BY NATALIE WARREN
By the beginning of this century, the Huron River through Ann Arbor, Michigan, was not utilized to its full recreational potential, hindered by its history as an industrial, polluted waterway used primarily for transportation. In 2011, Michigan Rep. John Dingell called for communities along the water trail to leave a legacy and preserve the river. Four years later, the Huron River is now one of only 18 designated National Water Trails and sees at least 103,000 visitors who come to the area every year to paddle, float, and fish.
Ann Arbor is the largest of the 24 cities, villages, and townships along the Huron River. On my first visit to Ann Arbor, a group of river enthusiasts and I walked from our hotel down to the Argo Canoe Livery to rent kayaks and paddle the Argo Cascades, a man-made whitewater run through Ann Arbor. Paddlers of all kinds were on the river: canoes and standup paddleboards were heading upstream toward the wider, quieter section of river while kayaks and rafts were intently beelining downstream to the whitewater adventure.
Having paddled Arctic rivers, I wondered if the novelty of a city whitewater run would be lost on me. I centered my kayak under the bridge before the rapids and felt a nostalgic surge of adrenaline as I pushed through the first drop. City or wilderness, man-made or natural, the rushing water brought a smile to my face that kept me coming back for more.
With 32 access sites along the 104-mile water trail, you can arrange a variety of day-long or overnight routes through the city-operated Argo Canoe or Gallup Park Canoe liveries. For more scenic paddling, start at Delhi Mills, or any of the Metro-parks north of the city. There you will paddle easy rapids through old mill towns until you reach Ann Arbor, seven miles downstream. Hop out at the Argo livery and either walk or bike (there is a bike-share located by the livery) to the heart of Ann Arbor. Satiate your appetite after a day of paddling with a Reuben at the famed Zingerman's Deli and experience the local flare around historic Kerrytown. All this within less than a mile of the river!
Looking for the campfire experience? Take a shuttle from Argo livery to Hudson Mills Metro-park and paddle 13 miles to the water-access-only campsite at Barton Pond. Settle in your tent for the night and push off the next morning for an easy four-mile paddle into Ann Arbor. For the through-paddle adventurers out there, attempt the whole 104-mile Huron River Water Trail from Milford, Mich., to Lake Erie. The trail towns along the route will be happy to accommodate you!
During my visit to Ann Arbor, downtown was booming with the annual Summer Festival. I bounced between the river, the outdoor concerts, and the restaurants and local craft breweries. Ann Arbor plays host to several such festivals and events throughout the paddling season — including River Appreciation Day, where new and seasoned paddlers can paddle, swim, fish, and celebrate the health of the Huron.
What makes Ann Arbor one of North America's next best paddling towns? The city already provides paddlers with more amenities than your average paddling destination, both on and off the water. The groups working to make the river a destination for paddlers are going the extra paddle stroke with plans for riverside watercraft lockers. You will be able to get off the water, lock up your boat and paddling gear, and jaunt into the city knowing that your things are safely waiting for you by the river. The city of Ann Arbor combines art and culture with Canoe Imagine Art, a display of large art sculptures along the river made out of recycled canoes. As if art along the river wasn't enough, a local artist is working on plans to install art on the river itself, including light reflectors under bridges along the water trail. Paddlers of all abilities can ease into the water at Gallup Park Canoe Livery's all-abilities access point, soon to be in other towns along the Huron River.
If you are still not sure what to do or where to go, keep an eye out for new trail-user packages including everything from lodging to routes. See you on the river!
— Each month, Natalie Warren will highlight a different North American town making positive strides toward community and infrastructure developments catering to recreational paddling. In 2011, Warren was one of the first two women to paddle 2,000 miles from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay, recreating Eric Sevareid's route from Canoeing With the Cree. The journey earned a nomination for the Canoe & Kayak Awards' 2012 Expedition of the Year. Warren's nonprofit Wild River Academy works with communities across the country to increase paddlesports tourism and experiential learning opportunities on their local rivers, presenting 'urban' rivers as a natural, dynamic classroom for youth. Currently a River Steward for Wisconsin's St.Croix River Association, Warren has also worked with the River Management Society, finding ways to increase awareness about the economic benefits of water trails, and with it, paddlesports tourism.
CHECK OUT OUR LIST OF NORTH AMERICA'S TOP PADDLING TOWNS.