I-75 isn’t the only road to scenic Michigan waterways

Remnants of a train ferry dock, St. Clair River, Port Huron, Mich.
Remnants of a train ferry dock, St. Clair River, Port Huron, Mich.

The waters of St. Clair County and the month of June — two things for years I have been saying people could do more to take advantage of for summer recreation.

On the Friday of the first week of this month, I took these sentiments to heart and kayaked 27 miles in St. Clair County, starting in Lake Huron and ending at Algonac State Park, journeying nearly the whole length of the St. Clair River.

The St. Clair River, like its compatriot Detroit River, connects a Great Lake with Lake St. Clair. But it’s bluer and friendlier — kayaking the Detroit River is fun, but Zug Island has a distinctly unwelcome feel.

The St. Clair River is just far enough out of Detroit to feel like you’re getting away for a break but not so far that it’s a big hassle to get there. The top of the river, where it meets Lake Huron, is only an hour’s drive from downtown Detroit up I-94 to Port Huron. It’s a faster drive when traffic is moving, and because it’s not I-75, that actually happens, even on holiday weekends.

The deeply blue water is a perfect place to be on a clear June day with equally blue skies overhead. Being a weekday early in the season, there were hardly any other boats out. I never even saw another kayaker.

August and July get all the attention for summer vacations, while June comes in third even though it’s less humid and its recreation spots less crowded. The water is cooler, to be sure, but there’s something to be said for that crisp touch of coolness. It makes for a nice breeze when you’ve been under the sun all day, and the smell of spring is still in the air.

Like June to July and August, the waters of St. Clair County take a backseat to lakes and rivers within striking distance of I-75, the preferred route of vacationing metro Detroiters when they head up north. Many are headed to a cabin on a small inland lake. These lakes and cabins are great, but a point is lost on the concept of “getting away” when everyone lurches during the same handful of times into what could easily be described as “cabin parks” — RV parks without the wheels. And many of these smaller lakes are little more than brown round ponds with no nooks or crannies or islands to check out. This is a great retreat if you live in Nebraska, but we have some pretty big, spectacularly blue lakes around here. Why people scramble to get to muddy ponds five hours away when there’s a glorious, huge blue lake right here is beyond me.

The journey started 2½ miles up the coast of Lake Huron at 5:30 in the morning to catch the sun coming up over the horizon on Lake Huron. Then it was a turn southward toward the Blue Water Bridge. The water under the bridge at this point, where the wide lake funnels into the river’s narrow channel, is turbulent, despite being 45 feet deep. The surface of the water repeatedly changes, seemingly without cause, from incoherently choppy to eerily flat. The flat spots contain disconcerting whirlpools that local residents say will drag a swimmer to the bottom. They’re small, and I’ve swum through a few of them along the boardwalk right there (as a boy in my hometown), so I’ve always thought that was a myth. But I would never jump out of a boat in the middle of the river to find out for sure.

The water on this day was as smooth as one can ever expect it to be there, making for easy passage under the bridge, not a single other vessel anywhere near us. But newcomers should take caution. Metal breakwalls line the shores of both sides of the river under the bridge, and as the day goes on and more boat traffic comes through — freighters included — the water gets sloshing back and forth, bouncing from wall to wall. When traffic is especially busy, such as on a holiday weekend, this leads to chaotic chop waves coming at you from every direction. These can be fun, but it’s no time to drop your guard.

Staying close to the wall is a bad idea because waves bounce off it, smash into other oncoming waves and create a dangerous slosh that can topple you. (These “reverb waves,” as my uncle aptly calls them, are especially dangerous for canoes, which are more top-heavy and readily able to tip.) At any rate, staying near the wall is easier said than done if you don’t time it just right. The current and curve of the waterway here is such that more times than not you end up passing through right in the middle of the river whether you planned to or not. That’s great if you have a day like this one, not so much when dozens of motorboats are coming at you from both directions. Going on a weekday sunrise early in the season mitigates this hassle.

On most days, this turbulent stretch goes for about a mile before the river unwinds its frenzy somewhere ahead of the mouth of the Black River in downtown Port Huron. But although the water level was high — as high as I recall ever seeing it — and the current swift, it was calm not only through this stretch, but all the way to the end of the trip. It only took eight and a half hours of leisurely paddling to do the 27 miles.

The river offers a healthy variety of views. There’s pleasant waterfront residential and small-town downtowns on the American side, and intense industry on the Canadian side, which makes for great ogling at the wildly complicated tangles of pipes, smokestacks and related infrastructure.

The American side has its industrial moments too, affording up-close looks at DTE Energy Co.‘s St. Clair power plant, built in the 1950s, and a few cement operations, identifiable by their pyramids of piled gravel.

Other than that, it’s mostly houses of a wide range of architectural styles, from tasteful and understated to dumb and ugly. There are points where you can see in one home how someone understood the concept of designing to complement the surroundings, and in the very next how someone was conscious enough to build a big house but not enough to see how tacky and out of place it looked.

Smug observations like this are part of the activity known as “looking at all the nice houses” so many boaters enjoy on these waters. It’s an integral part of the experience.

There are opportunities to take a break and get out of the water. Marysville and Marine City have public beaches. Port Huron has the new Blue Water River Walk, which includes small beach-like points with shallow water where you can get out and onto land. Further exploring and breaks can be had by going up the mouths of the Black River in Port Huron, Pine River in St. Clair or Belle River in Marine City.

These places are handy as starting or stopping points, too, I should add, since not everyone has the time or interest in doing a 27-mile trip.

Don’t let June and the big fresh waters nearby pass you by.

Crain’s Detroit Business, June 14, 2016