isn't just about water, though. The interaction between land and water is critically important.  A trail network is being developed that follows the Huron River from its headwaters in Oakland County to where it enters Lake Erie near Gibraltar. Known as the Border-to-Border Trail, this trail system traversing Washtenaw County passes through and provides links to nine Huron-Clinton Metroparks, as well as a number of community parks, urban landscapes and city centers.  In fact, with the recent completion of a trail connector that will link the Flat Rock-to-Gibraltar trail to the Huron River system, the combination of that trail and the greenways within three of the mentioned metroparks (Willow, Oakwoods and Lower Huron) creates an uninterrupted trail of over 30 miles.

Other communities in the state have celebrated their rivers, with significant investments either having been made (Boardman in Traverse City) or in the planning stages (Grand in Grand Rapids) to change the way the community relates to the river, and the reverse. And in one case—the Detroit River—the river received special designation. The Detroit River was first recognized as a Heritage River by the National Parks Service; and, in 2001, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, a unit of the U. S. Department of the Interior, was established.  

While the Huron River has not received such a designation, nor is it encompassed within a federal natural resource agency, the situation is unique. It's thought that no other program in the state focuses on such a long river corridor—over 100 miles—with such a complementary intersection of land and water.

So dust off your canoe, break out the kayak, kick the mud off your hiking shoes, jump on your bike—get out and enjoy the Huron River, an incredible community asset that's waiting for you to visit and enjoy.       
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