Paddling end to end: the Detroit River in a day

Todd Nissen
Special to The Detroit News

DETROIT -- It started, as things often do, with Mike.

“I have been wanting to paddle the entire Detroit River in one trip for a while,” he said earlier this summer.

Mike calls the body of water that separates the Detroit metro area from Canada, “my river.” His many friends indulge him. After all, Mike grew up near the river and spends countless hours on it, often returning with garbage strapped to his kayak deck.

But in order to paddle from the eastern tip of Belle Isle to where the name changes to Lake Erie, you need friends. As mentioned, Mike has a lot of those.

Paddlers on the Detroit River.

Dave and Susan helped develop the plan. They are perhaps the most organized camping and kayaking couple east of the Rocky Mountains, so we were in good hands.

Susan created a PowerPoint slide. It had colors and arrows with names, times and shuttle descriptions between the Belle Isle launch site and the most logical take-out spot at Lake Erie Metropark, south of Gibraltar.

Dave figured out how to get no fewer than five boats loaded on to and in their truck and camper for the return shuttle trip. Transporting recreational gear on vehicles is Dave’s wheel (or, boat) house. In an era of straps and ratchets, Dave does much of it old school. Ropes and knots. (“A simple trucker’s hitch. It’s easy! Lemme show you.”)

Paddle day

Susan and Dave met Mike at Belle Isle at 7 a.m. on a wet and gray July Saturday. They unloaded boats. Susan stayed in the rain to watch after them while Dave and Mike drove two vehicles to Lake Erie Metro. There, they met up with Kathy, who drove the three of them and her boat back 40 minutes to Belle Isle.

The remaining four of us — Jeremy, Mark, Paul and I  — got ourselves to Belle Isle. Drenching rain from the night before was still not done yet soaking Detroit, and we organized our gear in a chilly drizzle. With warmer weather predicted, much conversation ensued about what to wear at the start. Paul settled it: “You’re supposed to be cold in the parking lot.”

On the river, the water was calm. A slight northeast breeze was a welcome addition to the downbound current on this 25-mile journey.

A few early souls strolled the Riverwalk. But for the most part, Detroit was still waking up as we paddled by a cloud-covered Renaissance Center. Overhead, the only traffic on the Ambassador Bridge was a handful of semitrucks, a stubborn reminder of the COVID-19 pandemic.

J.W. Westcott at work

Those who keep up with the Detroit River know that just southwest of the Ambassador Bridge is a famous spot — the world’s only non-military floating ZIP code, 48222. Members of the J.W. Westcott family have been delivering mail, packages, tools, harbor pilots — even pizza — to passing freighters since 1874.

On this morning, we were fortunate to catch a harbor pilot swap. As the bulk carrier Narew made its way upriver enroute to Thunder Bay, Ontario, the Huron Maid set off from the Westcott’s dock. The Huron Maid sidled up alongside the Narew as it steamed upbound. Several minutes later, as the Narew went under the Ambassador Bridge, the Huron Maid peeled off to return home.

Urban paddling up close

A little more than a mile downstream, we got a river-side view of two massive construction sites that made headlines, one good and one not-so. As the sky lightened, a crane was moving dirt fill at the Revere Dock, part of a repair project to fix the dock and aggregate that collapsed in November 2019. Further downriver, we stopped to take photos of the first U.S. cement supports on the future Gordie Howe Bridge.

It was in this section we were reminded of what the river holds — not all of it pleasant. Shimmering globs of oil surrounded our boats and dotted our spray skirts. We knew that the heavy rains from the night before would result in more runoff than usual. Even still, paddling next to throw-away objects you would rather not see gives you pause. We expect a lot from our waterways. Perhaps this new era of climate change and severe weather patterns will lead us to re-think how we treat them.

If it's Pine Street, it must be lunch

By lunchtime in Wyandotte, the sun had fully come out (Score one for Paul’s parking lot prophecy). We compared who brought what to eat, debated the merits of camp chair designs and took stock of the trip. After a little more than three hours of paddling, we were just over halfway. Moods and bodies were still good. We started to talk about what time Paul’s wife, Julie, should leave home in Grosse Ile to meet us at Lake Erie Metro. There were rumors of a cooler.

If rotating bridges are your thing, hanging out under the Grosse Ile Toll Bridge at the top of the hour might be something to consider. We got lucky with timing and had a water-level view of how boats and vehicles co-exist on the only working bridge to the island.

Then, spurred on by the friendly northeast breeze, it was down past the historic Pagoda House on Grosse Ile, picturesque Elizabeth Park in Trenton and workers repairing the Grosse Ile Parkway Bridge. Cormorants sat in the trees along Humbug Island, just past the newly opened John D. Dingell Jr. Visitor Center at the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

Recreational boat traffic picked up as we approached the channels of Gibraltar. We grouped closer to make sure there were no bad endings to the day.

LEMP, guitars and a cooler

At 3:30 p.m. we (mostly) avoided the green goop growing around Lake Erie Metro’s boat launch and climbed out of our kayaks. The weather was warm and pleasant.

It had been six and a half hours since we left Belle Isle under cool, misty skies. In that time, we had taken a historical journey through the Motor City’s past, present and future. We got up close to the clanking steel mills that gave rise to the auto industry. We watched weekend recreation in the small towns that line the river southwest of Detroit. And that was just the U.S. side.

It turned out Julie did bring a cooler. And Paul’s guitar. Not by coincidence, Mike brought his guitar, too.

Our distance was 24.4 to 24.9 miles, depending on whose geo-tracking device we looked at. Not an official 25 miles? That was too bad. Should we have extended things to the Detroit River Lighthouse? We agreed that was a landmark too far. But maybe we should have gone on the east side of Grosse Ile to stretch things out. Give us another chance to see a freighter.

Hey, Mike – what’s a good day to try this on your river next year?

Safety note: This trip was made by people with proper equipment and experience. Before getting out on the water, please make sure you have the right boat for your activity and have taken the necessary safety precautions.