Reclamation of the Flint River: A local perspective on our river

“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book— a book that was dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside for it had a new story to tell every day.” —Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

My earliest memories of the Flint river were hiking around it and an occasional fishing expedition with my dad and older brothers. We would head down to the old power plant behind Glenwood Cemetery off of Court Street. My dad would talk about the Anishinaabe, Ojibwe tribes of the area and supposed burial grounds in the city, that eventually proved true

This area of the Saginaw Valley, specifically, is one of the most continuously inhabited areas of Michigan, forming a point of trade that would put Flint on the map. Long before General Motors and Billy Durant, before Carriage Town and Michigan Lumber, there was the river—a sacred place, a point of contention, and a destination for gathering and trade.

Like many of us who are from Flint, my stories of the river begin with a sort of bygone memory. The river and the city inevitably mix into a feeling of what it meant to grow up here. 

Related story: See the Flint River up-close (and test your knowledge)

Growing up on Flint’s westside, my family didn’t have to cross the river on the way home from school—but both my parents always insisted on taking “the scenic route” by Chevy in the Hole and the old AC Spark Plug. My dad said he wanted us to “make a memory of place before they tore it all down.” My mom insisted the view of the river itself was “something special” about our city. 

When the plants finally did come down, I was surprised about the way it felt to see the river snake through all the way to downtown—where, as a child of the 90s, I spent my time skateboarding and throwing rocks into the water from Riverbank Park. 

There is an inherent emotional reaction to this river, an integral part of the city and of our childhoods. And, yet, it still remains unknown by so many of us—and misunderstood by much of the world.  

I had the opportunity recently to join a small group of folks from Genesee County Parks on a river outing. I’ve been on kayaking trips before, but never in the city’s backyard. Growing up here, I never once paddled along the Flint River or anywhere else in Michigan. It wasn’t until I moved away for college that I experienced kayaking, taking in the likes of North Carolina’s New River and Eastern Tennessee’s Ocoee River. 

This trip down the Flint River was a flashback to those places, a weird sensation to look around and realize this kind of hidden beauty thrives just a few minutes from home. 

We paddled a “wilder stretch,” according to the Flint Watershed Coalition Director Rebecca Fedewa, that runs down from the Holloway Dam all the way to Irish Road. To get an idea of the 3-hour course you can check out the interactive map at the Flint River Watershed Coalition’s website

Part of the “wilder stretch” of the Flint River, home to bald eagles, osprey, herring, smallmouth bass, turtles, and walleye.
“People think they have to go all the way up to the Au Sable to get a great river experience and might not realize we have an amazing river right here,” Fedewa said. “We have 142 miles of some incredible resources.”

Mention the Flint River and conversation inevitably steers toward the water crisis, especially when talking to people who aren’t local. It even sparked a common local hashtag: #itsnottheriver. So, to get it out of the way for readers who may not know, the issue with the contamination in Flint’s drinking water had to do with the differences in chemistry from the Flint River compared to Lake Huron. The water was not treated properly and anti-corrosion measures were not taken, which caused lead to leach out of the pipes at higher levels. The city switched back to using Lake Huron as a water source in 2015. 

“This is where we start the conversation to change people's minds about the river,” she said. “I would be a bazillionaire if I had a penny for every time I heard someone say, ‘I can’t believe it's like this or I can’t believe this is here’,” she said. “Once you get out here and see it for yourself the script changes, and really that's what we want. We want people to use the river, appreciate it and love it as much as we do.” 

Meanwhile, the river itself is supporting a rich system of wildlife including growing populations of bald eagles, osprey, herring, smallmouth bass, turtles and walleye, according to Fedewa. 

“People shouldn’t be mad at the river, because the river didn’t do this,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Twp. “There were really bad decisions made by people from the State of Michigan, who chose to use river water for drinking water when it really should have been treated properly—but we can’t let that mean that the river isn’t a great asset or let that get lost in the conversation.” 

“We’ve got to remember, especially for us in the Flint area, this river is a great asset,” Kildee said. “It's clean, it's beautiful, you can recreate in it, and it's unfortunate because I don’t think a lot of people know that.” 

In the downtown Flint portion of the river, a remediation and naturalization efforts have been underway all summer. In the area of Fifth Avenue, Robert T. Longway and the Hamilton Dam, Consumers Energy and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality are working to remove contaminated sediments of coal tar—remnants of a gas plant that operated in that section back in the 1920s. 

This project also is widely seen as the beginning stages of an overall plan to re-naturalize the riverfront area downtown—and “for the first time in decades folks will be able to safely navigate that portion of the river,” Fedewa says.

Going back to the kayaks, Jaime Welch, education programs manager for the the coalition, was our guide that day. 

“I still love to see people's reaction once we get them out here and they can see the river for themselves.” said Welch, who started out as an IT professional says the job of outreach for the watershed can be a bit more entertaining than being stuck in a room with servers all day. 

“I had one group just this spring that were mesmerized when we spotted a small osprey with a fish it its mouth. It was getting pestered by an eagle for like 10 minutes,” she laughs, “It’s those moments you can take a step back and realize where you are and what the river can do for people—just by being here.” 

At some point in our trip, the sun poked out between the clouds, and the wind died down a bit. I remember remarking on the moment in my mind when a group of different people from different backgrounds grew silent as a blue heron flew low over head. 

It's moments like these where you can breathe deep, and not have to work on a sense of mindfulness, or a sense of place. Often, I find a person's side remark can come to define these small moments, looking up from the shoreline I heard Welch tell a fellow paddler. 

“Couldn’t trade this for any office, you know. It’s our river. It’s part of our home, a part of who we are.” 

The sun slipped on lazily through the treetops, and I watched a turtle slump into the water, following my reflection downstream. If you would like to volunteer, paddle the river or learn more about the river, visit the coalition website at www.flintriver.org.

Read more articles by Jake Carah.

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