Water Wonderland

Published 9:39 am Thursday, July 24, 2014

Kayakers, paddle boarders and canoeists get a different perspective of southwest Michigan while traveling down the Galien River. (Leader photo/JILL McCAUGHAN)

Kayakers, paddle boarders and canoeists get a different perspective of southwest Michigan while traveling down the Galien River. (Leader photo/JILL McCAUGHAN)

Michigan Water Trails website helps make trip-planning easier

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN — Back in 1970, 15-year-old Rick Brill and several friends made the local newspaper when they canoed the 72 miles from the Paw Paw dam down to Lake Michigan via the Paw Paw River.

“It took us four days to make the trip,” Brill recalled. “There was a lot of portaging in the beginning due to the river’s being so narrow there, but it widened up some near Coloma.”

Now a professor of Michigan history at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, Brill has the resources to place that trip within a larger historical context.

“The Native Americans definitively used the rivers in this area to travel. It was just so much faster than walking, and there really were very few trails,” Brill noted. “The river was really the path of least resistance.”

According to Brill, when the French arrived in southwest Michigan, they, too, travelled via those same natural waterways, using much the same technology as the Native Americans.

That reliance on the rivers continued and grew once settlers began arriving in the region.

“Really, the first generation of towns in Michigan were river towns,” Brill explained. “When the pioneers came to this area in the late 1820s and early 1830s, they wanted to put mills on the smaller rivers and tributaries, and that was where they settled.”

Residents continued to rely on southwest Michigan’s network of waterways for transporting people and goods up until the railroads were built in the 1850s, and it was then that the Industrial Revolution really gathered steam, as Brill explained.

By the time Brill and his high school friends took their trip down the Paw Paw River, the effects of that industrialization on the region were inescapable.

“There was a lot of pollution in the water. It wasn’t very clean—there was a lot of slime, and it had an odor to it,” Brill recalled. “There weren’t a lot of regulations about dumping and run-off back then, and there was a lot of debris in the water. One of my friends saw a dead horse floating in the river.”

What Brill and his friends didn’t see were many other people.

“I don’t think we met anybody except one girl who came up to our campsite to introduce herself,” Brill said.

Now, more than 40 years later, times have changed.

Thanks to a heightened awareness of the environment and more restrictions on dumping, the water is cleaner, and many old dams have been removed as well. Paddle boarding, kayaking and canoeing have become more popular activities, and the waterways are receiving renewed attention as a means of drawing more tourism to the state, particularly since Governor’s Snyder announced his goal of making Michigan a “trail state” in 2012.

In an effort to make Michigan’s rivers, inland lakes, and even the Great Lakes more accessible to watercraft enthusiasts, the Michigan Water Trails website has been launched, and it is accessible at www.michiganwatertrails.org.

There, kayakers, canoeists, paddle boards and others can plan trips similar to the one that Brill and his friends took—but with a lot more information.

“The website offers trip-planning information for paddlers,” said Marcy Colclough, senior planner with the Southwest Michigan Regional Planning Commission. “People are using it right now.”

While the website is up and running, thanks to funding from the Michigan Coastal Zone Management Program, the Department of Environmental Quality Office of the Great Lakes and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there is still much to be done.

“The goal is more access. We’d like for there to be a site with restroom facilities every 5 miles and with camping every 10 miles. That’s a state-wide goal on the Great Lakes Coast, and we’re not quite there yet,” Colclough said.

However, the website does show launch sites and camping access, as well as the locations of nearby museums, parks and restaurants, and volunteers can be trained to add even more information.

“The website provides a lot of information on different access sites,” Colclough said. “It tells how hard it is to launch from any given access point, and it gives specifications on how to do it. It’s really useful information.”

With the new website, paddlers can avoid many of the hardships that Brill and his friends encountered, making for a more enjoyable trip.

“There’s so much potential here in southwest Michigan with all of the rivers we have here—the Black River, the Galien, and the St. Joe, along with the lake,” Colclough said.

To tap that local potential, a partnership to promote the West Michigan Water Trail was forged between Williams & Works, the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and Grand Valley State University’s Hospitality and Tourism Management Program, and more information about that project can be found at www.westmichiganwatertrail.com.