PHOTOS: Kayaking The Historic Canals Of Belle Isle

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Belle Isle is one of Detroit’s most cherished places, and kayaking its canals literally gives you a completely different perspective.

Constructed between 1893 and 1910, the canals have become a beloved part of the island. In their heyday, that was the place you would go to have a peaceful time out with your date and it would be epitome of perfection with well-manicured banks and many, many boaters.

Photo via Wikipedia
Photo via Wikipedia

It’s exciting to see that canoe (and in this case, kayak, paddleboat, and paddle board) rental has returned to the island thanks to RKC Adventures, and that all walks of life are getting in on the action. They also offer bike rentals, if you’re so inclined.


They’re at the Flynn Pavilion, and there are two ways you go can – the long way to Lake Okonoka and back, and the short way, which takes you past the Casino.

Nancy Brown Peace Carillon.
Nancy Brown Peace Carillon. Photo: Catie Quinn

We chose to paddle the long way, and one of the first amazing sights was the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon from a completely new angle sitting in the boat on Lake Tacoma.


The detail of the bridges on Belle Isle become very apparent when you view them from the water.

Whitcomb Conservatory Geese Belle Isle

Here’s the Whitcomb Conservatory with a phalanx of geese guarding the shore.


The greenery is amazing from this angle. If only these trees could tell the stories of what they’ve seen.


As we paddle on, the island starts to show its wear, but at every turn you can see the potential.


Some open windows along the shore are just begging to be explored, though we didn’t (and are pretty sure you’re not supposed to). There wasn’t much roof left on that structure.


More bridges. Most of them have plenty of clearance but a couple, if you’re six feet or taller, you’ll have to duck a little.


Buildings that are part of the abandoned Belle Isle Zoo are visible from your vessel. That place is wild, and if you want to check it out, here’s an amazing drone video. We’ll lay back in the kayak and wait for you to come back if you want to check it out.

Facing a walking bridge. Photo: Catie Quinn
Facing a walking bridge. Photo: Catie Quinn

It really starts to feel like a lost world during parts of this trip. This particular bridge, make sure you go down the middle when you go under it. To the left the canal forks, and you can’t paddle down it as it goes into the old zoo. It’d be great to open that up.


Amazing stumps were at either side of the Nashua Canal as we paddled farther in.


There are points where the fact that there were years of neglected maintenance really start to show. For many years, the city underfunded the repairs to the island as it spiraled into bankruptcy. Many of the things we saw that weren’t tidy didn’t take one or two years to happen, but are signs of a decade plus of neglect. Belle Isle needs a lot of love, but it’s still beautiful.


The natural wildness of the trip makes you forget that you’re less than a mile from civilization. It’s quite magical. There is more ahead.


Once you get out of the tight canals, you hit Lake Okonoka, and lots and lots of lily pads. The lake once flowed more freely, but in the 1950s was cut off from the Detroit River.


There’s currently a restoration project in process to attempt to aerate Lake Okonoka and improve fish spawning. This part of the trip had the most algae, and the water was very still. The lilies will stop your boat with a “squeak” you can feel under the hull if you don’t at least keep a little motion going.


We knew we were heading near the end where we’d have to paddle back. It would be ideal if the designers of the park at the turn of the century had made a connecting loop, but alas, not.


In the distance, there’s a small drain and we knew it was time to return back to the pavilion and RKC Adventures. A peaceful, fun and enjoyable trip, the rental of the kayak was quite reasonable ($10/hour each) and was a great way to spend an afternoon exploring Belle Isle in a different way.

It was a reminder that Detroit is an amazing city, and you don’t have to go far to have an adventure. You just sometimes have to embark on a little exploring of your own to find the best stuff.

  • There should be a series of videos on major U.S. cities such as Detroit in which there are some different subjects.

    1. Detroit Downtown.

    2. Detroit Midtown.

    3. Detroit River front & islands.

    4. Detroit parks.

    5. Detroit museums.

  • As a child of the 1940’s, I loved the island and the zoo, plus all the other great features of that Belle Isle had to offer. My mom and dad used to take us swimming and picnicking in the summer and ice skating on the canals in the winter. We also drove along the island roads to visit and feed the white deer that lived there. We loved to stop and visit with the Detroit Police Mounted Division and pet their horses. Scott Fountain, the Belle Isle Aquarium, and the beautiful Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory were also favorites. So many memories that I’ll cherish forever. I hope to see Belle Isle return to its former glory for future generations to use and enjoy.

  • Great stuff everyone should do this. FYI, the Friends of the Detroit River spearheaded the project to open the Blue Herron Lagoon to the river again. This included dredging the lagoon to 10 feet and a 100 foot opening at the river end. The main reason was to provide a habitat for numerous fish being spawned on 3 nearby artificial reefs. The connection to Lake Okanoka will soon be improved to better increase the flow.

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