'It isn't such a nasty river anymore'
|By Lawrence Cosentino|
2010 Grand River Expedition pushes currents of change
Say you want to canoe down the Au Sable River in northern Michigan for a few days and hang with the deer, eagles and smallmouth bass. The local Chamber of Commerce will stuff your rucksack with dozens of brochures for campgrounds where you can stab a wienie and sleep under the stars.
Now try that on the Grand, Michigan’s longest river. The deer, eagles and bass will be there — and so will the sheriff, because you’ll be trespassing.
That’s just one of the unnatural imbalances the organizers and paddlers of the 2010 Grand River Expedition hope to change.
It took special permission from a dozen jurisdictions to accommodate the 187 paddlers registered for an epic 13-day haul from the Grand’s headwaters, near Liberty, south of Jackson, through Jackson, Lansing and Grand Rapids to the river’s mouth at Grand Haven.
Part sport, part science, part media circus, the expedition is meant to shine a light on mid-Michigan’s under-appreciated main stem, as its predecessors did in 1990 and 2000.
The expedition is scheduled to put in at the Center Lake dam in Jackson at 7 a.m. today, camp at Eaton Rapids Friday night and arrive at north Lansing’s Brenke Fish Ladder Sunday for a massive public display of river love.
Camping isn’t everybody’s bag, but the dearth of public or private campsites on the 260-mile Grand (there’s only one, where the Rogue meets the river’s main stem) is one of those surface snags that connects to an underlying peril: The people of westcentral Michigan don’t protect and appreciate their own river in proportion to its size, beauty and importance.
“A lot of people have never paddled through their town,” 2010 Expedition rivermaster Charlie Parmalee said. “They don’t know where the river goes.”
Parmalee has spent hundreds of days (and nights, but let that pass, officer) exploring the Grand.
“I could take you places where you’d swear you were on the Au Sable,” Parmalee said. “But when I tell people I paddle the Grand, people say ‘ugh,’ like it’s a sewer. At one time, it was, but they’ve done a lot to clean it up and they’re doing more all time. The river gets a bad rap.”
When the 2010 Expedition paddles through downtown Jackson today, they’ll see the first dramatic sign that the river is changing for the better.
The 1990 and 2000 expeditions ran into several portages, most of them dams. But in downtown Jackson, they encountered one of the most depressing crossings this side of the Styx: a 2,000-foot stretch of the river that was diverted into a culvert and capped with concrete in 1937. Much of the cap was a parking lot, but it wasn’t a case of paving paradise.
“They covered it up because of the smell,” Parmalee said. “That tells you what they used it for.”
Since 1978, six children have been trapped under the cap and drowned.
In the wake of the 1990 expedition, a Jackson-area group called GREAT (Grand River Environmental Action Council), pushed to get rid of it.
Parmalee thinks the 2000 expedition also played a role.
“We wanted to stop in Jackson and have a ceremony, and that ended up inspiring them to remove the cap,” Parmalee said. “You can paddle through there now.”
The stretch was “daylighted” and cleaned up by December 2000 and is now graced by a riverwalk, where people will cheer the 2010 expedition downriver.
The Jackson cap is an extreme case of river blindness, but there are more widespread and significant signs that the Grand River is rebounding. Scott Hanshue is a fisheries biologist for the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment, or DNRE, assigned to the Grand River watershed, Hillsdale to Grand Haven. He’s studied the Grand for almost 20 years.
Hanshue is writing the Grand River Assessment, a report on the overall condition and potential of the river.
Next week, he’ll oversee one of the expedition’s more dramatic events, a "boom shocking" fish study on a mile-long stretch of the Grand between Grand Haven and Portland.
What is boom shocking? A boat with a generator drops two anodes into the water and stuns the surrounding fish. They are gathered in nets by the hundreds, identified by species and measured in various ways. (Dorsal spines, for example, tell a fish’s age.)
The boom shocking is part of a statewide fish study timed to coincide with the expedition — “But not too closely,” Hanshue said. Members of the expedition and the general public are encouraged to watch, if they keep their members out of the water. Hanshue said “99.9 percent” of the fish recover from the shock.
Hanshue said water quality in the 1970s in the Grand was so bad that the dominant species tolerated degraded water quality (common carp and white sucker). More sensitive fish (red horse sucker, smallmouth bass, northern pike) were largely absent. Fish species found in various Grand River spots numbered in the low teens.
More recently, the MDNRE’s boom shockers have found more than 30 species.
Go to the Sixth Street Dam in downtown Grand Rapids, Hanshue said, and you’ll find a “significant recreational fishery” with salmon, steelhead and even warm water species like walleye, bass and channel catfish.
Clubs and spears
Gloria Miller has lived all of her 85 years in the same house on a centennial farm near the Looking Glass River in Wacousta, six miles west of DeWitt.
Miller paddled the length of the Grand with the 1990 and 2000 expeditions, the last time to celebrate her 75th birthday. This year, she plans to finish the trek a third time and muscle her Verlen Kruger Sea Wind canoe into Lake Michigan on her 85th.
“Some places on the Grand River, you’d think you were out in the wilderness,” she said.
When Miller and the expedition went through Grand Rapids in 1990, after a heavy rain, the city was only beginning its sanitary/storm sewer separation project. “There were things floating in the river that we were suspicious of, and there was an unpleasant odor.”
By 2009, Grand Rapids has cut its combined sewer overflow rate 99 percent, according to city statistics.
“Things have changed,” Miller said. “People are more aware of the watershed.”
Miller has seen the river through a lot of ups and downs. The Looking Glass, an important tributary of the Grand, was a crucial source of food for her family during the Great Depression. Many winters during the 1930s, she and other kids were sent upstream with wooden “pounders” and beat on the ice to drive the fish downstream. (The river froze because of a nearby dam, now removed.) The men waited upstream with spears.
“They’d lay down on the ice, chop a hole, and drop navy beans on
Fishing and swimming were carefree then, but so was dumping.
Municipalities and industries took the same attitude for decades.
“There were a lot of pollutants,” Miller said. “Typhoid was even in there.”
“The river, through Clean Water Act implementation, has rebounded dramatically,” Hanshue said.
“All that runoff is in the main stem [of the Grand] and Lake Michigan,” Hanshue said.
Other contaminants, such as mercury or PCBs, simply come down in rain or atmospheric dust, from as far away as Chicago.
“We still have a way to go,” Parmalee said.
The first Grand
But the expedition has proved to be much more than a once-a-decade joyride.
“The camaraderie was great,” Miller said. “I got acquainted with lots of people, people I’m still friends with.”
“After 13 days together on the river, you’re like family,” Parmalee said.
He marveled at the 187 participants registered
That leaves a big hole in the doughnut: the central Grand River watershed, Lansing’s section.
He expressed surprise that the home of state government and MSU, a major research institution, should lag behind the river keepers upstream and downstream.
“A lot of the information from 2000 got scattered,” Parmalee said. “We’re still looking for some of that water-testing stuff.”
He promised it wouldn’t happen this time.
The Eaton Rapids-to-Lansing stretch is not a pristine wilderness experience, but it’s an eye-opener all the same.
Parmalee is philosophical about the intermittent garbage, poor development decisions and industrial grunge.
“People need to see the ugly parts and beautiful parts,” he said.
2010 Grand River Expedition
Day paddlers welcome. For itinerary go to