Up the Rouge! Written by Joel Thurtell, Photographs by Patricia Beck. Wayne State University Press, 2009.
By Joel Thurtell
A reporter and a photographer paddling the Rouge River over five days in the first week of June, renting their canoe from a Milford livery and refusing help from establishment environmental and river friends groups. Their aim — an independent look at a little-noticed, much-maligned piece of wilderness in a highly urban setting.
Sounds like what Yogi Berra called “déjà vu all over again.”
Eight years ago, the Detroit Free Press sent a reporter and a photographer on that mission. I was the reporter. Patricia Beck was the photographer. Over five days — 60 hours — Pat and I bullied a canoe over or around 72 logjams, one dam and what was left of three other dams.
Free Press readers got a two-day series of articles and photos that showed the reality of a river that 95 percent of the time was too laden with E. coli to be safe for human contact. The series won the Water Environment Federation’s 2006 Harry E. Schlenz Medal for achievement in public education. In 2009, Wayne State University Press published a book written by me with Pat’s photos: Up the Rouge! Paddling Detroit’s Hidden River. Up the Rouge! was a 2010 Michigan Notable Book choice of the Library of Michigan.
Now Fox 2 reporter Charlie LeDuff has arranged to rent a canoe from Milford-based Heavner Canoe & Kayak Rental for five days starting Monday, June 3. 2013.
I’m surprised it’s taken this long for TV to figure out there is a great urban adventure story in the heart of Metro Detroit. But it takes more than a canoe to make this trip. It also takes time, and a willingness to make the sometimes strenuous effort needed to overcome obstacles in the form of logjams, a strong oppositional river current and the rise and fall of a river so “flashy” that its depth can change by 10 feet within 24 hours. Along the way, the Fox 2 team will treat television viewers to sights most people would never see otherwise. As it wends through some 127 miles of Detroit and suburbs, the Rouge and its tributaries are shielded from view by a tree canopy and often hidden by steep, slippery banks.
Sometime Monday morning, staff from Heavner Canoe are scheduled to deliver two canoes — an 18-footer and a 17-footer — to LeDuff and a cameraman. The plan is for the Fox 2 canoeists to put one of the canoes into the main branch of the Rouge River at Nine Mile and Beech in Southfield. They will have to decide whether they want the longer canoe for its greater capacity to store equipment, or the shorter vessel for its ability to maneuver over or around obstacles.
The pair will paddle downstream, heading for Zug Island where the Rouge meets the Detroit River. They will be followed by Fox 2 people on shore whose job, presumably, will be to photograph the duo from land and to lend a hand if the adventurers get into trouble. They may be surprised to discover that some parts of the Rouge can be problematic to access from land.
Pat and I did not have extra help. Heavner staff delivered a canoe to us at the start of the day and picked it up when we were finished. For those hours when we were paddling, we were on our own. No need to go into further details — read Up the Rouge! for that.
I first heard about this project late in April, when Charlie LeDuff called with a proposal that I take part in a kayak trip he was planning on the Rouge River. He’d heard that I canoed the Rouge a few years ago and had written a book about it. Was I interested in collaborating? It might help sell a few books, he said.
Well, I always want to sell books, and I like to encourage use of the Rouge. So I agreed to meet him on May 6. But I urged him to plan his trip for a later time when stream flows historically are lower. With its logjams, the Rouge is a dangerous place to canoe at any time, but more so at times of high water. In fact, even now I hope Charlie monitors the river level following the torrential rains of the last few days. If water is high, he might want to delay his trip in the interest of safety. Pat and I picked the first full week of June because, according to USGS stream flow charts, the river would have enough water to float our canoe but would not be swollen with spring runoff. If we waited till July, parts of the river might be too shallow.
Sounds like Charlie acted on my advice.
I suggested Charlie re-think his idea of using a kayak. We needed the open canoe for Pat to have easy access to her photographic equipment. Just as important, you can move in a canoe, and often that was necessary when we were obliged to haul the canoe over logjams. I can’t picture getting in and out of a kayak dozens of times at logjams.
Charlie has ordered a canoe from Heavner. Sounds like he listened to my advice on that point, too.
Apparently, he wasn’t sold on our idea of paddling upstream. Canoeists like to paddle downstream, getting help from the current. We did just the opposite, by design. The title of our book, Up the Rouge!, is based on our decision to paddle upstream, starting at the river’s mouth. It was Pat’s idea: Early explorers and settlers began at the mouth of the stream and worked their way upstream. As latter-day explorers of the Rouge, why not go up the Rouge? Turned out there was an advantage we had not considered: If you paddle downstream, you encounter ugly messes of debris and foam before arriving at a logjam. If you come to a jam from downstream, your approach to the jam is clean. It’s easier to see the challenge; it’s easier to maneuver the canoe’s bow against the jam and from that point begin the job of disembarking, lifting the canoe and working it over the mess.
I’m curious about why Charlie chose Nine Mile and Beech as a starting point. After five days of canoeing the Rouge, Pat and I took the craft out of the river about 9 p.m. Friday, May 10, 2005 just below the bridge over Nine Mile Rd. near Beech in Southfield. That is the point at which Charlie plans to put into the river. But Nine and Beech was never part of our design. We were aiming for Telegraph and Civic Center Drive in Southfield. But we were given five days for the project, and by the time we reached Nine Mile and Beech on Day Five, our time was up.
If Charlie read Up the Rouge!, he would know that for the last half mile or so downstream from Nine Mile the river was too shallow for the canoe. We got out and pulled it.
Here’s a thought, Charlie: If you launch the canoe at the bend alongside Southfield’s Beech Woods Golf Course, you can avoid a possible dense logjam at Hole Four.
Charlie may have forgotten something else I told him: After our 2005 trip, I purchased from Heavner Canoe the 13-foot aluminum canoe Pat and I used for four of the five days of our trip. The 13-footer is lighter and more easily lifted over or around logjams than the heavier 18-footer we used on Day One. Nowadays, Heavner doesn’t have 13-footers. Their shortest canoe is a 17-footer. I told Charlie we could use my 13-footer. He wouldn’t have had to rent a canoe — mine would be free!
The last I heard from Charlie was on May 3. He called to say he was too busy to see me and canceled our May 6 meeting. But he still wanted me to help plan his Rouge canoe trip and be on camera for parts of it. I suggested he call me after I returned from a speaking engagement in California. I urged him to think about going in June. He said he would call me May 15.
I suggested that meantime he might want to read Up the Rouge! for its detailed instructions on how to organize a Rouge River canoe expedition.
Hmmm. It’s June 1. No call from Charlie.
Guess Charlie doesn’t need me.
Tell you what, Charlie — Here’s some more free advice. You want to go on a five-day Rouge River canoe trip, right? Well, bosses being what they are, you might not get all five days, given your downstream plan starting from Nine and Beech. This is a tactical error, Charlie. You have limited the distance you can travel to 27 miles maximum to the river’s mouth. What if the high water and fast current propel you to the river’s mouth before your five days are up? Are your editors going to let you paddle around Zug Island for a day or two looking at freighters and barges and blast furnaces? Or are they going to tell you, “Enough of this fun; go cover the murder du jour”?
If you want to get the max out of those five days, reverse your plan, Charlie. Why aim for Southfield? Aim for Beverly Hills! Better yet, Birmingham!
Start your trek at Zug Island, Charlie, and paddle your canoe Up the Rouge!