This Ain't Abbey Road . . .it's Detroit. Courtesy

This Ain’t Abbey Road . . .it’s Detroit. Courtesy

Almost a century ago, rum-running Garwood torpedo boats rooster-tailed between Detroit and Canada, gunning their custom-fitted truck engines to outrun Prohibition-era cops. Hiram Walker's Canadian Club, distilled across the river in Windsor, Ontario, was in high demand. Around the same time, genteel picnickers listened to outdoor concerts from canoes gathered in the quiet cove of Belle Isle.

Detroit (pop. 688,000, down from a mid-1950s peak of 1.8 million) has become shorthand for urban decline. The Motor City glitz is gone, but Detroit remains a city of vivid contrasts.

An inspired urban agriculture movement grows vegetables in abandoned lots. A younger creative class is gravitating to a city that, despite economic ruin and a racially charged past, still holds vast potential. And amidst it all is lots of water. Narrow canals connect the mansions of industrial barons with blue-collar homes, the wide Detroit River carries freighters, and it all flows toward the ocean-like horizon of Lake Erie.

Paddling, like the city itself, has potential and pioneers. Every Wednesday for the last 11 years, a crew of local boaters (visitors welcome) led by guides from Riverside Kayak meet at Pine Street for a two-hour paddle on the Detroit River, restoring themselves afterward with drinks at Portofino. A Tuesday night crew explores Grosse Ile Island and the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

And those canoes are making a comeback on Belle Isle. Riverside Kayaks is opening a canoe, sea kayak and SUP livery and rental in the historic Flynn Building, adjacent to a calm lagoon. Alex Howbert, owner of Detroit River Sports, wants to create paddle-up access to Marshall's Bar, a historically infamous speakeasy with a basement door previously used by bootlegger boats. He's also organizing four-hour paddles down the River Rouge and another excursion out to Chene Park Amphitheater on the bank of the Detroit River, where floating boaters can poach concerts from the water, just like the old locals used to. — David Hanson


This story appeared in the June 2015 issue of Canoe & Kayak.