St. Clair County discovers economic opportunity in kayaking

Economic downturns can sometimes be a good thing for local economies. People tend to stay closer to home when money is tight, yet they still want to be able to recreate. This appears to be the reason for Port Huron's quick rise as a premier kayaking destination. As the recession of 2008 took hold, people in the Port Huron area looked around them to see what they could do to entertain themselves. What they found was something that has been there all along: water, and lots of it!
"During the downturn in the economy in 07 and 08, people didn't have the money to go up north so they looked for ways to recreate around their homes," says Lori Eschenburg, Planner II/GIS with the St. Clair County Metropolitan Planning Commission.
The diversity of waterways in the Port Huron and St. Clair County area has made the region a hotspot for kayaking. There are now 16 routes mapped out in nine different bodies of water that offer something for everyone--from the novice to experienced kayaker. Eschenburg, a cartographer by trade, created all the maps for the website. The routes include names such as the Beaubien Creek Route, the Belle River Route, and the Black River Experience.
"What's unique about St. Clair County is we have many different types of paddling," says Eschenburg. "You can paddle Lake Huron, or you can go into the big river (the St. Clair River), which is for the experienced kayaker. We also have three lazy rivers: the Belle, Black and Pine."
If you build it...
These days it's not only locals enjoying the sport. People are making a special trip to the area to take advantage of the diversity of kayaking experiences the area has to offer and the accessibility to the water made possible by several launches installed specifically for kayaks. And thanks to a grant Eschenburg applied for in 2010 from Michigan Coastal Zone Management, the area is literally on the map for folks who enjoy kayaking. It resulted in the creation of The Blueways of St. Clair, which includes a website that details everything a local or visitor to the area needs to find these routes and plan their kayaking trip.
"It's been six years in the making and still growing," says Eschenburg of their efforts to make the area a premier kayaking destination. Adding to the fame of the kayaking scene in the area is the designation of the Island Loop Route as a National Park Service National Water Trail, the first designation of its kind in Michigan and one of only 18 in the country. The Island Loop is a 10-mile route that crosses four different bodies of water and goes under two international bridges, giving the experienced kayaker a close-up view of lake-going freighters and other vessels traversing the busy St. Clair River.  
Thanks to careful planning and available resources, the region has made it easy for people, including the handicapped, to get in and out of the water, even in the downtown area.
"What has helped our area is we have seven handicapped accessible launches." says Eschenburg. "If you put the facilities in, people will find out about it and will come." She says St. Clair Parks and Recreation will purchase a handicapped accessible boat launch for any municipality in the county at $25,000 to $30,000 each.
In addition, the city has added kayak launches in the downtown area so paddlers can easily get in and out of their vessels to eat, drink, shop at local businesses, or simply stretch their legs.
Kayaking: affordable fun
The nice thing about kayaking is it doesn't cost a lot of money to get started and just about anyone can do it, according to Eschenburg. And in Michigan, you're never far from the water.
"There are a lot of benefits to kayaking, besides being affordable," says Eschenburg. "You don't need to be an expert or super athletic, and you're no more than six miles from a body of water in Michigan."
Eschenburg says she is seeing a lot of middle-aged women and even older folks kayaking these days. Kayak fishing is also becoming quite popular, and the area is seeing an increase in people coming to the area to fish from their kayaks. Eschenburg did stress a note of caution to remind folks to only choose routes that match their skill level, to stay away from Canadian waters, and to always wear a life jacket.  
There are currently three kayak outfitters servicing local and out of town kayakers. Eschenburg says there is a need for a larger livery.
"We have more need for liveries that can handle a lot of boats; we have small ones--we have more of a need for liveries than water trails," she says. "Usually it's the other way around."
All in all, not a bad problem to have for an endeavor only six years in the making.
Neil Moran is a freelance writer/copywriter for hire and owner of Haylake Business Communications.
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