Blog: Industrial kayaking — A journey through metro Detroit’s hard core

The Edwin H. Gott, docked at Zug Island
The Edwin H. Gott, docked at Zug Island, July 13, 2015

How many times have I driven over the Rouge River on I-94, looking northward at that long, unnaturally straight, excessively manhandled stretch of the river, and thought, “What the hell is going on with this? How would someone get down there?”

Nothing is ever happening. No boaters, no fishermen on the banks, no buildings on it — how many riverfronts in the heart of an aging industrial region have nothing on them? The banks are covered in cement, making me imagine industry-minded folk many decades ago shaking their finger at a disobedient river. Douse it with concrete and bring a halt to its wandering ways.

How many times have I driven across the high bridge on I-75 overlooking the intense, flaming industrial mass before my eyes and thought, “Holy shit. Look at that.”

From up there, all metro Detroit appears to be a factory. There are massive, impressive, wild structures down there, all worthy of landmark status. Yet I don’t know what half of them are.

And there’s a river down there. All these years, I never thought of that bridge as a bridge over the Rouge River, over any river at all. I suppose I knew it, but I didn’t care. That is a scene in which the river, normally a scene’s centerpiece, is demoted.

The river didn’t fully enter my mind until I was planning the trip. “We’re going to go under that bridge!” I told my friend of twenty years, Colin, who agreed to do this kayaking adventure with me. This was heroic on his part, given his lack of kayaking experience and the total journey I had planned.

We both needed a good, thorough experience to shake us up. Something that would break us out of ourselves for a few hours and maybe scare us.

We would start in Dearborn and end in Lake Erie, a total of 27 miles by water, one dip of the paddle at a time. We would ride through that straight part of the Rouge; we would be in that I-75 industrial mass.

First, we discover a hidden people

Our journey started at the Best Motel in Flat Rock, which we expected would be the Worst Motel in Michigan but turned out to have some charm to it.

Its spot on Telegraph Road is marked by a sign that looks to have been hand-painted. There is a courtyard-like area amid the motel’s handful of structures that is not visible from the road. A party was taking place at one end of it when I rolled into it, looking a sight I’m sure with two kayaks strapped to the roof of my badly deteriorated ’85 Diplomat. About twenty people were sitting outside laughing and having a wholesome time. A family party of the South Asian motel owners, no doubt. Kids playing, people eating, sitting on lawn chairs.

Entering an unusual scene with an unusual vehicle, I stepped out of my car. Everyone was staring at me. I grinned at them.

I felt like I’d driven into another country, and that is always cool.

The owner came out. I gave him a fifty.

“Family event?”

“Yes, family event,” he said, also grinning, maybe happy to be reminded of the presence of his loved ones, maybe amused at what my American take on all this might be.

“The sign says we can’t take furniture outside…”

He waved it off. “Don’t worry.”

“… I don’t need the furniture but I brought two chairs…”

“It’s fine, it’s fine.”

I went outside and asked the family if I could take a picture. Everyone happily obliged. Without hesitation they straightened themselves and paused. I was touched that they would do that for a stranger who came from a questionable car.

The room was small and musty but serviceable. Colin showed up and recoiled. He’s not one for such situations. I revel in them, as long as there’s an element of novelty to them. Besides, for $45, complaints should be parked.

The dresser in the room distracted him. “Look at that! It must be from the 1960s!”

We sat outside on my chairs, drank beers and smoked cigars.

We chose July 13, a Monday, to do this so recreational boat traffic on the Detroit River would be at a minimum. Our end point of the trip would be the Huron River delta in Brownstown Township, just south of Lake Erie Metropark. The launch point would be in Dearborn, at sunrise or as near to it as we could manage.

The point of getting the motel room was to save an hour of travel in the morning. That might seem an unnecessary waste of money, but I know from experience that the first hours of a serious kayaking adventure set the pattern for the rest of the day, stamping it as either an enjoyable time or a stressful one.

I live in Eastern Market; Colin is in Ann Arbor. If we embarked from my place, we’d have to drive to our Lake Erie spot, drop off a car, then drive to Dearborn to start the mission. By staying in Flat Rock, we shaved an hour of travel and preparation time.

This time factor was even more important given the distance we’d have to cover by sunset. Boats aren’t to be on the waters after dark without lights. Kayaks have no lights. And lights or no, we wouldn’t be able to find our end point in the dark. We’d never been in those waters, which, as we later learned, form a complex, marshy coastline along Lake Erie. It’s part of a nature reserve, so structural landmarks are scarce, and we wouldn’t know what to make of any that might exist anyway.

But there is a free-access boat launch ramp out there in the delta. We could park my car there in the morning, then take Colin’s car to our launch point in Dearborn.

The voyage begins

We barely slept. We had to share the musty bed. It came with two of the thinnest pillows I’ve ever seen, and they were slightly dank.

I yanked us out of sleep at 5 a.m. and made coffee with a small coffee maker I brought from home.

For breakfast we had protein bars. I had a square piece of cold pizza too. For the rest of the day all we would have is protein and breakfast bars, and jerky. Colin had a bag of Funyuns. I’d eaten mine the night before.

The launch point was on a side branch of the Rouge that goes behind Andiamo restaurant on Michigan Ave. We launched just upstream from there, behind a parking lot on a side street. Colin parked his car at a spot on Michigan Ave. where it wouldn’t get towed, while I got the kayaks down a steep slope in a cloud of mosquitoes and into the river. It was 7 a.m.

Most of our negative views of polluted waterways come from decades past where companies could dump at will. Things have improved a lot. In my hometown of Port Huron, the Black River was so disgusting when my grandmother was a girl that she had to hold her nose when crossing the bridge over it. When I was a kid, it was still pretty bad. By the time I was in high school, a friend and I ventured to kneeboard in it. Now it’s common to see kayakers in there.

The Rouge, I figured, probably has an outsized reputation for nastiness based on its past. I got in the water. It smelled musty and earthy, like woodland rivers should. Everything seemed fine. I got on my knees and baptized myself in it to start our journey. I do this on all my kayak trips. My morning ablutions. Bring good fortune.

We went about five or ten yards before we turned a small bend and rowed right into an impenetrable cluster of fallen trees, logs and trash as thick as the distance we’d just traveled. Just moments after we began, I was shin-deep in mud trying to pull the kayaks up the bank and onto land, which was covered in logs and dead branches and brush growth.

I found a trail up there we could use to carry around the impasse. We did so, relaunched and headed another twenty or thirty yards before hitting another impasse. We would go on to hit nine more before reaching the main branch of the river, though none was as thick as the first. We were able to portage over these ones rather than around them on land. Colin refused to get into the water, preferring to clamber by standing on a log or whatever was available and then doing a half-controlled fall back into the kayak. I found it more efficient to simply get in the water and deal with the situation from there. At one impasse, I cleared a pathway by removing logs and floating them away from us and breaking the large tree branches that had clumped together. Junk floated amid all the wood debris. A film of filth covered the waters amid the bunched-up debris and trash.

“I feel like we’re in the trash compactor in Star Wars.”

Plastic bottles, of course. Bits of plastic shorn from their original identity. A surprising amount of sports equipment had ended up at these impasses. We saw soccer balls, footballs, tennis balls. We also saw, suspended on top of the water by all the junk and wood underneath it, one of those square, brown, fast-food chain garbage-can tops with the lid on the side. Diners push their food trays through the lid when done with their meals — that kind. It was sitting right on the water, reminding me of another Star Wars image: one of those square droids R2DR encountered while lost in the wilderness. It looked like one of those, drowned in the Rouge. (I learned after our trip that this droid is known as “Gonk” and others have noted its similarity to these types of trash cans.) I don’t think these garbage cans are in use anymore, making this a vintage garbage can lid. It makes one wonder how long it’s been in the river, if it was at the bottom and got forced up by limbs bunching up at the impasse.

We finally reached the main branch of the Rouge, just downstream from a dam whose purpose seemed to be more landscaping than water control. Overlooking it is a well-appointed old home where construction workers were busy doing something.

“Henry Ford house?”

“Must be,” Colin said.

Concrete, camels, condoms

Not long after this came the part of the Rouge familiar to the most people — the cement-banked part. The mood changed here.

The only building visible is the Hyatt hotel (officially now called the Royal Dearborn Hotel & Convention Center) in the distance. This fact only became apparent to me when I was on the river. All these years, looking up that straight part of the Rouge north of 94, I never realized that building was the hotel. When I was a boy I arbitrarily imagined it was an institution — a prison or mental home — and I never completely shook off that impression.

From the river, the hotel dominates the upstream view. It appears more massive than when right near it in Dearborn. It looks like a great big space ship landed in a field in the middle of nowhere, and you might as well add a dash of dystopian future to the imagined scene because you are, after all, in river whose unnatural cement sides are overgrown and littered with old logs. The land around it is neither developed nor wild. It comes off as some long-defunct something-or-other. And then filling the width and more of this empty scene upstream is this crazy gleaming bronze, winged structure. That must be where the dark ruler of this terrible future stays.

It’s impossible, for anyone with even a small imagination, to do this trip and not have the word “dystopian” arise in the mind. Hackneyed as it might be, it fits turn after turn.

At one point, just to see if anything was beyond the banks above us, I got out and looked. There’s a cement field, seemingly the roof of some underground works, with various pipes and structures sticking out of it. I kept low, for fear of being spotted. But no one seemed to be out there.

Off to the right is a big water tunnel, a series of them in fact, some with the gates open and some closed, all at the water level of the river. Probably a water filtration operation.

Things were too quiet all along this straightaway. Although the land alongside it is not developed, I can’t think of a single bit of wildlife we encountered, beyond usual birds and a large dead fish with its rib cage hanging out. Oh, and some camels.

“Gary! Look, camels.” Colin was a decent distance behind me, and this is what I heard. I thought he was talking about cigarettes. Perhaps he saw a full pack of Camels in the water and thought that was worth pointing out, despite all the trash we’d already seen in the waters. Maybe he’d already lost his mind.

“What?” I turned to him, and he was pointing at the shore beyond me. Sure enough, there were several camels up there, looking at us. And an elephant.

“What the fuck?”

“It’s for a circus.” He was right. There was a sign up there saying something about a circus.

We passed under 94. The river bends to the east here and begins to enter the serious industrial section that doesn’t stop for the rest of the river’s way.

This is the part I was looking forward to. How many of us have ever seen the Rouge plant? I mean the old parts of the Rouge plant, not the place where Ford cranks out F-150s and sells tours of a modern factory that, while cool, is not at all the Rouge of Henry Ford everyone wants to see.

When on the expressways, on 94 or 75, you get glimpses in the distance. But old plants were built on rivers. That’s where they are.

As far as I knew, much of the old Rouge complex still exists — I suppose as a Detroiter, and a business-news-reporting one at that, I should know this — but unless you have business there, you don’t get to see it. And buildings that have long been silent probably only get a few visitors a year. Much of the original complex was sold off long ago, I learned later from a Crain’s reporter.

From the water we began to see structures here and there. There is a shuttered, large red plant with two huge pipes running along the top and foliage growing on the roof. One of the pipes turns forward and faces the river, open at the end. It must be fourteen feet tall. “I want to walk in that pipe,” I said.

Soon after that we came to a steel plant, also red, but fully operational. This is surely a plant whose owners Crain’s has never failed to cover in its thirty years of publication. I have surely edited some of those stories. Colin recently had a job that took him into factories all over Southeast Michigan. And yet from here we could only venture to guess that it’s the steel mill of the original Ford Rouge plant, probably now owned by Severstal or some such company. (We were mostly correct. That same Crain’s reporter, Dustin Walsh, informed me later that it was indeed part of the original Rouge plant and Severstal indeed had owned it, but the company sold it to AK Steel last year.)

As we approached I saw a pickup truck at the plant maneuvering, backing up and turning this way and that, trying to get into position for something. We were still far away, but something about the movements of that truck told me we were about to get hassled.

“Sir, flash photography is not allowed. This is private property,” the driver announced over a speaker as we glided past. Odd that he fixated on the “flash” aspect when I wasn’t using one.

Then he gave a “whoop whoop” with a siren to make things official. I kept taking pictures. There was no reason to be concerned with what sort of property it is because we weren’t on it. I didn’t respond to the announcement in any way, verbally or physically.

Maybe the company’s camera shyness has to do with a $1.35 million fine for pollution it was hit with earlier this year.

From here till the end of the river, it’s more cold, unsympathetic, unfeeling industry. Infrastructure. Bridges. Pipes that rise from one bank, cross the river over our heads, then plunge back into the ground on the other bank. Barges and tugboats moored off to the side. A Marathon terminal. Pyramids of raw materials. Heavy equipment pushing the piles around, conveyor belts moving the materials off to some purpose somewhere. Inexplicable structures, like an upright, roofed concrete cylinder, no more than ten feet in diameter, with a door in it. Who on earth goes in there and for what possible purpose?

The sky had begun to turn on us, not exactly gray but definitely not blue either. Definition-less weather. The air was a comfortable temperature but increasingly windy. The southern horizon was the ominous constant of undifferentiated dark blue that indicates a storm.

The only sounds were those of machines on shore, most them distant and unseen, and a large mass of squawking sea gulls flying all around like they were warning us. I cherish weird moments like these, but even I was beginning to feel unsettled.

An unfurled condom floated by.

We came to construction of a new bridge taking place at West Fort Street and Oakwood, the only structure on our journey that didn’t appear to be decades old.

Under and next to the I-75 bridge is a train bridge. As we came to it, a train of nothing but black tanks with yellow markings carried explosive liquids passed slowly, only a few feet over our heads on the low bridge. The bridge on which it traveled also is black with detailing in the same yellow color. The train cars looked brand new, and the bridge’s paint job looked fairly fresh. Odd.

Then came the Fisher Freeway bridge, towering high above us in a different world, the drivers on it oblivious to everything we’re seeing. There wasn’t much to this part; just absorb the moment of going under the bridge that yields the most hardcore industrial view of Detroit. You’re under it. That means you’re now in that tangle of pipes, smoke and fire.

I wanted to pause and gawk at the bridge overhead, then remembered news stories from earlier this year showing big holes in it. Holes big enough to allow daylight through. The material that once filled those holes had to go somewhere, and I was where it went. I took a few photos and moved on.

After that, more piles of raw materials and the damaged West Jefferson Avenue drawbridge. A bridge operator lowered it onto a passing freighter in 2013. It’s been in the up position since. The operator was later fired for being drunk at the time of the accident.

Another condom floated by. And a tennis ball.

Zug Island

It was now noon. We came to another part of the trip I was looking forward to: Seeing the terrible Zug Island from the waters that encircle it. I once was in a plane returning to Metro Airport, and the pilot had to circle a few times to wait for permission to land. The plane dipped at one point and I had a perfect few of Zug Island: an entirely black piece of land, a scar sharply standing out like someone had dug fingernails into the ground to reveal black soil, except it’s not soil at all. It’s no small feat to stand out like that amid a sea of other harsh industrial properties. I was impressed and have wanted to get closer ever since. But the island’s main occupant, US Steel, doesn’t welcome visitors.

We bypassed the final small stretch of the Rouge’s main channel that leads to the Detroit River. Instead, we took the leg that runs between the Detroit River and the Rouge, encircling northern and western Zug Island. As soon as we entered it, a recorded announcement on the island started playing. “All clear. Please return to work.” A message to workers up there somewhere. All we could see were cattails and scrub trees from our sunken view in the ditch between mainland and Zug.

The message was spoken by a lifeless, computer-generated voice. Male. It was preceded by a signal to alert everyone of the forthcoming message. A siren composed of two alternating tones. It sounded like it was generated with analog drum machine equipment used to make early electro and acid house music. The sensation of hearing this, in this setting, felt like a privilege: I’m a longtime hobbyist techno DJ and couldn’t imagine a much better example of the sights and sounds of harsh, unfeeling industry that gave rise to Detroit techno. The entire looped recording would be right at home in a minimal Detroit track or early electro track meant to elicit images of a dark mechanized future. Something by Robert Hood or Drexciya or Suburban Knight.

Companies around here aren’t viewed as warm and charming. That’s what made it all the more striking to hear that mechanical voice couched in inadvertently chilling production qualities, playing on repeat. The sound was so ill-perfect as to be unbelievable. “Don’t these companies know their reputation? Why exacerbate it with a recording like that? … This is the sound I imagine would be heard at the site of a mining operation on another planet someday in a hundred years, run by a sinister company we’re not supposed to know about. … I feel like I’m in a George Lucas movie.”

“THX,” Colin said, in reference to an early Lucas film.

The announcement abruptly switched, without breaking stride, to another message, still utilizing the same notification sound at the beginning of each loop. “There is a release at the battery. Evacuate the battery and report to the gas gate.” We weren’t quite sure if it was saying “gas gate” or something else. It certainly sounded like gas gate. But what is that? When it’s something you’ve never heard of before, it’s hard to positively identify.

As we moved through the channel, one of those great big flames that you see burning at the top of smokestacks came in and out view through the trees above us. Burning byproducts of some process.

We passed a tiny stream dumping alarmingly right into the river, cutting a path through the blackened earth. The air at that point grew to its sharpest sulfur smell. The smell wasn’t from the stream, I don’t think, but the coincidence made it all the more unsettling.

I passed two large dead fish floating on the surface. Immediately afterward I saw that my kayak was parting a path through some sort of slick. It appeared to be fuel, diesel perhaps.

On the northeast corner of the island are US Steel’s operations: twin sets of mammoth, gnarled black metal shapes climbing toward the sky. Steel furnaces, presumably. Tanks, catwalks, stacks, pipes winding around larger pipes, grasping in and around each other. Two conveyors rise into a pyramid perfectly between the two sets. Open-top rail cars lace around all this, carrying what must have been iron ore.

We turned into the Detroit River. The view of downtown opens up there at an angle I’m not used to seeing. The Renaissance Center is off to the right, the northeast. A piece of Canada precedes it. If someone didn’t know better, it would be easy to assume the Ren Cen was in Canada.

The Ambassador Bridge perfectly crosses the width of downtown and nothing more, like a bow placed across downtown nice and neat. A small freighter was passing underneath.

A much larger freighter, the 1,000-foot Edwin H. Gott, was docked for unloading at the US Steel plant right in front of us as we turned into the big river. We rowed right in front of it and then down its length.

I had to stop taking photos. My phone battery was in its final stages, and I wanted to conserve it for a mayday call should we need one. Unlikely, but it would be irritating to manage to save a phone from the waters of a sinking kayak a hundred yards out from the shore, only to see a dead battery icon go to blank screen. We still had seventeen miles to go and the skies reminded us of the chance of thunderstorms.

Colin wanted to text his mother and girlfriend to reassure them he was still alive. “Why do that now?” I said. “Do it when we’re out of this shit.”

“Good point.”

Riverbillies pushing toward Lake Erie

Now was the slog to Grosse Ile. I reckoned this would be the hardest part of the trip, just trying to get some distance behind us. Once we got to the Trenton Channel, we’d be good. The channel, which separates Grosse Ile from the mainland, has a swift current and is eight miles long. It would greatly advance our cause.

When you’re approaching an island in a kayak, you do so for a long time. You can see it from miles away — it doesn’t seem that far though. That was the case with Grosse Ile. But before Grosse Ile is another small island, uninhabited, called Grassy Island, as well as the sizeable Fighting Island. It felt like we were approaching and passing those two islands for far too long. It was drizzly and windy. Colin was struggling to keep up. A light rain began to fall and had all the signs of turning into a proper storm.

I bided this slog by smoking a cigar.

Seeing a region from its waterways is to see it from the inside out. Waterways form a skeletal structure, and communities grow outward from them. Hanging out in the waterways is to get to know an area from its core.

This trip was filled with such education. I never knew US Steel owns a good amount of the coastline between Zug Island and Wyandotte. I knew US Steel had operations down there somewhere, but I never knew it the way you do after getting a thorough view of it like this. Putting a place and sense of scope to it.

The same thing went for the Henry Ford house and Rouge plant and Hyatt hotel. I never gained a visceral sense of the placement of those landmarks until this trip.

As I took note of US Steel’s impressive presence, I saw workers on the shore regard us with curious looks. “We’re riverbillies,” I told Colin. “The scourge of the local waterways. ‘There go those damned riverbillies again. Always carrying on with their cigars and nonsense songs and ablutions. Not a care in the world.’ They hate us for our freedom, Colin.”

The rain held back for the most part. We hit the Trenton Channel sometime around 3 p.m. Still making good time.

Then the sun came out, and we were back to comfortably kayaking under a sunny July sky, almost like normal people.

The Trenton Channel has a few key landmarks. There are two bridges to Grosse Ile that look to have been built in the early 20th century and have that almost ornate metalwork to them.

There’s the satanic, shuttered McLouth Steel plant. It has bull horns on it. Not real horns of course but heat dissipation structures on top that curl up like horns. They’re more massive and sleek than those seen on most old factories like this. Added to the blackness — or is it a really dark blue? — of the structure, the horns take on a decidedly evil look. It’s great.

DTE’s Trenton Channel power plant (which could join the McLouth plant as another empty industrial property in the years to come) is the dominant landmark of this stretch. Its twin stacks tower over this entire area and make a good guidepost for boaters.

After the channel came a four-mile push to the end. We came down the Detroit River into where it mixes with Lake Erie. We kept going until we identified what had to be the last point before the Huron River delta.

We turned after that point and headed inward. Then we turned another point, and then another one. Questions began eating at us over whether I’d gravely miscalculated and we still had five more miles of coastline to cover. In my mind, we would just need to get to the delta and then be home-free. The launch ramp is right there, sticking into the main waters, according to the maps I’d consulted.

I was right; it just took a little longer than I’d estimated. Later, I used Google maps to take measure this part of our journey. From that point where we first turned to the launch ramp is 4/5 of a mile. We covered it in about fifteen minutes — not bad after 26 miles. I nearly puked from the acid in my stomach, churned up by constant movement and exertion, and little food to absorb it all day.

The Fermi 2 nuclear power plant north of Monroe came into view. I hadn’t expected that either. A bonus. But of course, we’d be able to see it. We came that far south. It took two expressways to get us to our starting point from here this morning.

“You know it’s a long kayak trip when it starts with a view of Andiamo and ends with a view of Fermi 2,” I said. Google Maps tells me Fermi 2 is five miles away from where we were.

We got in right before sunset. We’d been out there fourteen hours. We saw my wretched, ripped-up car sitting on the shore with the sun behind it on the horizon, the humblest savior vehicle there ever was. Colin’s back was killing him; his fingers seemed to want to permanently form into the grip for a kayak paddle. My butt was killing me, and I was spitting acid every five seconds.

We crawled out of the waters, we wretched riverbillies, like the first creatures to come out of the sea. The primordial ooze was all around us: seaweed and algae filled the launch ramp waters.

“It’s a good thing we stayed at that motel,” I said and we left.