Kayak Detroit: Paddling Through East Side Canals

A blue heron rises gracefully into the air. A fish jumps, the splash rising just over my shoulder. A muskrat sleekly dives. My kayak cuts noiselessly through the water. All this, on Detroit's East Side.

A couple weeks ago, Detroit Eastside Community Collaborative and Creekside Community Development Corp. teamed with Wyandotte's Riverside Kayak Connection and Michigan Sea Grant to offer a kayak tour of the Detroit River and Creekside's canals. About 20 hardy souls, some from the neighborhood and some that had no idea that such a neighborhood even existed, took the dive.

We put in at the lagoon at Maheras Gentry Park, much to the amusement of the people fishing around its edges. After tooling around in the lagoon's relative safety, we ventured upstream.

Although slightly choppy, river paddling is not as difficult as you might think. It is more often not the acrobatic, flipping around whitewater paddling you see in sports magazines. On Detroit's river and canals, it's closer to canoeing but only the paddler sits closer to the water, and it's often quicker.

And kayaking sure is the primo way to really understand the magnitude of Creekside's one mile of lakeshore parks. Besides Maheras Gentry, there is A.B. Ford, Lakewood East and Mariners all occupying prime riverfront real estate. Which is exactly why this adventure was organized, says DECC's Libby Pachota, who is working on raising funds for the Conner Creek Greenway that will ultimately run from the Detroit River to Eight Mile. "The Creekside neighborhood has 120 acres of parkland," she says. "We want to show off those assets."

DECC's greenway efforts have led to the construction of a 2 1/2-mile section near City Airport as well as a short stretch called Milbank. Next up: bike lanes on St. Jean between Mack and Jefferson that will then connect down to Maheras Gentry Park. A third phase will connect McNichols to Eight Mile along Outer Drive and Conner. Funds are committed and these four miles will be completed by 2011, says Pachota.

Back to the water. We turned from the river into a canal that winds around newly built housing, then behind the Fisher Mansion, whose boathouse is currently being used by the Detroit Women's Rowing Association. We crossed paths with a couple of members rowing a scull back to home base.

After another short jaunt up the river, we turned into another canal -- there are three miles of them winding through Creekside -- and paddled behind homes, kind of like an alley tour but way cooler. Some are beautiful, with well-maintained and well-used boathouses, while others are sadly falling into disrepair. And that bothers my fellow paddler John Meyers, who also happens to be Creekside CDC's chairperson and a neighborhood resident. He wryly refers to his canal-front home as his "cottage."

"It's still pretty shocking to see the number of vacancies … boathouses falling in the water," he says. "This resource is underutilized."
Meyers tells me that the seaweed our "brigade" encounters in the canals is both good and bad: it's due to the water's relative cleanliness…and to a lack of regular boat usage. "It would be nice to have a traffic jam back here once in a while," he says.

The Michigan Sea Grant is a program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Mary Bohling is its extension educator for Southeast Michigan. "We work with communities on a whole host of Great Lakes issues, from coastal tourism and interacting with water trails to invasive species management, soft shore engineering, habitat projects…anything to do with education and outreach on Great Lakes issues," she says.

As we paddle, she points out invasive plant species that grow in abundance and prime fish spawning areas. To her, kayaking -- which she has anecdotally noted increasing in popularity -- is one more way to raise awareness of issues near and dear to her heart. "Throughout Michigan in general, we take (the Great Lakes) for granted," she says. "It's a 'don't know what you've got until it's gone' kind of thing."

While Bohling is up-to-date on the upper Detroit River's health, she found that she learned something about Detroit on our paddle:  "I had no idea we had the homes back in the canals we visited, how close people are to the water," she says. "I've cruised up and down the Detroit River probably 20 or 30 times and I've never been back in those canals."

As twilight approaches, our safety guides from Riverside decide it's best to turn back. We have a longer river paddle this time and, although we are going downstream, the waves are a bit choppier and we all get splashed a bit -- especially Creekside's Sam Butler, who draws the short straw and lands in a sit-on-top kayak.

We arrive back to Maheras Gentry with no capsizes to report to the full-of-questions anglers. What can be reported is a lovely night on Detroit's East Side. By kayak.

Want to try kayaking? You have a couple of rental and tour options in the city.

Riverside Kayak Connection offers regular kayaking tours, but can also arrange for special group tours. Call 734-285-2925 to discuss options.

John Thompson of Honest? John's Bar & Grill in Midtown will also take out a group on a tour. One that he likes puts in at Belle Isle and heads down to the Rouge River, where a van takes you back to the starting point. Call him at the bar, 313-832-JOHN on Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday evening to set up a paddle.

Kelli B. Kavanaugh is Development News Editor for Model D and would be happy to borrow your kayak sometime. Send feedback here.

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Getting ready for the kayak tour

Putting in at the lagoon at Maheras Gentry Park

Paddling on the river

A serene and beautiful way to tour the river

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D Contact Marvin here

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