The Detroit River is a bustling international border fraught with freighters. While few onlookers bat an eye at these ubiquitous juggernauts, a gaggle of kayaks slicing through the water past families and fishermen can warrant warm smiles and waves.
There’s a glimmer of shock on their faces, too. For years, the Detroit River has been all work and no play — an industrial waterway once declared polluted and toxic.
Access is relatively limited. Launching a kayak or canoe from a city park is against ordinance, an antiquated law from the days of Prohibition rumrunners. The view from the RiverWalk may be stunning, but in the world of recreational watersports, the Detroit River is pretty much an afterthought.
Over the past six years, the Wyandotte-based Riverside Kayak Connection has been reworking that narrative. The business, established in 2005 by owner Tiffany VanDeHey, has been offering tours of the river and the bevy of canals that connect on the east side of Detroit. It’s a picturesque two-hour tour that launches from Maheras Gentry Park (RKC receives a yearly permit to launch there) and winds through the Motor City’s “Little Venice.”
Each year, the number of kayakers increases. But it wasn’t a smooth start for VanDeHey and her company, who faced the daunting challenge of changing the local perception of the Detroit River.
“When we opened, most people thought we would fail,” says VanDeHey, an experienced kayaker with more than 15 years of paddling under her belt. “It seemed like people who lived here their whole lives viewed it as an industrial river instead of a recreational one.”
But that’s changing. “Fishing is coming back,” she says. “The river is getting healthier.” VanDeHey has traveled all over the world, and the Detroit River remains one of her favorite places to kayak.
The east-side canal tour is part relaxing exercise and part history lesson. Chris Delridge heads up Team RKC, a group of paddlers who show their support to the shop by helping with out with safety, tours, and teaching. He often leads the tours, finding himself continually stunned at the amount of history in the area.
Beginning in June and running through the fall, Riverside Kayak Connection will be offering the east-side canal tour, as well as a tour along historic Fort Wayne. Delridge says the Fort Wayne tour will be more of an “industrial paddle,” launching from the Del Ray Boat Ramp and either heading downstream to Zug Island or up toward the Ambassador Bridge. Lunch and a guided tour of Fort Wayne directly follow the four-mile kayak tour.
For Delridge, VanDeHey, and Riverside Kayak, passing along that history and opening access to the Detroit River is part of a larger philosophy followed by the urban paddling community.
“We’re paying it forward by teaching other people,” Delridge says. “That’s how the kayak world perpetuates itself.”
A new start-up company, Detroit River Sports, will begin offering kayak and paddleboard rentals in June. The Detroit-based group will also offer tours of the canal district, Belle Isle, and the riverfront.