Kayaking in Macomb County is more popular than ever. Here's why.

Jerry Reis quit his job as an engineer 15 years ago to set up a kayak and canoe rental service on the Clinton River. And he's quite happy with that decision.

An avid kayaker himself, Reis enjoys helping folks have a good time on the water with his Sterling Heights-based business, Clinton River Canoe and Kayak. Beyond that, He also feels activities like kayaking and canoeing have a lot to offer those who practice them, both in terms of exercise and benefits of a more transcendental nature.

"It's quiet and relaxing," he says. "It's spiritual for most people who really get into it. It's a back-to-nature [activity], a recharge."

Reis isn't alone in his enthusiasm for getting out on the water. Paddle sports like kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddleboarding are extremely popular recreational activities in the United States. A 2019 special report by the Outdoor Industry Association found that 22.9 million Americans, 7.6 percent of the U.S. population, had participated in at least one paddling activity in 2018. Kayaking, which has seen tremendous growth since the late '90s, is the most popular of these options and has continued to attract new fans during the pandemic as part of a broader boom in outdoor activities.

In Southeast Michigan, the presence of Clinton River Canoe and Kayak, which offers rentals, lessons, and guided trips, has certainly contributed to local interest in paddle sports. Of course, the Clinton River itself has also been part of the attraction. Reis is certainly happy to extoll the Clinton's virtues.

"As far as technicalities go, good flow, clean water, and nice beaches, it's probably one of the nicest rivers in Michigan to paddle," he says. "There's only one other river I'd rather paddle and that's the Pine [in the Upper Peninsula]."

Rotary Park in Sterling HeightsGetting out on the water

Macomb County provides a great deal of top-notch options like this for folks interested in paddling along its waterways. There's certainly lots to do on Lake St. Clair, though paddlers there may want to use a sea kayak, which is designed for stability and long-distance paddling.

The Anchor Bay area on Lake St. Clair's north coast offers relatively calm waters without a lot of motorboat traffic. There's also the natural beauty of the waters surrounding Lake St. Clair Metropark, where paddlers can check out the park's well known beach and sights like Point Rosa Marsh and the Black Creek Marsh. Further south they can also take in St. Clair Shores Nautical Mile and enjoy the architectural splendor along the waterfronts of the Grosse Pointe communities. The lake is also home to the St. Clair River Delta, also known as The Flats, which happens to be the largest freshwater delta in the world. 

Paddlers can take a trip inland to enjoy the calm ecologically rich waters of the Salt River Marsh in or follow it further out and check out other excellent water trails along Detroit and Lake St. Clair Rivers. Then, of course, there's the Clinton River, a large portion of which was named a state-designated water trail by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources last year. 

Reaching out into Macomb, Oakland, Lapeer, and St. Clair Counties, the Clinton River is the state's most populated watershed, as well as a big draw for kayak and canoe enthusiasts. Gerard Santoro, Director of Macomb County's Parks and Natural Resources division, isn't surprised by the attention it's been getting lately.

"We have a river that has a great drop in elevation. It's almost a 200 foot drop over about a seven-or-eight-mile stretch, which makes it a very fast and active river," he says. "So for the more adventurous and really professional kayakers, this river has some excitement!"

That fast part of the Clinton river, which stretches roughly from downtown Rochester to downtown Utica, however is just one of several environments the river offers. Beyond that, there's a section from downtown Utica that passes through Sterling Heights to Budd Park in Clinton Township where the current is a little more leisurely, making it a great place for families to get out on the water. And finally, there's another segment from there to Mount Clemens where the river is wider and deeper and it really takes some paddling to move around, meaning that it's a great spot to get some exercise.

In addition to a wide variety of river conditions, the Clinton River also features quite a bit of pristine natural habitat along its banks.  That's because much of the land surrounding it used to belong to what was known as the Rochester-Utica State Recreation Area. As the region urbanized, some of those areas were turned over from state to local governments, many of whom opted to leave the forested areas around the river intact. Couple that with the differing levels of challenge the waterway offers, and it's not exactly surprising why the waterway is attracting the attention of kayak and canoe devotees. 

Clinton River in Sterling HeightsRestoring the Clinton River

The Clinton river wasn't always such a hotspot for paddling, though. In fact, until relatively recently it was largely avoided by paddlers. In fact, when Santoro first started working for the county around the turn of the millenium, it was known as one of the most polluted rivers in Michigan. At the time, it was filled with abandoned boats; thrown-away debris like cars, appliances, and shopping carts from illegal dumping; and thousands of trees downed by a tree-killing beetle called the emerald ash borer.    

Hopeful to learn more about the river's potential, Santoro brought in some professional kayakers to survey the area between Rochester by the Yates Cider Mill and downtown Utica.

"They had over 80 major blockages that they could not get around," says Santoro. "And they were so exhausted by the end of the day that they basically looked at me and in an almost angry response said, 'This river will never be a viable option for kayaking!"

Taking that as a challenge, Macomb County's Parks and Natural Resources division, in tandem with the Clinton River Watershed Council (CRWC) and local governments, resolved to make kayaking on the river a reality. Founded in 1972 as an association of local governments and later incorporated as a nonprofit, the CRWC has a long history of working to improve conditions. But the push to make the waterway viable for kayak and canoe travel certainly brought new energy to that fight. 

WIth a coalition that included local communities, businesses, area nonprofits, fishing groups and tens of thousands of volunteers, the effort to rehabilitate the Clinton River's 760-square-mile watershed began to gain momentum. Drawing on a mix of philanthropic and government funding, including Great Lakes Restoration Initiative money, the county and other partners have implemented more than three dozen projects to restore habitat, ecological functionality, and accessibility to the river since the early 2000s.  

CRWC watershed ecologist Eric Diesing estimates that more than $40 million has been spent over the last several decades to return the river and its environs to a more natural state over the last few decades. And he feels that investment has really made an impact.

"In the 1960s Michigan's DNR couldn't find a single living fish during a survey from the mouth of the Clinton River to the city of Pontiac," says Diesing. "Today we have a thriving steelhead fishery below Yates Cider Mill Dam, a designated trout stream in Paint Creek and a diverse fish community throughout the watershed and Lake St. Clair. This is a testament to all that has been achieved in recent decades."

The CRWC and its partners are also thrilled that the Clinton River is now open for paddling, and sees it recently being named a state-designated water trail as a very positive sign. 

That's not to say, the work of restoring the river is finished. In fact, CRWC expects to begin work on another project below the Yates Dam later this summer and to start moving forward with a restoration of Trout Creek, near Bald Mountain Recreation area, in the next few years.

That said, Diesing stresses that with half the watershed classified as an urban area there is still much work to be done. 

"There is still work to be done, with nearly half of the watershed classified as developed, or urbanized, we still have a lot of progress to make in the future," says Diesing. "We remain focused on protecting, enhancing, and celebrating the watershed through project development, restoration, and partnerships. 

Becky Quinn, owner of Simple AdventuresIncreasing Access

While the cleanup has definitely made the Clinton River more attractive to kayak and canoe users, making access easier has also played an important role in encouraging paddling in the region. 

In addition to being more navigable than it once was, the Clinton River now has its own water trail for paddlers to follow. Also known as a "blueway," a water trail is essentially a route that kayskers and other small watercraft users can follow. CRWC maintains maps and safety information related to the Clinton River water trail on its website and works with local authorities. 

Those looking for a more expansive map of Macomb County's blueways and access points to the water can check out the county's new interactive paddling launch map. Across the county, there are currently kayak and canoe launches in Shelby Township, Utica, Sterling Heights, Clinton Township, Mount. Clemens, Harrison Township, and New Baltimore, as well as a paddle park with launches in Chesterfield.

Two years ago, Sterling Heights installed launches at two sites, Rotary Park and North Clinton RIver Park. The launches, which are known as EZDock launches, are designed to be simple to use and feature hardware that make them accessible to individuals with disabilities.  

Their installation was funded by a $45 million Recreating Recreation millage passed by city voters in 2016. Sterling Heights also works with contractors to ensure the river is traversable and clear of debris.

According to Kyle Langlois, Sterling Heights director of Parks and Recreation, the city's work to make the Clinton River more accessible for kayaking and related activities have not gone unnoticed.

"Paddle sports in Sterling Heights has quickly moved to the forefront of recreational activities available to our residents, and was magnified even more through the pandemic as kayaking/canoeing was an acceptable activity even through the state shut downs," he says.

Langlois credits the efforts of Macomb County and partnering communities to highlight recreation along the river with paddling's new popularity in Southeast Michigan. But rental businesses like Reis' Clinton River Canoe and Kayak, which is located on Utica Road in Sterling Heights, have also played a role. This past year,  Clinton River Canoe and Kayak facilitated over 4,000 trips along the majestic waterway.

Reis isn't the only service renting out kayaks and canoes in the region, though. Simple Adventures, which is owned by Becky Quinn, offers rentals and lessons at a variety of locations around Macomb County. Her business got its start 13 years ago at Lake St. Clair Metropark.

"We started there just doing rentals with kayaks, paddleboards, canoe, and bike rentals," says Quinn. "We did such a great job with that operation, [the park] invited us to run their beach shop and just this year their beachside grill."

In addition to their location at St. Clair Metropark, Simple Adventures now offers Southeast Michigan rentals at Anchor Bay in New Baltimore, on the Clinton River between Clinton Township and Mount Clemens and Camp Dearborn in Milford. 

For Quinn, it's been a wonderful experience growing her business and watching the expansion of the local paddling scene. Like Reis, she's now helping to facilitate thousands of kayak and canoe trips in the region each year. And looking to the future, she's convinced there's still a lot more in store when it comes to paddling Southeast Michigan's waters.

"It's exciting to be a part of it, but it's even more exciting to know that the potential is still yet unreached, " she says. "There's so much more that could be tapped into. We are humbled and appreciative and thankful that we're a part of it."

The Macomb Parks & Trails series seeks to capture the story of the outdoor recreation, greenspace, placemaking and emerging outdoor assets that are shaping Macomb County's future. It's made possible with funding from Macomb County.
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Read more articles by David Sands.