Happy Paddling Close to Home

Two of Michigan’s eight new water trails are in Oakland County
Kayaking the Huron River. Photo courtesy of Oakland County.

Traveling by canoe or kayak?

You can do that in Oakland County.

At the end of 2018, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources announced the new classification of eight Michigan waterways as state-designated water trails. In total, the trails cover 540 miles of inland waterways that are navigable for paddlers throughout the Lower Peninsula.

Among them are the Huron River Water Trail, which runs 104 miles through Oakland, Livingston, Washtenaw and Wayne counties; and the Shiawassee River Trail, covering 88 miles through Oakland, Genesee, Saginaw and Shiawassee counties.

“The water trails in Oakland County provide residents and visitors with an opportunity to reconnect with nature,” says Kristen Wiltfang, the county’s principal planner. “These gently flowing rivers also offer paddlers links to our historic downtowns and often meander through the scenic rural countryside.”

The designation’s goal is to establish and create a sustainable system of water trails, provide good information to trail users, encourage outdoor recreation and healthy lifestyles and strengthen tourism and economic development around the trails.

“When people think of Michigan, they think of our water resources,” says Bob Wilson, executive director of the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance. “What better way to welcome people onto those rivers, lakes and streams than a designated set of water trails that people can access, feel comfortable on, know where they’re going and know the history of those trails?”

A Long Time Coming

Michael Morrison, DNR state water trails coordinator, says the idea of state-designated water trails has been in the works for years and had gone through several hurdles before becoming official last December.

A state-recognized water trail network previously existed in various iterations — first as the “Michigan Heritage Water Trail” program that was formed in 2002 and disbanded in 2012. Next came Michigan Water Trails, a book and website created with a grant from the DNR’s Office of the Great Lakes that identified and provided information on about 45 water trails throughout the state open to nonmotorized watercraft.

Finally, in 2014, the Michigan Water Trails Acts was passed as part of a statewide comprehensive outdoor recreation plan. In 2016, the DNR began work on the framework and about a year ago, Morrison came into the picture to steer the project and push it forward.

“This program is an effort aimed at promoting Michigan’s position as ‘The Trails State,’ ” Morrison says. “We want to showcase the quality of our water trails and also the collaboration between the state and local governments, nonprofits and organizations that maintain these trails.”

For a trail to receive state designation, applicants — typically nonprofits designated specifically for the management of that water trail, a watershed council or a municipal parks and recreation department — need to show that they would be able to provide a quality trail experience and have a plan for water trail safety, stewardship and management. They also need to provide users with information that is consistent throughout the state’s database so that “beginner level” on one water trail is equivalent to any other, sparing paddlers from potentially dangerous surprises.

“We want people to understand what a beginner-level paddle is and that they would have a similar experience on another beginner trail,” Morrison says. “With intermediate and advanced trails, we want to be sure we have good information on dams, rapids and other challenges.”

Morrison says that the official water trail designations will also serve as an impetus for development.

“Most communities recognize the placemaking and economic development potential of trails,” he says. “Paddling and paddle sports are the fastest-growing sports in outdoor-based tourism, both nationally and in the state.”

That could mean more liveries, restaurants and lodging in areas with ready access to water trails. Wilson says there’s also huge potential for connecting to the state’s massive network of biking/hiking trails and pathways —12,500 miles in all — in a cross-promotional effort with hybrid cycling-paddling events and tours.

“Cyclists can drop off their bike at a livery, paddle for a couple hours, get brought back to their bikes and continue their journey,” he says. “It makes for a much more diverse experience to round out the land trails with the water trails.”

Wilderness Canoeing Right Here

Alan Heavner, owner of Heavner Canoe & Kayak Rental in Milford, says that when the Huron River Water Trail received the coveted designation of a “national water trail,” interest in the Huron River spiked as people from all over the country and around the world told family members and friends in Michigan that they wanted to come check it out.

“The people who live in this area that have lived here their whole lives couldn’t understand that this was the same river they’re used to and how it got that designation,” he says. “Then they realized, ‘Wow, we need to get out there and experience this thing.’ The publicity of that has been huge.”

Heavner Canoe has been operating since 1953 and rents canoes and kayaks at several locations including Kensington Metropark in Milford and Proud Lake State Recreation Area in Commerce Township. Theirs is one of several liveries along the Huron River that is forming a cross-promotional “passport” partnership making it possible for people to paddle from one rental shop to another along the river. A new organization called the Southeast Michigan Canoe Association aims to bring all of the local liveries under one collaborative umbrella.

Heavner likes to promote the Huron River as “wilderness canoeing close to home” — and at its best.

“Having a water trail that still looks the same and acts the same as it did 65 years ago is rare,” Heavner says. “It’s crystal clear; there’s no polluted water. It is a unique experience for people driving an hour from Detroit to a river that is unpolluted and seeing areas that are pure wilderness, just as they were 100 years ago.”