Let’s Kayak Around Belle Isle (With Photos)

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Is “Detroit, Land Of The Great Outdoors” a slogan that rings true in your heart?

If it doesn’t, it should. It’s more than possible to be active and enjoy being outside in the city. I have biked around the city, zipped down the Dequindre Cut on a Segway, and enjoyed a sunset cruise around the the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair. I’ve taken walks around Belle Isle and been rollerblading (that’s right) on the Riverwalk.

But I must admit, kayaking around Belle Isle was a new one for me. It was an excellent way to experience the outdoors, and get a taste of nature right in the heart of urban Detroit.

At 5:30 p.m., after a solid day of work staring at my laptop and a square meal, my friend Scotty and I jumped in the van. It was already loaded with the kayaks, and we were donning swimsuits, sunglasses, and sunblock.

Very little research had gone into this plan. Unsure if there was enough time, or if we needed some kind of a permit to paddle around in the Detroit River (or if it would be impossible to paddle against the current to go back to where started) we just decided to wing it.

After all, a perfect summer day in Detroit on the water was calling us.

We plopped our kayaks in the water at the St. Jean Street public boat launch. This boat launch is a perfect place to get right in the Detroit River, and is located across the river from the north end of Belle Isle. There wasn’t an attendant on duty so the cost of this service was free, and it appeared to be a safe place to leave the van during the day (or however long it took us to get back). A couple of guys were easing their jet skis outfitted with speakers into the water. The slow thump of the bass seemed a fitting start to what could have become our last dance.

It felt great gliding out onto the water. It was mid-week so the channel was uncrowded. This allowed us to paddle playfully in our kayaks, only adjusting to occasional swells from boats passing by. It was slow going against the current, and I wore myself out fighting our way around the northern tip of the island.

We stopped for some photos and a brief break near the tern sanctuary where the sleek looking birds breed safely away from meddling park-goers. Once I exhausted every possible pun (“wrong tern,” “things have taken a tern for the worst,” etc.), I unsteadily wiggled back into my boat, almost slipping, as I stepped off the slime-y wooden breakwater. It was time to tern this trip up a notch!

As we paddled around to the Canadian side, we waved to people walking along the bike trail. Then things really got smooth. The current in the Detroit river is strong and steady enough to move you downstream without paddling. We paddled here and there, took pictures, and waved at people having barbecues and throwing frisbees.

Coming around the south side of the island, we enjoyed a view of Downtown Detroit like no other. It has a majestic presence when you’re sitting at sea level in a little kayak.


Near the south end of Belle Isle, the current seems to eddy a bit, and the first leg of the paddle upstream isn’t too bad. One of my favorite parts of the trip was going underneath the Belle Isle bridge (properly named the MacArthur Bridge). It has an architectural appeal that I never really appreciated from other vantage points.

After that we battled the current past the beach and the Detroit Yacht Club. The sun blazed like a blood orange behind the cityscape, and the sky settled into layers of peach, lavender, and periwinkle. The fishflies buzzing around us in an innocuous cloud seemed like a good omen.

At 9:45 p.m., we docked the boats, which meant we made the whole trip in about 3 hours and 15 minutes.

Recently, I have had the urge to get outdoors and exert myself. This trip provided that opportunity in a beautiful setting. It’s made me rethink some of the limitations that I had put on myself in this city. All potential snags to the success of this trip were just figments of our imaginations. We weren’t pestered by the coast guard or the harbormaster. There weren’t any boaters annoyed with our presence. We weren’t sucked into the chopping rudder of a freighter. We just enjoyed ourselves out there like we were supposed to.

Perhaps the uncrowded empty spaces of Detroit’s outdoors (similar to the way the empty indoor spaces benefit artists) are creating a haven for outdoor enthusiasts?

Scroll down for the pics!


Paddling around the North end of Belle Isle, close to the shore to minimize the effect of the current.


We stopped at wooden breakwater to take a little break before heading around the northern point. It’s right next to a protected breeding ground for Terns.


A well-shaded part of the trip coming around to the Canadian facing side of Belle Isle.


Action shot.


Going under the General Douglas MacArthur Bridge, which connects the mainland to Belle Isle, was a highlight of the trip.


Sun getting lower on the horizon…


Taking a a rest during our paddle upstream.


Day turns to dusk over the Detroit River.

If you want to check out another one of our Detroit kayak trips, check out this post where we hit Detroit’s canals. Props to Scotty Joseph who joined me on this trip and he has a globe-crossing travelogue over at at Travelstache.

  • Hey, I’m a native Detroiter (well, Troy) who lives in Colorado and enjoys whitewater kayaking (just a beginner). I know that there are whitewater kayak parks in Petosky and Grand Rapids and I’ve always wondered why nobody has created one on the Detroit River.

    Well, there is a channel of water near the north end of Belle Isle (right next to the power plant) that looks like it would be ideal. And now that the state will be leasing the park and making improvements, I suggest a resident take this up. Or at least spread the word to any known whitewater enthusiasts.

    Just a suggestions Patrick.

    BTW, nice article and photos.


    • Ron,

      I like where your head is at. I’ll shoot you an email, I’d like to know more about this idea.

  • I discovered Kayaking on the Detroit river last year with my girlfriend and we love it! Spent more time in Detroit this past year than the previous 25 combined because of it! It’s wonderful! !

  • I would love to do this. Is there a place to rent kayaks and launch them or do you have to bring them with you?

  • Thank you. I’ve been wanting to do this for so long and was curious /nervous about the current and trip as a whole. I would consider myself semi experienced. I’ve been white water rafting in WV several times and have kayaked on the west side of the state the last couple summers. WWR is a guided tour and I imagine narrow river Kayaking is a bit different than being on a body of water as wide as the Detroit River. I’m wondering, on a scale of 1-10, what skill level would you say it takes to kayak around the island?

  • What kind of kayaks did you use? We have pretty flat bottomed kayaks, just wondering how we will fare against the current. Yours don’t look like “open water” kayaks, pretty similar to ours 🙂

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