WMU News

First stage of statewide water trail opens

Aug. 13, 2004

KALAMAZOO--The first stage of what promises to be a statewide system of water trails linking the Great Lakes shoreline and navigable rivers throughout Michigan will be unveiled during a grand opening Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 21-22, in St. Joseph County.

The grand opening is part of the Michigan Heritage Water Trails Program being spearheaded by Western Michigan University's Great Lakes Center for Maritime Studies in cooperation with state and local agencies. Canoeists and kayakers are invited to paddle away on the first phase of the River Country Heritage Water Trails.

On Saturday, water enthusiasts will glide down sections of the St. Joseph River from Colon to Mendon and Rawson's Kings Mill to Mendon on Nottawa Creek and the St. Joseph River. On Sunday, canoeists and kayakers will paddle from Mendon or Covered Bridge Park to Three Rivers on the St. Joseph River and from Portage Lake to Three Rivers on the Portage River. Local and state dignitaries are expected to attend.

Saturday's events begin at 8:15 a.m. with a ribbon cutting and canoe launch in Colon at the Sturgeon Lake boat ramp at the end of Colon Road off Blackstone Avenue. A second launch is at 10:30 a.m. at Rawson's Kings Mill on Olney Road northeast of Mendon. A dedication ceremony is at 12:45 p.m. at Mendon's Reed Park on Nottawa Road at M-60 in Mendon.

Sunday's events begin with early launches at 9 a.m. in Mendon at the St. Joseph River public access at Marantette Bridge at the end of Railroad Street and at 9:30 a.m. on Portage Lake at the public boat ramp on Silver Street. A cookout is at 11:30 a.m. and the main launch on the St.

Joseph River will be at 12:45 p.m. at Covered Bridge Park on Covered Bridge Road. A final dedication is at 3:30 p.m. at Conservation Park in Three Rivers. All launch times are start times, so participants should arrive earlier to park, register and unload or rent boats.

"We are hoping to have a large flotilla of canoes and kayaks traveling the St. Joseph River and its tributaries," says Dr. David Lemberg, a WMU associate professor of geography and water trail program director. "This is the first phase of what we think will become a network of water trails all over the state."

Creating such a network has been discussed for 20 years, but has only started to become a reality in the past two years, Lemberg says. The water trails project splashed into being when the Michigan 4-H Youth Conservation Council shepherded legislation calling for WMU to explore the feasibility of a Heritage Water Trails system in Michigan, working with the Michigan Department of History, Arts and Libraries and the Michigan 4-H Youth Conservation Council. The legislation was passed in 2002, and the feasibility report was presented to the Legislature in 2003. For the past year, Lemberg has been working full time on implementing the program as a sabbatical project.

St. Joseph County emerged as a logical place to start because of its close proximity to Kalamazoo and its many miles of navigable waterways. The plan for the River Country Heritage Water Trails for all navigable rivers in St. Joseph County was the master's thesis project for Tim Peterson, a graduate student in WMU's geography department and a longtime resident (and paddler) in St. Joseph County. Plans call for the River Country Heritage Water Trails to be expanded in the next three years to cover all navigable streams in the county and for water trails to be established elsewhere in the state. Other pilot projects include the South Fork of the Black River from Bangor to South Haven in Van Buren County and on parts of the Lake Huron coast in Huron and Tuscola Counties. There has been interest from local water trail enthusiasts around the state developing new Heritage Water Trails from Wayne County to the Upper Peninsula. Local communities would create their own water trail plans with WMU's assistance, using a self-funding planning model.

Establishing water trails is seen as much more than offering aquatic recreation. Water trail travelers will learn about an area's historical events, cultural heritage and natural history. Markers at bridge crossings refer to interpretive guides in which travelers read about points of interest. The water trails also are designed to be an economic development tool by promoting heritage tourism. That also made St. Joseph a good place to start because of its rich history and easy access to large population centers, such as Detroit, Chicago and Indianapolis.

"This is a program focused on history, culture and the environment and on local economic development," Lemberg says. "We are looking to draw a different group of users than those places focusing on adventure tourism on their rivers."

With more than 3,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline and well over 10,000 miles of navigable rivers, Michigan has great potential for the development of a world-class water trail system, Lemberg says. The trails would serve as a drawing card for repeat visitors, who also might be inclined to visit multiple water trails on successive visits.

"It's a very repeatable experience," Lemberg says. "People can do one water trail, then travel another trail and find a familiar, but different experience each time they do it."

State and local history in Michigan is tied directly to navigable water, Lemberg says. French trappers quickly found that virtually the only means of transportation was by water. The importance of water for travel and commerce continued through much of the state's history, and many small Michigan communities were once bustling centers of trade because of their shorelines. Traveling those water byways brings that history back to life.

"The water trails serve as a resource for local education, as well as a draw for people in Michigan and elsewhere," Lemberg says. "They learn about local history and culture and natural history and learn about how special these places are."

For more information, visit the Michigan Heritage Water Trails Web page at <www.wmich.edu/glcms/watertrails> or call Lemberg at (269) 387-3408.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 269 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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