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Urban Kayaking

Mike Morey - September 20th, 2007
I was dragging my kayak across the parking lot between the fish weir and InsideOut Gallery in Traverse City one day, when a friend yelled out, “Yo, Morey – urban kayaking!” I laughed and then thought, yeah it is. Urban kayaking Northern Michigan style.
Somebody had told me that I needed bigger arms, and I figured kayaking would be a fun and easy way to get them. I don’t know what I needed bigger arms for, but I’m always up for physical/psychological/spiritual improvement so I didn’t question it. Also, I’d think that the action-figure version of me would probably have big arms. So with that prodding I went shopping for a kayak that fit my style. I consider style a key element when making purchases and usually rate it higher than function.
The kayak I ended up with has a removable pod, a built-in seat and a long low pointed bow. It’s orange and red, a color scheme I’m not thrilled about, but the other option was chartreuse and turquoise. When you sit in it you aren’t plugged into a hole looking like a doofus. It’s casual, and also a lot of fun when the water’s rough. It’s built for the ocean, the surf.

I live in town, in between water, so kayaking is ideal for what I had in mind, which was a daily routine. I decided I’d travel the Boardman River in between Boardman Lake and the bay, easy and convenient. You get to enjoy what I like to call the... well, other end of Traverse City, the watery passage that leads from the sewage plant out into the bay.
I start out at the Hull Park boat ramp on Boardman Lake. I hang a right and paddle past the sewage treatment facility. The sewage plant used to stink badly, but doesn’t seem to anymore - maybe because they put lids on the tanks.
This stretch is sometimes difficult depending on wind strength and direction. I like it when the wind’s blasting from the south; the short ride is rough, but then you surf the waves easily into the river mouth and under the train trestle. I like the trestle, as well; it’s old and surrounded by rotted pilings. The surrounding area is mostly a brush-covered steep embankment. It’s a timeless place within the city; no buildings or cars are visible. On the shore underneath the tracks there’s always a little residual trash from nocturnal goings-on. Moldy blankets, empty bottles and discarded clothing.
The next structure you pass under is the Eighth Street Bridge. It’s quiet and pretty clean, although occasionally you’ll see a bedroll signifying that someone lives there. Someone has painted “Disappear Here” on the East wall - otherwise it’s clean of graffiti. The Government Center and the jail come up on the right bank while the condos of the Midtown project populate the left. I’d find it disagreeable to live in one of those, as they resemble double-wide trailers stacked one on top of the other. The north side also has condos but the bank is left pretty much natural. I’ve never seen much in the way of wildlife along this stretch, just the occasional pack of mallards. No fish at all, although that changes on the other side of the dam.

The portage over the dam above Union Street is an awkward venture and the options are limited.
I go ashore on the other side of the pond, where there’s a partially submerged concrete walkway with an ancient iron railing. To get down to the semi-submerged walkway you have to drag or carry the kayak across the dam and down the grassy knoll to the edge of the pond where the water re-enters the river. As long as there are no fishermen to get past, this is pretty easy.
It’s a nice stretch of river past Union Street. It’s pretty, and the water moves along nicely. This is where you see the occasional fish, although I generally figure them to be either carp or suckers.
The old library and surrounding park pass by on the left. The trees hanging over the water are strung with fishing line. Chances are you’ll pass a picnic table full of drinkers who may or may not yell something at you. I always assume that they’ve said something friendly and wave back. Coming up on the right is another high-rise; no one’s ever around.
Under the Front Street Bridge you experience some mini-rapids as the water gets shallow and the bottom rocky. The excitement is short-lived as the river widens, and you focus on the passage through the fish weir up ahead. This is a metal walkway with poles going down into the water at about four-foot intervals. The water is still swift here so you’re going to want to line up between the poles where the going is easiest and chances of jamming up are slim. Regardless of my tack, I always scrape the sides a bit.

After the fish weir you enter the truly urban part of the trip and, oddly enough, this is where you may spot the most critters. Mostly ducks and gulls, but I did witness a loon twice; I assumed it was the same one both times.
I like the stretch between Union and Park. You have the parking lot on one side and an old cement wall on the other. Once again, there’s evidence of people living under the bridges; bedding, stray garments, bottles, even food. I came across a bum one day curled up on a slab of cement. I floated over and poked him with my paddle just to make sure he wasn’t dead. There was a half-empty fifth near his hand.
After the Park Street Bridge the wall is no longer there and the river widens. A pond forms just on the other side of the Belstone Gallery on East Front Street. Soon the river is lined on each side by rusted steel breakwalls as it turns to the north, passes under the Parkway Bridge and empties into the bay. The choice at this point is either to turn back, return upstream, or to continue out into the bay. Depends on the wave action really, and how soggy you’re willing to get. I usually head across the bay regardless; I find it either relaxing if calm, or great exercise if it’s rough.
I learn about myself traveling across the bay. I’m no longer as perturbed by the jet ski noise and the beerheads lolling about on their waterborne SUVs. I just smile and wave. And I’m friendlier due to kayaking through town. I don’t know if my arms are any bigger though - I should’ve measured them when I started.

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