Willow trees lean over the Fox Creek canal, their long tendrils brushing gracefully across the water’s surface. Curious mallards watch our group of a dozen kayaks from the shelter of rustling cattails and nearby, canal residents offer friendly greetings from their waterside backyards.
It’s hard to believe these quiet, vegetation-thick canals lie within Detroit’s city limits. Set within the city’s Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, just east of downtown, and adjoining the Detroit River, the century-old canals feel worlds away from the glass and steel office towers of Michigan’s largest city.
Detroit River Sports (DRS) has been showcasing the natural side of Detroit since the watersports outfitter was founded. Owner Alex Howbert, who launched his paddling business on Belle Isle in 2013, relocated and expanded the business to the city’s canals in 2016, setting up shop in the abandoned shell of what used to be Tommy’s Marina.
“I preferred spending time outside as I was growing up,” said Howbert, who, as a child, lived close to the Detroit River and was part of a local sailing team that raced on the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair. “I was always baffled as to why there wasn’t more outdoor recreation going on in the city, especially on the river,” he said of the years preceding DRS. “I felt like people would get a totally different perspective of the city if they saw it from the water.”
That altered perspective impresses DRS’s customers from the moment they arrive at the outfitter. The marina sits tucked between two city parks, Riverfront Lakewood and Windmill Pointe, its brightly-colored kayaks lying dockside beneath towering trees and along a lily pad-strewn waterway. On this sunny day in August, Erin Stanley, an assistant manager and frequent tour guide at DRS, will lead us paddlers on a 2½-mile, 3-hour kayaking trip through the network of Fox Creek canals and along the Detroit River. The tours showcase the area’s natural beauty. But they also shed light on key elements of Detroit’s history.
“Metro Detroit spans 139 square miles and more than 300 years,” Stanley tells us as we gather our kayaks near hers. “But you can trace much of the city’s most important history to the 2½-mile stretch of water that we will paddle today.” After 10 minutes of paddling, the canal’s calm waters have become noticeably choppier. The current has become markedly stronger and the wind has picked up. We have reached the entrance to the Detroit River.
Our lesson begins, naturally enough, with the Pottawatomi, Ottawa and Iroquois who used the Detroit River as a transportation hub as early as 750 A.D. The river’s transfer to French control in 1701 wasn’t a smooth one. The Fox Wars, which brutally pitted French soldiers against Fox warriors for ownership of a key North American trade route, took place where our vivid kayaks float. The Fox Creek takes its name from the defeated tribe.
“The Detroit River became key to American history again in the Civil War era,” said Stanley, “when Detroit became Destination No. 1 on the Underground Railroad. African Americans hid within the cellars and basements of some of the oldest houses we see on the river, waiting for their chance to row to Windsor.” Here in Detroit, the Detroit River formed the narrowest crossing between the U.S. and Canada east of the Mississippi. I imagined what it might feel like, paddling across this powerful waterway in the dark of night.
If Detroit’s Underground Railroad history quiets us kayakers, Stanley’s Prohibition-era tales soon have us shaking our heads and chuckling. Detroit’s own Purple Gang stars in her accounts of frenzied bootleggers, who raced the Feds up and down the Detroit River with alcohol-laden, supercharged boats. Rumrunners smuggled torpedo-shaped booze containers via underwater cables in other tales and, once the river had frozen over, via automobile for just as long as the season’s ice held out.
“People speculate that there are more Model Ts lying just beneath us, on the Detroit River bottom, than there are currently sitting on dry land.”
As Stanley paddled into the Grayhaven Canal, she led us past the Dawson home, allegedly a Prohibition-era speakeasy, and the cream-colored Fisher Mansion, built by Cadillac President Lawrence Fisher for 2.5 million pre-Depression era dollars. We paddled alongside what remains of the Gar Wood estate, once famous for its 3-story organ and wild rock ‘n’ roll music parties, a house leveled by a suspicious fire in 1976. Other historic mansions sit anonymously on the quiet canal, most having seen better days, some hidden behind rusting gates and unkempt vines.
Who could tell whether these estates might once have sheltered anxious slaves in their cellars? Which might merely have sheltered rum?
Our tour ended with a quick paddle back up the Detroit River, where we would kayak for a short distance alongside a freighter before returning to the marina.
“During the Industrial era, around 1907, the Detroit River was crowded with commercial ships,” Stanley called out over the sound of the ship and the wind, “transporting more than double the goods on either the Hudson or the Thames rivers at that time.” River traffic boomed thanks to Detroit’s growing industrial might and a burgeoning shipbuilding industry. “Before Detroit was the Motor City, we were the Boat City.”
Detroit’s industrialization brought heavy pollution to the Detroit River, a blemish only slowly fading. A decades-long clean-up partnership with the Canadian government in 2001 resulted in the creation of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, a 6,000-acre protective zone that straddles the nations’ borders and is the only one of its kind in North America.
As if to highlight her tale of a newly-revitalized Detroit River, the peak of a beaver lodge juts up above the tall river grasses, evidence of an environmental indicator species that, as recently as five years ago, had been absent from the Detroit River for a century.
“I would call this a must-do tour of the city,” said Dennis Fortson of Ann Arbor. “I loved the stories about the Purple Gang and the Prohibition era, the history of the great old houses along the canals,” he said.
“This is the most fun we’ve had in a long time,” added his friend Thomas McSweeney of Canton.
“We had no idea of the incredible history here in Detroit,” said Christopher Rogers, who, along with his wife and son Mika and Jafar Carter, were visiting from Atlanta. “We thought we’d try paddling because we enjoy being active. But then besides the natural areas, they introduce you to all of this Detroit history. It’s just fantastic!”
“We get a lot of tourists on our river trips,” said Stanley, “but we also have a lot of locals. I really love showing them the river. They think they know Detroit, but these trips offer them a completely different connection with the city. They learn there’s a lot they didn’t know.”
“I feel good that I can be a part of giving people a new perspective on Detroit,” said Howbert. “Oftentimes people are surprised at the natural side of the city, and that means a lot to me. They’ll ask, ‘Are we really still in Detroit?!?’”
He laughs. “And I say yes. This is Detroit.”
Paddle to Table with Detroit River Sports
You’ve heard of farm to table. Maybe even farm to cocktail. But paddle to table?
Detroit River Sports (detroitriversports.com) partners with Coriander Kitchen & Farms for an evening that combines outdoor recreation with a multi-course, locally sourced meal. Paddlers arrive in the late afternoon for a guided excursion on kayaks or SUPs through the city’s historic canals and along the Detroit River. After enjoying the natural beauty of the river — maybe even a spectacular sunset — and immersing themselves in the history of Detroit, visitors paddle back to DRS’s marina for dinner overlooking the water.
Coriander Kitchen & Farms is the brainchild of chef-farmer team Allison Heeres and Gwen Meyer, who raise their organically grown produce on a half-acre farm just east of Detroit’s Eastern Market. Meals revolve around Coriander’s produce, garnished with their own dried flowers and herbs; fish, meat and cheeses come from local producers.
Paddle to Table events take place in DRS’s marina, which was newly renovated in early 2020. The facility houses a new bar and restaurant — Coriander Kitchen & Farms’ permanent home since early this year — that opens onto a waterfront patio overlooking the Fox Creek canal and Riverfront Lakewood Park. Above the restaurant, DRS features a new special events space, both covered and uncovered. Downstairs is the outfitter’s retail sales shop, with paddling gear, rentals and tours.
Plan to spend 4.5-5 hours at DRS for the Paddle to Table events, including a 1.5-2-hour paddle excursion. Prices are $120/person, $105 if you bring your own kayak, and are appropriate for all skill levels, even first-timers.
Amy Eckert is an award-winning travel writer and author based in Holland.