Detroit's a Beach: Swimming in the River

My second-favorite Detroit question -- after "Where do you shop for groceries?" -- is: "You actually swim in the Detroit River?"

My response is usually, "Yes ... and you already drink from it, so why not?"

While cheeky, yes, that answer is something I've felt strongly about since a young age. I grew up in a family that boated, swam and fished the Detroit River avidly, so I learned how to fillet fish to avoid contaminants that settle in their guts, where the cleanest swimming water is and, most importantly, to love the great strait this city has grown up alongside.

Tri-ing it out

When Kenny Krell’s 3 Disciplines Racing launched its Motor City Triathlon in 2006, he attracted 300 competitors -- despite frequently being quizzed about the safety of the water. The entire event takes place on Belle Isle -- run, bike and swim -- and he says athletes had major concerns about water quality on the beach, which is located just west of the Detroit Yacht Club. "There’s still a little bit of that going on," he says. "But just having the water be clear has been a huge surprise for the athletes."

That water clarity has been one of the event's main selling points, growing it by about 200 participants annually.  Krell estimates 750 or 800 took the plunge for either a 500 meter or 1.5 kilometer swim this year, making it one of the three largest triathlons in Michigan in spite of its tender age.

"We have people from 26 states and three countries this year," he says. "We couldn't have asked for better growth."

If they've all jumped in, what are you waiting for?

OK, but is it safe?

As Krell posts on the 3D website: "At this point in the river the water has been tested to be among the cleanest in the entire state. The reason is [that] it is constantly moving, you can see the bottom 20 feet down."

John H. Hartig, the refuge manager for the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, agrees with that assessment. "In general, it’s a good place to swim," he says. "The beach is tested to make sure it meets standards."

He says the places in the Detroit River that he is still concerned about in terms of water cleanliness tend to be further downriver, like at the confluences of the Rouge River and Ecorse Creek and in the vicinities of combined-sewer overflow, or CSO, points along the river's edge. "We still have got a ways to go in addressing CSO storm water runoff," he says.

The upper end of the River has improved to the point that a beaver has returned to the area – the first one spotted in the river in 75 years. Its lodge is located at the foot of Conner Creek, but it regularly makes the swim to Belle Isle in search of more bark for food. "The beaver points to the amazing recovery of this ecology," he says. "We've come an amazing distance."

What's it like?

One of the young families you might run into at the beach is Jennie Weakley, a 30-year-old Corktown resident, and her daughter, Kennedy, who will be 2 this month. She estimates that she loads up the stroller with a beach blanket, cooler bag and sunscreen about three times a month in the summer.

One of the things Weakley likes about the beach is its diversity. Kennedy attends daycare with mostly Latino children, so Weakley says, "It’s nice to get her around black kids and white kids," The lack of current and shallow depth of the water are another draw considering Kennedy's age. "She’s never ventured out very far," her mom says.

A lifetime Belle Isle beach-goer, Weakley says she feels very safe at the beach.  "I’ve never had an uneasy feeling," she says. She also likes the fact that people bring their dogs, and says she’s never noticed an issue with canine clean-up.

As for me, every time I plan a trip to the beach my biggest problem is deciding whether to ride my bike, which is obviously the most fun method of transportation ever, or to drive and take my dog. If I choose the bike, I strap a cooler to my rack, throw a towel in my basket and make the trek. By car, I grab the leash and the excited pooch, roll down the windows and join the cruisers.

It's a classic win/win situation because, either way, as soon as I'm on the sand, book (and oftentimes, cerveza) in hand, with a view of sparkling water and splashing kids, I am immediately transported from a regular state of mind to an elevated one.

See you on the beach.

Kelli B. Kavanaugh is development news editor for Model D and writes the Green Space column, too. Send feedback here.


Motor City Triathlon 2009

Lifeguard post

Motor City Triathlon 2009

Cooling off in the Detroit River

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

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