Howes: Paddling back at Belle Isle, goes bigger in MI

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Detroit — The banners scream "rental," the colorful kayaks promise fun, and Tiffany VanDeHey and her team are preparing this week for paddling to return officially to Belle Isle.

It's about time. Under a competitively bid contract with the state of Michigan, her RKC Adventures promises a contemporary twist on human-powered craft, from new aluminum canoes evoking forbears that plied the island's lagoons a century ago to kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. The watersports trifecta also offers rental bikes for good measure.

"There's been canoes here since the early 1900s," VanDeHey said in an interview Wednesday. "It will be a huge thing. People really like that. The canoeing is less intimidating. I think there's going to be more business than we can handle."

She wouldn't be alone. RKC rentals offer paddlers the chance to navigate only the island's Lake Takoma and its adjoining canals, a small taste of the bigger Detroit River nearby and the expanse of progressively bigger Michigan water few states can match — and never will, thanks to immutable geography.

Paddling is growing in popularity in the Great Lakes state, proprietors say, powered by greater access to the sport and a broader array of watercraft. That's especially fitting in Michigan, arguably home to some of the best and most diverse water for paddlesports between the Maine coast and Seattle's Puget Sound.

Big water? Michigan has it in abundance, as sea kayakers from novice to credentialed expert can attest, from Lake Erie and the Detroit River to Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and the "Big Lake" itself, Lake Superior. Inland lakes for recreational kayaks, canoes and the stand-up paddleboards (called SUPs) that are becoming so popular? Got them, too. Ditto the rivers.

The community is there, accessible to anyone willing to launch their Internet browser and work their Facebook account to find it. There are paddling clubs and paddling coaches, high-end retailers and mass-marketers, online stores and YouTube videos, training courses and annual symposiums in Port Austin, Grand Marais, Munising, west Michigan and elsewhere.

Even the Detroit River is becoming rehabilitated. Its reputation as a grimy, industrial sluice, an image engrained in generations of Detroiters, is belied by the cleaner water around Belle Isle, the riverfront near downtown and the growing popularity of guided paddle tours through the city's canals and around the island.

"The average person does not realize all that," says VanDeHey, whose RKC Adventures is a division of the Wyandotte-based Riverside Kayak Connection retail shop. "With Belle Isle, you can go from flat-out novice to advanced. The sport is so great because anybody can do it. But you never stop learning. There's always a next step."

Few places offer so many potential steps — and such a robust paddling community of various disciplines, I've come to appreciate — as Michigan's waters. They draw paddlers as much from the Great Lakes basin cities of Detroit, Chicago, Grand Rapids and Cleveland as weekenders or school trips looking for a few hours of fun on an easy inland river.

"I've never seen the change that I've seen this year in the paddlesports business," says Alan Heavner, 69, owner of Heavner Canoe and Kayak Rental in Milford and three other southeast Michigan locations. "Something's happened. Some unknown force has pushed a bunch of buttons and all of a sudden we're being swamped. The business in Michigan has just gone beserk."

Corporations pay $100 per person to conduct team-building exercises, he adds. A youth group from Texas, coming to town to attend a Lutheran youth conference, paid RKC in advance to make sure its kids have something do to here. And an auto dealer group from Connecticut is planning to spend part of a day paddling RKC boats on Belle Isle.

In just the past week, Heavner's sold more than 1,000 canoe day trips over Groupon, the online coupon purveyor. Rental demand for his 75-boat kayak fleet is so strong he says he could use a few dozen more boats and probably keep them all floating, especially on weekends.

A year ago this week, Heavner added 35 new kayaks to his fleet. "They've been gone" and rented "within a few hours, and they've been gone ever since. I could consistently use another 35 — that's how much demand there is for them. It's an exciting time in my life to see this happening."

It should, considering where we're smack in the middle of the greatest depository of fresh water in the world. The opportunities it all offers to have fun, to learn technique and safety habits, to push the limits and yourself are seemingly endless.

"We see people doing rentals and then coming to us to learn how to do it better and more fun," says Scott Fairty, head of instruction at The Power of Water, a paddling school that operates a small retail shop in Lansing. "The access to paddling is definitely greater than ever before."

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Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at