Fort Gratiot Township works to make parks and recreation accessible for all

It’s important for everyone to be able to enjoy free recreation and ensuring that these opportunities are accessible for all is a priority for Fort Gratiot Charter Township.

At the beginning of the pandemic, many families shifted away from faraway destination vacations, and turned towards their own neighborhoods for safer, outdoor entertainment. This trend is something Robert Buechler, Fort Gratiot Township Clerk, says has remained constant.

“From my experience just on the trails, it does seem like the increase in people utilizing the parks and outdoors has continued,” he says. “People are able to go on vacations now, but when they get back, they’re still utilizing the recreation that’s close to home as well.”

Buechler says most of the community’s trails are paved and wheelchair-accessible. Future plans include an installation of the ADA-accessible playscape at the park off Parker Road.

“It’s community equipment, and parks are for everybody,” he says. “We want to make sure as many people are able to access them as possible.”

North River Road Park in Fort Gratiot Township, Michigan.

At North River Road Park there is an ADA-accessible kayak launch, an ADA-accessible slide at the playground, and tennis courts that are great for the popular sport, pickleball.

Jaime Oprita, Fort Gratiot Charter Township Treasurer, says popular local activities include fishing on the Fort Gratiot Pond/ Nature Preserve.

“We have a dock that attaches to our trail system, so there are always families out there with their kids using that for fishing,” she says.

The preserve features many natural areas, with a wide, paved pathway circling Kettlewell Pond, enabling access to biking, walking, running, fishing, and waterfowl watching. The ADA-accessible fishing platform enables access to the water’s edge.

“Bird and animal watching is popular,” Buechler says. “We have about 250 acres pretty close together, and the Drain Commission has another 80 or so acres adjoining that with a couple of retention ponds that definitely attract a ton of wildlife, especially during migration. We have a resident pair of Ospreys that nest on the cell tower in our park, and that’s always fun, especially when the babies are big enough to see.”

For your four-legged friends and family, there’s a dog park at the PetSafe Canine Commons at Fort Gratiot Park. Opened in 2016, this two-acre dog park is free for visitors from dawn to dusk.

“The dog park, which is connected to our ponds and trail system, gets quite a bit of use, “ Oprita says. “There are various things for the dogs to climb on and go through. We have a little dog side and a large dog side.”

Fort Gratiot Pond in Fort Gratiot Township, Michigan.

Kayaking is also an option, given the area’s proximity to many waterways.

“The kayak launch is definitely popular for paddling up and down the Black River, an access point,” Buechler says. “There’s basically a four-mile-loop between the Black River Canal, Black River, Lake Huron, and St. Clair River that kayakers and any boaters can do.”

Kayakers can even paddle under the Blue Water Bridge, via the Fort Gratiot Sojourn, six miles each way. Work at Keewahdin Beach is undergoing remodeling, removing the steps to the beach, and replacing them with an ADA-accessible walkway.

Keewahdin Beach is included in our list of seven public beaches you might not have heard of on Michigan’s Thumb Coast.

Disability Network creates equitable experiences for all

The Disability Network Eastern Michigan (DNEM) serves Oakland, Macomb, Huron, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, and Tuscola counties. DNEM Community Relations Director Chip Werner says that he hopes that the conversation of accessibility can shift to include more universal designs to create equitable experiences for all.

“Accessibility is very large and encompassing, and it’s also very personal,” Werner says. Disability can include physical barriers, developmental barriers, and emotional barriers, according to Werner. “It’s a big topic,” he says. “We tend to approach things from a concept of universal design.”

Carrie Gerdeman, Recreation and Health Services Director of DNEM, is in the process of developing relationships with the Fort Gratiot and Port Huron Parks and Recreation departments and has plans to collaborate on adaptive sports clinics using local parks in 2023.

“Part of our mission is to address the health and wellness needs of people with disabilities," Gerdeman says. "One way to do this is to collaborate with local parks and recreation agencies to enhance adaptive recreation offerings. DNEM plans to utilize local park facilities and staff to offer a variety of inclusive recreation programs in the upcoming year." 

The inclusive recreation workshops prove to be beneficial for both participants and volunteers, says Werner.

“There’s no question, for many folks, this is the first time they’re experiencing some of these opportunities, and it’s such a great pleasure to share that with them,” he says. “We find our volunteers often receive tremendous joy from it as well because they can share a part of their life that’s important to them.”

In the future, DNEM hopes to add adaptive fishing, adaptive bicycling, and adaptive archery into its programming for the regions it services. Werner says the barriers they’re trying to re-route can be developmental or physical. Physical needs can include adequate wheelchair locks on the dock or boat, additional ways to secure fishing poles while casting or reeling in, and extra hands-on instruction to make sure people feel comfortable, and can fully enjoy these experiences.

Looking ahead

Buechler says the Fort Gratiot Township is always forward-thinking and looking at how to provide more generations with recreation and ways to enjoy the area outdoors.

“We’ve hired an engineering firm to design a masterplan for 100 acres that we own, potentially expanding to sporting fields, a fieldhouse or something, possibly a campground,” he says. “We’re early in the design phase of that.”

“Right now, there is significant money available to really make investments that will benefit future generations,” he says. “We’re trying to figure out the best way to do that, and it seems like investing in our parks system is a good way and will get us a good return on investment.”

Read more articles by Sarah Spohn.

Sarah Spohn is a Lansing resident, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at sarahspohn.news@gmail.com.