Gate swings open to Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Trenton — They have been buzzing about it for so long, over the worms and crayfish at the Trenton Lighthouse bait and tackle shop on Jefferson Avenue, owner Kim Chakrabarty said they have nearly forgotten it is going to happen.

The Trenton Chemical plant of Chrysler Corp., in operation down the street from 1946 to 1990, is long gone.

A boardwalk at the new Detroit River National Wildlife Refuge in Trenton.

In its place, opening Thursday, is the 44-acre Refuge Gateway of Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, which runs from Jefferson to the river.

After decades of desire, land acquisition, demolition, cleanup, and development, people can park and walk to a long downward slope and behold a broad view of the Detroit River opening into Lake Erie. They can also access the Downriver Linked Trail system, portions of Humbug Marsh Orange and Green Trails, the Humbug Observation Deck and the Monguagon Boardwalk.

Along the shore is the desire of the anglers Chakrabarty serves: a new fishing pier, which stretches 700 feet out into the western Trenton Channel. It's one of the greatest freshwater fisheries on the planet, and state Department of Natural Resources officials say the channel is as bountiful as any time in their record-keeping.

With the autumn run of walleye, a treasured deeper-water fish, beginning to take off, anglers are active, and the pier gets them where walleye are more likely to be, without a boat.

Chakrabarty said her customers took that bait a while ago. They were just waiting to get reeled in for an opening that was set to happen in May, only to be delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t think anybody knows, because it was supposed to open a long time ago, and so people aren’t expecting it,” Chakrabarty said Wednesday, as she scooped up crayfish to prepare an order of 15 dozen for two regular customers.

A pond and the visitor's center at the Detroit River National Wildlife Refuge in Trenton, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020.

“All of my customers are super-excited to have another place to fish. They go to Elizabeth Park, down Jefferson, and they do really well,” she said. “But I know that the new spot will give them more social distancing, also.

“Some of my older gentlemen that come in here are looking forward to that, because then they can fish and not have other people on top of them.”

The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge runs from the lower Detroit River, 20 miles south of the city, and 48 miles along the western shore of Lake Erie. It consists of 6,000 acres, divided into 19 units, in Wayne and Monroe counties.

Fishing, hunting and birding areas are all easily accessible. The new gateway has 120 parking places, although not all will be in use given concerns about public health during the pandemic. And some sections of the refuge are closed.

But it offers environmental education and interpretation, and some surprises, like the time a snake slithered by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell.

Recalling it Wednesday, Dingell, D-Dearborn, said that after gathering her composure, she was joyful to learn it was a non venomous species deemed “threatened” by scientists, the Lake Erie water snake.

Justin Bennett, left, and Eddie Silvers, right, of Malone Design and Fabrication, Atlanta, GA, work on the sign at the Detroit River National Wildlife Refuge in Trenton, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services says the snake is endangered largely because of the loss of its habitat — ledges and rocky shoreline and coastal waters — something the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge helps restore.

“This was John Dingell’s dream,” Dingell said of her late husband, the longest serving member of Congress, for whom conservation was a hallmark. “He envisioned this decades ago.

“His blood, sweat and tears is in every inch of the property that’s in this refuge. It’s the only international wildlife refuge in his hemisphere.

“It is helping to preserve our national resources,” Dingell said.

“It’s the only mile of undeveloped land left along the Detroit River. People can bring their kids, and you can walk the trails. You can study. You can go to the fishing pier, which is incredible, to fish. You can see all the different species. Whenever I go, I see something new and different.”

The project has long been a bipartisan affair, with Republican legislators helping the Dingells’ cause.

“The Detroit River on the Michigan-Canada border has lost over 95% of its coastal wetland habitat and has been designated a Waterfowl Habitat Area of Concern by the Canadian and American governments,” President George W. Bush said Dec. 21, 2001, in signing legislation creating the refuge.

“This area is a prime waterfowl migration corridor and is considered a special place for sportsmen, birders, and boaters,” Bush said.

Dingell’s office announced the opening Monday. The Trump Administration announced it separately Wednesday.

“Decades-long partnerships and the community vision of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge are a model for the Service’s urban refuge program, and they are paying off,” Aurelia Skipwith, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a news release.

“Today, the Trump administration is excited to announce we are able to open the Refuge Gateway and place this additional $1 million investment at Detroit River and Minnesota Valley refuges — two urban conservation gems from America’s Midwest.” Skipwith said.

The land and water of the Refuge Gateway, which is owned and co-managed by Wayne County and the federal fisheries services, will be open every Thursday through Sunday during daylight hours, said Joann Van Aken, executive director of the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance in Trenton.

Some restrictions are in place for public health during the COVID-19 pandemic, Van Aken said.

But many people have sought outdoor activities during the pandemic as a way of easing stress

“We’re an urban refuge, and that’s a big focus,” Van Aken said. “We’re one of over a dozen priority, urban national wildlife refuges in the country.”

The alliance, an independent nonprofit, was established to support the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge as a fundraising arm that also provides volunteer staff, habitat restoration, education programs and community outreach.

Van Aken said the refuge alliance has worked with more than 300 organizations, locally and internationally, to establish the refuge and the gateway

As for the last undeveloped mile, Van Aken said, not developing it when everything else along the riverfront began going industrial more than a century ago is the legacy of the previous owners and current generations.

“It’s so calming, it’s so peaceful out there,” she said.

“We used to do open houses on sections of the gateway, and the folks who used to come across from Grosse Ile and who saw their perspective, but from the other side of the water, they were just in awe!

“You really get a good perspective when you look down the waterway,” she said. “It’s much like an oasis, I guess, in an urban area, for folks to be able to come to and enjoy.”