Travel by water trail

"You have a river. What else do you need?

Water trails are a relatively recent phenomenon in Michigan, having proliferated across the state over the past 10 to 15 years. Water trail advocates chalk that up to a variety of factors: the ripple effect of growing public interest in land-based trails, the establishment of the National Water Trails System in 2012, and a growing population of older adults that appreciates low-impact exercise like canoeing and kayaking.


But they also agree that the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF) has increasingly played a crucial role by providing funds to develop the 3,000 miles of water trails that now exist statewide. MNRTF uses the proceeds from Michigan oil, gas, and mineral lease and royalty payments to acquire and develop public recreational lands.


"I don't think we would really have our water trails to the level that they're at without the Trust Fund," says Marcy Hamilton, who has worked on numerous water trail projects in Berrien, Cass, and Van Buren counties in her role as senior planner at the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission.

Gallup Park in Ann Arbor. Photo by Doug Coombe.


Elizabeth Riggs agrees. Riggs is the former deputy director of the Huron Watershed Council (HRWC), where she served as trail manager for the 104-mile Huron River Water Trail and led the effort to establish it as the country's 18th National Water Trail. She says water trails "are still kind of the stepchild of our trails system, as far as any kind of sustained funding," but MNRTF is helping to change that.


"The role of the Trust Fund will always be important, but especially right now, it's allowing the state to move forward in a big way on water trails," Riggs says.


How to build a water trail


At first blush, building a water trail may seem a bit of an oxymoron.


"You have a river. What else do you need?" Tyler Klifman, planner for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, asks rhetorically. "But it's all the things that go along with it that make it easy for people to use and navigate."


Launch facilities are among the major expenses for water trail projects. Universally accessible canoe and kayak launches have become increasingly popular, making it possible for people with disabilities to safely launch a watercraft and also offering a safer, easier experience for all users. However, those launches are also more expensive.


Liz Atkinson is the treasurer of Milton Township, where MNRTF helped fund the installation of a universally accessible canoe and kayak launch in 2017 at Milton Township Waterfront Park along the Chain of Lakes Water Trail. She says the launch has been heavily used since its installation.

Milton Township Waterfront Park along the Chain of Lakes Water Trail. Photo by David Lewinski.


"People who typically get in a kayak and end up doing a death roll say they get in this thing and they just launch right out onto the water," Atkinson says. "It's very seamless."


Property access can also be an expensive challenge for water trail projects. A water trail may feel unwelcoming to all but experienced kayakers and canoers if it goes long stretches without public access points for them to get out of the water.


Such is the case along the St. Joseph River Water Trail near the confluence of Pipestone Creek and the St. Joseph River in Berrien County, where there is a gap of almost eight miles with no public access. That will change as a result of MNRTF's funding recommendations for its 2019 grant cycle, currently awaiting approval by the Michigan legislature. MNRTF recommended a grant of $94,000 to Berrien County to acquire 1.26 acres for a public access site in the area.

Gallup Park in Ann Arbor. Photo by Doug Coombe.


"It was really key to get that property secured so we have enough access along the way for folks," Hamilton says. "... Purchasing property is huge."


While water trails may be less expensive than land-based trails and other outdoor recreation projects, they still require funding of a magnitude that can be difficult for most communities to muster on their own. Riggs notes that there's "not really any other significant source of funding at the state level for water trails," but MNRTF offers grants of up to $300,000, and its grantmaking rubric awards additional points to applicants with water trail-related projects.


"Quite honestly, these projects cannot be done without financial support outside of the local communities," says Anita Twardesky, co-chair of Downriver Linked Greenways. "And the trust fund has stayed as sort of the go-to organization to look to for that funding."


Direct and indirect impacts on the Huron River Water Trail


While MNRTF has more recently begun awarding grants specifically geared towards improving water trails, it's also indirectly supported water trail development for years before that. The Huron River Water Trail is a prime example of both types of MNRTF support. Riggs points to a string of MNRTF grants that significantly improved paddling conditions at parks and other facilities along the trail, in some cases while the trail itself was still in its infancy.


Those include a $450,000 grant in 2010 to improve facilities including canoe and kayak launch points at Dexter's Mill Creek Park; a $300,000 grant in 2012 to renovate Ann Arbor's Gallup Park, including dock and parking improvements; and a $120,700 grant in 2014 to make improvements including accessible canoe/kayak launches at Belleville's Horizon Park.

Gallup Park in Ann Arbor.. Photo by Doug Coombe.


But in recent years MNRTF has also begun to award grants that specifically reference and are designed to benefit the Huron River Water Trail, as the trail itself and water trails, in general, have continued to grow in prominence and popularity. The MNRTF board's most recent funding recommendations include two projects that directly reference the Huron River Water Trail: a $300,000 grant to the city of Flat Rock for a boat launch improvement project, including an accessible kayak launch; and a $154,000 grant to the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority for a boat launch area development at Kensington Metropark, including a floating canoe/kayak launch. The fund also recommended a $300,000 grant to the city of Ann Arbor for improvements to Argo Nature Area, including two accessible kayak launches.


Riggs says those three grant recommendations represent "the realization of a lot of hard work" and coordination among the three grantees and the many other partners who are involved in the Huron River Water Trail.


"It's satisfying to see that the board recognized all that effort and sees value in connecting all these key access points along a water trail and helping to support their improvement," she says.


Daniel Brown, a watershed planner for HRWC, says MNRTF is providing "funding for projects that are often difficult to find funding for otherwise." He expresses excitement for a burgeoning network of accessible canoe and kayak launches along the Huron River Water Trail, and envisions it continuing to grow with MNRTF support.


"These are not cheap projects, and they're fitting a need," he says. "It's really cool when you can have universal access launches in close proximity to each other because then you give people the option of having a one-way trip instead of having to come back to the same launch."


Succeeding through collaboration


Communities that have developed water trails consistently report strong usage of their projects. Mark Brochu is the director of St. Clair County Parks and Recreation. He describes a recent MNRTF grant to Clay Township, funding a kayak launch at Harsens Island along with the county's Blueway water trail system, as a "huge opportunity" for a "fabulous" paddling destination that currently has no public access point.


"If you do the car-down-the-road inventory, in the summer months you see a lot of cars with kayaks and canoes on the roofs on the weekends," Brochu says. "I think there's a huge and growing interest in paddling."

Gallup Park in Ann Arbor. Photo by Doug Coombe.


Water trail advocates agree that the way forward is through collaboration between local and regional government bodies, nonprofits, and other interested parties. The project at Harsens Island, for example, is made possible not only through the MNRTF grant but also with matching dollars from St. Clair County. Hamilton says she's been happy to work closely with numerous local governments in submitting MNRTF proposals for water trail-related projects. She references a string of three recent grants, two of them from MNRTF, to improve paddling facilities along the Paw Paw River Trail in Hagar Township, Paw Paw, and Watervliet.


"All the communities supported each other's grants," she says. "They're all coming together and supporting each other because they see the bigger picture of having this 68-mile water trail from Paw Paw to Benton Harbor."


Hamilton says that kind of collaboration will be key to the continued improvement of water trails through MNRTF support and other means.


"It's great to see the communities work together," Hamilton says. "... It's a resource that's crossing jurisdictional boundaries. That's the only way it'll really work."


“Preserving Michigan” is an ongoing series exploring the history and impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund on the people and communities of Michigan. The series is underwritten by the Michigan Environmental Council. Issue Media Group maintains editorial independence for all of our underwritten content. Please review our editorial underwriting policy for more information.