Connecting Dearborn with the Rouge River

This summer, the city of Dearborn was poised to install two new universally accessible kayak launches along the Rouge River using a $98,000 Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund grant. But as with so many 2020 plans, COVID-19 got in the way.


Dave Norwood, the city's sustainability coordinator, says the launches may still be installed this fall, but the pandemic has likely delayed the project to next spring. But the good news is that the launches are just one of many projects currently underway to make Dearborn's stretch of the Rouge more enjoyable for outdoor enthusiasts and more habitable for wildlife.


"COVID-19 has stalled some of the installations of these access points. It's deferred from our overall hopes and dreams," says Marie McCormick, executive director of Friends of the Rouge (FOTR). "... But I think there's still a really strong interest in this work."


Building a water trail


The planned kayak launches at Dearborn's Ford Field Park and Dearborn Hills Golf Course are just one part of a much larger plan to create a convenient and accessible water trail connecting Dearborn to numerous other communities along the Rouge River. The planned Lower Rouge River Water Trail would run 27 miles from Canton Township to the river's mouth in the city of River Rouge. FOTR, the city of Dearborn, and other municipalities along the route have been working on developing the trail for several years now.


"The idea is that folks can kayak all the way from Canton's launch and make their way all the way down to the Detroit River," Norwood says. "But part of firming that up is we need to work on access to the river and how people can get in the river who might not want to take that long of a paddle."


The water trail project is closely linked to an even larger ongoing regional planning process called Connecting the Rouge, initiated by Wayne County Parks and funded by the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation. That effort seeks to better connect the trails along Hines Drive, the Lower Rouge Greenway, and the Rouge River Gateway Greenway. The latter two follow essentially the same route as the Lower Rouge River Water Trail, except on land. Connecting the Rouge seeks to close gaps in the trails and better link them to each other and their surrounding communities.


"We've known as a county parks system that we should connect better to the communities our parks are going through or adjacent to," says Elizabeth Iszler, chief of planning and design for Wayne County Parks. "... We have people drive their car with their bike, and then park and go bike. If they lived close enough that they could just safely ride from their home, that would be better."


Iszler says that the same spirit will apply to the blueways along the corridors Connecting the Rouge is analyzing as well. She notes that the Lower Rouge Greenway and Rouge River Gateway Greenway will share trailheads and other amenities with the Lower Rouge River Water Trail, promoting easy and intuitive access for all trail users. Public input on Connecting the Rouge's planning process is currently continuing in an online format despite the pandemic.


Even once Dearborn's two planned kayak launches are installed, Norwood foresees even more improvements to be made along the Lower Rouge River Water Trail in Dearborn. He says he and other city staff hope to eventually add another launch near the Dearborn Historical Museum. McCormick says the city's investment in the Rouge is "really impressive."


"Dearborn has really embraced the river and seen it as an opportunity to offer citizens alternative recreational opportunities," she says. "They're using it as a catalyst for not only economic redevelopment but also for environmental stewardship."


Reconnecting the Rouge for fish


One key example of that environmental stewardship is a project currently underway to make it possible for fish to safely traverse the river past the Henry Ford Estate. The estate's historic dam is currently impassable by fish, but a decades-long effort to change that is finally about to come to fruition. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources made the fish passage a priority project in 1998, considering it a step towards eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) designation of the Rouge as a Great Lakes Area of Concern.


"We wanted to ecologically reconnect 50 miles of the Rouge River and 108 additional miles of those tributaries back to the Great Lakes system," McCormick says. "The dam essentially cut all those off from the rest of the Great Lakes."


It still took many years to build momentum and secure funding for the project, but the construction of a 15-foot passageway got underway in 2018. The process of developing vegetation to make the passage appear natural and not man-made began last year. Workers are finishing establishing vegetation in the passage this summer, and McCormick emphasizes that the public is asked to avoid the area in the meantime.


The finished project will promote greater biodiversity in the Rouge and move the river one step closer to a clean bill of health from the EPA. Norwood says the presence of fish in the river alone is a major positive change and a sign of successful river cleanup work.


"They're finding trout and salmon in the Rouge River now," he says. "Who would have thought you'd find that kind of wildlife in the river? We should cultivate that and get it back to where it was."


Outdoor events go online


Although heading out for a solitary paddle or riverside stroll remain safe ways to explore the Rouge, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced changes to most traditional outdoor group programming. McCormick says FOTR is known for "our boots-on-the-ground, hands-on, get-dirty, grassroots way of engaging the community."


"We meet people where they're at. We go out into the community. We get in the river. We work along the edges of the bank of the river," she says. "So we had to really pivot hard in developing our programming in a virtual sense because people are so used to seeing us in the flesh."


However, FOTR has found a variety of ways to keep Dearborn residents and others engaged with the Rouge – often from behind their computer screens. Most notably, the organization has significantly reconfigured its annual Rouge Cruise, a narrated boat tour and fundraiser. This year, McCormick says, "instead of actually boarding a boat from Stroh River Place in Detroit with 160 other people for a dinner cruise, you can actually experience this from the comfort of your own home. You'll virtually travel by kayak from the mouth of the Rouge River to the headwater region."


The "Rouge Uncruise" played out over five free weekly video segments, available to those who register online, running through Sept. 8. The segments will include not just footage filmed from FOTR staff's kayaks, but also narration, stories, and interviews with local experts. Dearborn was heavily covered in the Aug. 25 segment, which spotlighted sites including Fordson Island and the Ford Rouge Complex.


"There's a lot of interesting things that you'll see along this virtual trip, especially related to Dearborn," McCormick says.


However, the Uncruise is far from the only way for Dearborn residents to safely interact with Rouge-related programming during the pandemic. Throughout the summer, FOTR has posted weekly "Take Me to the River" Facebook Live videos highlighting different notable sites along the Rouge, including two in Dearborn. It's also hosted online classes.


McCormick says FOTR has "really increased our reach to the public and brought programs to people who otherwise might not be able to attend."


"I have two small children. I couldn't attend a rain garden workshop at 10:00 in the morning on Saturday. It just would be too challenging," she says. "But attending an hour-long virtual workshop, I can do that, or I can watch the recording later. That, to me, is a silver lining."

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Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere