We donned our life jackets, settled into our bobbling kayaks, and paddled out of the St. Jean boat launch into a slight chop on the Detroit River. The late summer sun warmed our backs and we stuck close to the shoreline to minimize drag as we paddled upstream toward Detroit’s East side canals.
My paddling partner and GoPro photographer is Scott Joseph of Travelstache. He journeys around the world, but also loves to explore Detroit when back in town. This trip sequels our trip around Belle Isle last year.
I first discovered the canal when looking at a flat to rent on Alter near Jefferson. The backyard waterways are a curious sight, and are most noticeable when you cross one on a bridge in the neighborhood. It would seem like access to the water from an urban location would keep homes occupied and give buoyancy to property values, yet the neighborhood appears to be afflicted by the same blight affecting many areas in the city.
I have sometimes heard the area called “The Venice of Detroit” or the “Canal District.” Now known as the Creekside neighborhood, it sits between Clairepointe Street and Alter Rd, Jefferson to the North and the River to the South. The area has a rich history and important significance to the narrative of the Detroit story we know today. In recent years, there have been efforts coordinated to populate and beautify the neighborhood and surrounding parks.
Certainly, one of the best ways to explore the area is by water.
Moving upriver, we passed hubs of maritime culture such as the Edison Boat Club and Bayview Yacht Club where patrons lounged by the clubhouse smoking cigars. At Maheras-Gentry Park we saw people kicking back while fishing and keeping an eye on the tips of their poles propped against the railing.
Near the strikingly suburban-looking peninsula of Keelson Drive, we met an older blonde woman wearing a wide brimmed hat and silk scarf who sat in a skiff, instructing a girl in a rowboat. She paused her lesson and explained that the canals were near the small lighthouse ahead. The scent of her perfume wafted over the water as she puttered away.
Once in the canal, we were surrounded by thick vegetation and the sounds of nature. We could see the seaweed rippling in the clear water below, bluegill hovering, minnows darting. A long necked cormorant leered at us on a piece of driftwood dove and dove under water to swim away from us while we passed.
We floated toward Klenk Island, a unique little Detroit hamlet accessible by a single bridge. Decaying bungalows with dilapidated docks hanging jaggedly are sit next to tidy lake houses with fancy boat garages holding large cabin cruisers, runabouts, pontoons, and jet-skis. You can see the meticulous effort and pride put into keeping up this lifestyle, and you can sense the enjoyment that the uncommon proximity to the river affords.
We let a large bay liner pass and turned up Fox Creek. Fox Creek is the longest canal, and passes through the backyards of homes on a continuum of upkeep and disrepair. Some homes sulked in disrepair, while others sparkled in bright colors, decorated with vacation house regalia. A man was working on his boat wearing short shorts. A lady holding her baby girl was trying to get her to look and wave at us.
A man who looked like an extra from the movie Waterworld pushed off the bank in an extra-long red kayak. He told us the creek ended at a tunnel underneath Jefferson. Smiling he said, “I wouldn’t go in there though,” as he skimmed toward the River. I turned to Scott and verbalized that I thought it’d be nice to get a place on the canal, and right on queue we passed a group of hipsters grilling out, enjoying their urban shoreline grandeur.
As the light waned and we got further inland, things felt weirder. A few angry dogs (who thankfully weren’t swimmers) ran to the edge of the narrow canal warning us not to come ashore. Dead things appeared including a squirrel, a few large carp, and some other bigger badly rotting carcass. The retaining wall had caved in at one point near the bend in the creek. A loose electrical wire dangled into the water and we pushed our boats overs fallen tree branches forming log jams.
Once at Jefferson, we stared into the abyss that would take us to the sewer. Passersby on the street above did a double take at us sitting in our yellow kayaks and said hello. With no further to go, we turned around and paddled to make it back to the launch before sundown.
The trip up Fox Creek is an eye-opening look at a far corner of the city. Replete with urban nature, a cultural niche all their own, and a good helping of D-Venture I’d recommend paddling up Fox Creek to anyone. If you would like to check out the canals, you can DIY it yourself like we did, or you can take a guided two-and-a-half hour from Detroit River Sports on Belle Isle.
Scroll down for more pictures from our trip.
Our photographer Scott Joseph. Be sure to check him out on his Facebook page, Travelstache.
Editor’s Note: Since we did this mini adventure, a kayak tour in roughly the same area has popped up by Riverside Kayak Connection. Check it out here.