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On a recent day on the Detroit River, a half-dozen sea-kayakers paddled the frigid water that glimmered with aquamarine hues deceptively similar to the Caribbean Sea. They braved air temperatures hovering in the low 40s with a northwest wind blowing at nearly 25 miles per hour.

The kayakers, men and women from Metro Detroit and Ann Arbor, were prepared for the conditions with their dry suits and personal flotation devices. They practiced paddling and rescue skills against the current and chop, as fishing boats and an occasional freighter passed by.

“It was winter’s last breath,” said Trey Rouss, who conducted the skills assessment and is the owner of the Power of Water, an adventure travel company in Lansing. “It was very, very cold water, but they were prepared for that. There are a lot of challenges on the Detroit River, but I think everybody had a good, full day. People discovered things they could improve upon.”

As might be expected among those passionate about their recreational pursuits, conversation during the daylong exercise turned to an issue that’s rippling across the world of paddlesports in the Great Lakes State: a proposal to require registration fees — not to exceed $10 — and registration stickers for all rigid-hulled kayaks, canoes and paddleboards (longer than 8 feet).

That recommendation from the Michigan State Waterways Commission came after two years of discussion amid growing concern about paddler safety on the state’s vast network of lakes and rivers, not to mention the sometimes-treacherous Great Lakes.

“We are trying to get ahead of a burgeoning problem,” said Dennis Nickels, chairman of the seven-member commission, an advisory board to the state Department of Natural Resources.

Paddlesports, he said, have gone from a “quaint hobby a few years ago to an expanding and wonderful phenomenon.”

The U.S. Coast Guard estimates some 650,000 paddlesport vessels ply Michigan’s waters, a number that is expected to grow by 7 percent each year. At that pace, the number of paddlecraft in the state will outnumber registered power boats in three years. A $5 fee could generate $3.25 million annually.

That explosive growth has taxed the state’s 1,300 boat launch sites on lakes, rivers and streams. Boaters and paddlers are vying for the same parking spaces, striped for vehicles hauling trailerable boats and access points. Law enforcement and emergency personnel are responding to more rescues — some ending tragically — as well as more reports of unmanned or distressed canoes or kayaks, uncertain whether a search and rescue is at hand or a craft has blown off a beach or dock.

“We began to hear this dull roar from law enforcement — a plea for help,” said Nickels, who has received dozens of emails vehemently opposed to any registration fee.

While the commission has since backed off its recommendation for further study and public input, the issue has created waves among outdoors enthusiasts, paddlers and others.

The Michigan Legislature has passed resolutions against the registration fee and encouraged the commission to find other ways to improve recreational opportunities. On Tuesday, the House opposed even introducing legislation on the registration fee.

Rep. Holly Hughes, chairwoman of the House Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee, said such a fee could hurt the state’s growing number of kayak and paddleboard enthusiasts. She said the tax is “up a creek without a paddle,” regardless of continued study by the waterways commission.

“They’re studying it, but we in the Legislature decide whether we do a tax or not, and we are not doing a tax on kayaks or paddleboards,” Hughes said.

The commission did not want to set up a paddlesport conflict within the DNR, and it intends to disperse revenue through grants to communities and nonprofit and charitable organizations that support paddlecraft operation and safety training.

In addition, the commission, in its recommendation, includes a provision to exempt nonprofit organizations from registration fees for vessels in use by volunteers for river cleanup and safety training.

Opponents object to not only a registration fee but also any kind of sticker on their watercraft. They argue they’re already paying state taxes and have purchased the Michigan Recreation Passport to access state lands and waters.

“I pay property taxes every year to live on and enjoy the river,” said Dave McIntire, an avid outdoorsman whose home is on the Little Manistee River near Irons, between Cadillac and Manistee. “I have seven kayaks because I have company that comes to visit. Now I’m going to have to go out and buy stickers for all my kayaks? I feel like we’re being overtaxed.”

For the commission, the recommendations are not aimed at limiting access to Michigan’s waters. The goal is to enhance access sites and the state’s Water Trails initiative, and to bolster law enforcement and water safety education for paddlers.

For the most part, water-safety education has largely fallen on the shoulders of paddle organizations and the U.S. Coast Guard. Many new paddlers hit the water without any kind of safety instruction or knowledge of river and lake conditions or challenges.

Raising questions

According to U.S. Coast Guard statistics, 152 people died across the country while using kayaks or canoes in 2016, about 22 percent of all boating-related fatalities that year. Most of the deaths were caused by drowning. There were 139 fatalities the previous year.

Among the organizations supporting the commission’s recommendations is the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association.

“We are doing many search and rescue of paddleboards, canoes and kayaks that is costing a lot of money to do these rescues,” said Blaine Koops, the association’s CEO and executive director. “This issue has been here for a long time, and every year it seems to get worse.”

He cited a rescue conducted by the Mackinac County Sheriff’s Office. With a host of local emergency personnel, including the U.S. Coast Guard, a grandfather and his two grandchildren were rescued from their swamped canoe in Moran Bay, near St. Ignace. Luckily, the three were wearing personal flotation devices. The rescue, which took about an hour, cost $1,300 to $1,500 in emergency manpower.

“That’s not an atypical situation,” Koops said.

While many paddlers understand the commission’s intents, they raise questions about how revenue from the registration fees will be distributed. Instead of a registration sticker, the state could adopt the use of the free orange identification sticker offered to boaters by the U.S. Coast Guard. It includes the owner’s name and phone number.

“A number of us have had conversations with legislative staffers about the proposal put forth by the waterways commission,” said Michael Gray, the Michigan state director of the American Canoe Association and a paddlesport business owner. “It’s an unpopular idea in an election year that doesn’t seem to have lawmakers’ support as yet.”

Gray, who owns Uncommon Adventures in Benzonia, south of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, would support a registration fee as long as the money was clearly earmarked to benefit the state’s paddle infrastructure and safety education.

“I don’t think (registration) is a bad idea. Some states do well with it,” he said. “Those states have a way of making sure the funds go to the direct benefit of kayakers, canoeists and paddlers.”

For instance, Ohio and Minnesota require registration of paddle craft and impose a fee. In Ohio, for example, kayaks, canoeists and others must pay a $20 registration fee every three years and affix registration stickers and boat registration numbers on their vessels.

Nickels said the commission envisioned setting up something similar to how a large percentage of revenue from boater registration fees are earmarked for the DNR law enforcement, marine sheriff divisions and local governments for watercraft safety and law enforcement.

Gray, like others, supports water safety education.

“People who want to boat in Michigan take a boater safety course, and people who want to hunt take hunter safety course,” he said. “So if you want to paddle, then you take a water safety course.”

‘The blame stands on us’

The kayakers on the Detroit River the other day saw the contentious issue as an educational opportunity.

“When you’re dealing with this kind of group, you’re definitely dealing with enthusiasts — they’re just 2 to 3 percent of the kayakers out there,” said Rouss, referring to the group working on their paddling and rescue skills. “Just because we know to wear life jackets and come prepared doesn’t mean other people do. We need to look at the big picture. We need to be an example.”

As Michigan’s 2018 boating season gets underway, Nickels said there was never any intent by the commission to have registration in place this year. The commission was looking at 2019.

“I think all parties have been remiss in communicating with each other. Largely, the blame stands on us,” he said. “We should have communicated much earlier with the Legislature.”

He noted there is other legislation before Michigan lawmakers that could provide other funding sources to improve water access and amenities. In that case, any kind of paddlecraft registration would be lower — around $5 or $6 — and could help fund water-safety programs.

Nickels is hopeful sharing more facts with the public over the next year will change minds.

“In the meantime, in our 2018 boating season, I am going to mourn every tragedy that occurs on our waters,” said Nickels, an avid fisherman who regularly sees unmanned kayaks on the water.

“Unfortunately, a great proportion of (the tragedies) are going to be paddlers. It’s disappointing that the public opposition — none of it coming from organized paddle groups — completely ignores the fact that there is a problem.”

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.

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