Kayaking in Macomb County? Here's what to do before, during, and after a paddle trip

Hans Dengler and his wife, Patricia, love to go kayaking on the Clinton River near their Harrison Township home every chance they get.

"We have almost the best area," he says. "Lake St. Clair sometimes gets a little choppy, so you gotta be careful. I usually do my stuff here on the river. It's calm. I go up 10, 20 miles and come back again. That's my hangout."

A native of Germany, Dengler got his first kayak, an inflatable one, at 16 years old Hans Dengler and used to paddle it around on the Neckar River by his hometown of Esslingen. At the turn of the millennium, he relocated to Michigan to work as an engineer with a subsidiary of a German technology company in Farmington Hills.

By that time he had given up kayaking for other passions, like competitive bicycling. But in 2017, colleagues gifted Patricia with a kayak during her retirement party. Not one to pass up an opportunity for outdoor fun, Dengler purchased one as well, reigniting his love for paddling. Eventually, he and his wife's joint enthusiasm for getting out on the water overtook his passion for cycling.

"I focus more on kayaking now," says Dengler. "I like the tranquility and being off the road. The road is full of many dangers anyways." 

Four years ago, the couple moved from Rochester Hills to Harrison Township, where they now have easy access to the Clinton River. More recently, they've also become part of an online community of Metro Detroiters dedicated to kayaking on the river.  

"We exchange information about obstacles on the river, and it's quite some comradery," says Dengler. "There's some hardcore groups that always paddle together. They picnic and drink beer [together]. It's a nice community." 

Becky Quinn of Simple Adventures.Planning for a paddling trip
For those who want to experience Macomb County's waters the way the Denglers and their friends in the local kayaking scene do, there are plenty of captivating options. The first step for any trip, though, is determining where to go. 

Lake St. Clair offers plenty of opportunities for a day of fun, from Anchor Bay which brushes against parts of New Baltimore and Harrison Township to the waterfront of St. Clair Shores. Then, of course, there's the Clinton River, which offers a variety of conditions, and other great spots like the Salt River Marsh, and Stony Creek Lake. 

Those who don't have kayaks or canoes can rent equipment and pay for guided tours and lessons from Clinton River Canoe & Kayak in Sterling Heights or one of several Simple Adventures locations. Looking for a little help planning a trip? There are also established paddle trails and designated boat launches along the banks of the Clinton River and the shore of Lake St. Clair to help make the planning process a lot easier.

Then there's the matter of what to bring. When going out on the water, it's a good idea to dress appropriately. Becky Quinn from Simple Adventures thinks it's important to remember paddlers are almost certainly going to get a little wet.

"We recommend avoiding cotton and to wear quick-dry clothing," she says. "And always wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD)!  Sunscreen and bug spray are certainly must-haves as well." 

Some kayakers opt to wear specialized kayak helmets to prevent accidental injuries. Other items paddlers may consider bringing along for a trip include a whistle, a glasses strap, spare clothes, shoes that can handle getting wet, and a waterproof case for one's cell phone. Drinking water or a beverage like Gatorade is also a good idea to prevent dehydration. However, glass bottles are strongly discouraged, as they tend to sink to the bottom of the water and create a hazard for people and wildlife.

Jerry Reis of Clinton River Canoe & Kayak.Getting out on the water 

When it's finally time to get out on the water, Jerry Reis of Clinton River Canoe & Kayak, urges kayakers to pay attention to the weather conditions and water levels. Paddlers can check with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) for local water levels.

"It can be raining and still have low water levels," says Reis, referring to conditions on the Clinton River. "Look at the weather going in and what the gauge is at. If the Auburn Hills USGS gauge is over 2 don't go, and when the Sterling Heights gauge is over 10 don't go."

As for launching a boat, the Clinton River Canoe & Kayak owner cautions paddlers to stay off private property. In addition to established canoe launches, he also suggests launching off near bridges, which are considered part of the right-of-way where they connect with public roads. Non-motorized canoes and kayaks used for non-commercial purposes do not require owner registration to travel on Michigan's public waterways.

Once it's time to take a trip, Reis always tells paddlers to fasten a personal flotation device to themselves, as there may not be enough time to put it on during an accident. Beyond that, he urges paddlers to buddy up and alert others to their plans.

"Don't paddle alone, ever. It's always a bad idea," he says. "[And] let somebody know you're going out, what your planned route is, and your estimated return time." 

Clinton River Shoreline in Harrison Township.Paying attention to local conditions

When paddling it's also a smart move to be mindful of one's surroundings and mindful of local conditions.

And for those who love nature, the conditions at Huron-Clinton Metroparks can be truly breathtaking. Macomb's three Metroparks — Lake St. Clair, Stony Creek, and Wolcott Mill —  all have either lake or river access and feature numerous places to launch canoes, kayaks, and Stand Up Paddleboards (SUPs). What's more, Stony Creek has an EZ Dock Canoe/Kayak Launch and accessible trails between parking to that launch. The boat rental shop there also has a variety of adaptive paddling equipment available.

At the Metroparks, visitors are encouraged to follow safe practices on the water and to follow posted buoys and signage asking them to stay out of designated swim areas. Novice paddlers are asked to keep their skill levels in mind and not to paddle in areas that exceed their abilities.

Additionally, Danielle Mauter, Chief of Marketing and Communications for the Metroparks, urges people to be respectful of local wildlife.

"Wildlife is really exciting to see and observe any time you are in the parks, but we encourage visitors to let wildlife stay wild," she says. "Don't feed wildlife or approach too closely. Instead, observe them from a safe distance. It's for your safety and the safety and well-being of the animals." 

Visitors are, however, encouraged to bring a pair of binoculars to view birds, which they're almost certain to see out on the water at the Metroparks. Bird-watching enthusiasts can also refer to the St. Clair-Macomb Birding Trail website to learn more about possible birding destinations. 

The Clinton River water trail is another great trip destination, featuring more than 72 miles of river for canoe and kayak users to explore. However, beginning paddlers should be aware that the calmer lower part of the river, stretching from Budd Park in Clinton Township to Mt. Clemens, is the section best suited for novices. In Macomb County, the area north of Van Dyke Road especially should only be attempted by experienced paddlers.

The New Baltimore area is a great place to explore as well, with access to both Lake St. Clair and the Salt River. However, Quinn, who operates a rental service there, advises lake paddlers to mind some simple rules.

"For early risers, paddling in the morning out on the lake is very serene and can provide great wildlife activity," she says. "We always recommend staying close to the shoreline, as wind patterns can change in an instant, and be aware of what the weather patterns are predicted for the day before heading out."

CRC&K transport vehicle.Going out on the town

For many kayakers, being out on the water is often just the start of their adventures. In fact, many paddlers venture out with a specific venue in mind where they can hang out mid-trip or relax after their excursion. The Denglers have several waterfront establishments in Mt. Clemens and Harrison Township they like to go to enjoy food, drink, and the occasional musical performance. 

"We kayak two or three times a week, mostly to destinations," says Dengler. "Somewhere we can actually get refreshments, which is either Octopus' Beer Garden or if we're a little less ambitious, we paddle down the river to Bumper's Landing or Crews Inn and get our refreshments there."

All three of those locations have dockside access for paddling enthusiasts like the Denglers. Macomb County downtowns like Utica and Mt. Clemens also offer a variety of bars, restaurants, and music venues where paddlers can stop by in a snap for a good time. For those visiting New Baltimore, Quinn has a bunch of recommendations.

"Fin's, Little Camile's, Blind Owl and Bad Brad's are fan favorite spots after a day on the water," she says, "and Little Mustard Seed and Pit Stop are breakfast favorites to start the day off!"

Whether one goes with a destination in mind or not, the waterways of Macomb County have a lot to offer canoe and kayak enthusiasts. And, while Reis believes it's important to follow safe practices and to be respectful of others out on the water, at the end of the day he doesn't think a good paddling trip is all that complicated.

"Just go out on a nice day when the water levels are good and enjoy it," he says. "It's really pretty simple. It really is."

All photos by David Lewinski.

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.

Hans Dengler paddles the Clinton River.
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