Thirty hours on the Huron
Our low-carbon-footprint vacation
With limited time, limited money, and a desire to minimize our carbon footprint, Gary and I decided to spend our minivacation canoeing on the Huron. Since the river can be very shallow in late summer, we chose a route through Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti-the dams would let us spend more time paddling on the river and less walking the canoe through it.
My father delivered us to Delhi Park in his hybrid car. The water was so low that running the rapids there mostly meant finagling our way through the rocks. A sign in the river warned "Road construction ahead" just upstream from the place where the iron bridge had been removed for repair. It seemed as if the construction guys were laughing at us as we went by, but we were concentrating too hard on avoiding rocks to know for sure. Even with Gary standing up in the back to spot the signatures of the water, we crashed into a few boulders as we maneuvered downstream.
Below Tubbs Road the river opened up and deepened. The riverbank was filled with blooming plants, and the section by Huron River Drive was especially calm and peaceful-until we pulled alongside the trucks reconstructing the road. We went by quickly and then lingered on the far side of the pond by Barton Hills. We found a low-hanging staghorn sumac and picked some fruit, adding it to a water bottle for later sumac tea. Gary and I had our first date here at Barton Park, walking ice-covered paths last December. It was nice to come into it with him from the water.
The portage around the dam was an easy downhill-only carry. Gary had his large backpack and carried the canoe while I grabbed everything else. We switched seats for the slow, easy paddle to Argo Park. This stretch of river felt totally unknown to me until I recognized the backs of the buildings on North Main. We were ready for lunch:
fruit salad, potato salad, tempeh salad, cheese bread rolls I had made the night before-and sumacade.
As we carried our stuff back to the canoe, a teenage boy swimming across the pond yelled for help. Gary jumped in and paddled quickly over; after briefly resting on the canoe, the kid pulled himself in and collapsed sideways into the boat. He seemed genuinely grateful and embarrassed, saying he didn't realize what poor shape he was in. Gary got him to shore, suggested he swim with a life jacket from then on, and urged him to "pay it forward."
We took the old millrace from the dam to the portage, admiring the fast water spilling down to the river. We put in and detoured back upstream looking for the Allen Creek outlet. Shallow water and rocks stopped us before we could get very close, but I was glad to see it-Allen Creek runs by my house (underground), so I feel especially connected to that little tributary.
The water was low past University Hospital and Island Park, but our passage was peaceful and smooth. At the Arb we stuck to a human-made "channel" with slightly higher water, and were cheered for technique by someone on the shore who had been watching as other canoeists ran aground and had to walk their boats through the area. We still did a fair amount of walking, but only for short stretches.
Rounding a bend, we spotted a deer and her two fawns in the middle of the river. She let us come pretty close before calmly climbing the bank to hang out on someone's lawn. We also saw a lot of little green herons, some very close, many flying, and their call became familiar.
We made it to Gallup Park hot and a bit tired. There was a bit of a headwind, so we sheltered on the back side of one of the islands, where I sampled some ripe elderberries. They had a bitter aftertaste-I decided I like them better as wine and jam.
We rested for a bit at the park, got water, and used the facilities. The whole place is geared toward rentals, so we weren't especially welcome taking up space on the dock. But the guys working the livery were friendly as they asked us to move over.
We passed under US-23, portaged around Geddes Dam, and finished off our fruit salad to the roar of the overflow. Downstream the energy felt different, maybe because this stretch is much less commonly canoed, maybe because we were finally out of Ann Arbor after a full day of paddling.
We found a place for the night near Fleming Creek, close to a shelter with benches and lots of graffiti. A boardwalk led into the woods through an undergrowth of ginger, ramps, and poison ivy. Perhaps it was a funny note to camp near the sewage treatment plant, but the location made sense!
Dinner was corn on the cob, stir-fried veggies, and an apple pie that Gary baked on the spot. Wow! There were a few sprinkles, but no real rain-it was the mosquitoes that drove us into the tent.
We woke to the sight of the creek outside. Over blueberry pancakes I quizzed Gary on the finer points of leave-no-trace camping-especially important when you stealth-camp, but a good mind-set always.
Soon we were paddling along Superior Pond, where Gary showed me some unusual houses and told stories of their owners and local lore about secret tunnels. We saw a few lovely homes, including an enormous log cabin, and frowned at others with massively stupid lawns mowed to the river's edge, some with the resulting shore erosion.
We portaged around Superior Dam and canoed into Ypsilanti, where the old Peninsular Paper mill rose above us like a relic. After slogging through ropey light green algae floating on the water, we took out the canoe at the Peninsular Dam. We ate a lot more pie, drank most of the last of our water, and then teetered across unsteady rocks to put the canoe back in. The water was low again here, and as we threaded our way through the rocks, we passed old tires and the discarded hood of a Ford.
As we glided up to Riverside Park we heard sirens and saw flashing lights ahead and then cascades of water across the river. Ypsilanti's annual Fire Truck Muster celebrated the end of our short urban canoe adventure with rushes of water and literal bells and whistles.
We took the canoe out for our final portage-to Gary's rental house, about a mile away. With the temperature near ninety and brutal humidity, we had to take a few breaks, but it was fun to finish with flair. Our wild, interesting, and thoroughly enjoyable vacation from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti by way of the sewage plant had taken less than thirty hours. Unusual, and highly recommended.
[Originally published in October, 2008.]