One Kayak Paddle Blade Is Better Than None; A Clinton River Paddling Adventure

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It’s been HOT outside lately. So hot, I kind of understand how the Wicked Witch of the West felt as she so dramatically squelched, “I’m melting, I’m melting.” So hot, I think I have sweat enough to fill a water tower this year alone…already. So hot, I think the desert is jealous of Michigan right now.

We needed a day to beat the heat somehow. A day on the water. But, we just went camping in Hocking Hills two weeks ago, and we will be camping at Tahquamenon Falls in three weeks. So, we didn’t really want to travel too far and didn’t want to have to spend a ton of money. Luckily, thanks to my wonderful co-worker friend, who just happens to be the one that writes the schedule, I was able to finagle the days before and after and including the 4th of July off work.

My amazing parents agreed to take the girls so Jackie and I could have an amazing river date on the 5th. My kayaks were beginning to really dry out hanging from the ceiling of my garage anyway, and I could hear their ever so quiet and gentle whimpering every time I was in there. So, I started researching paddling routes for the Clinton River.

My eyes lit up when I saw the detail of the Clinton River Canoe Map on the City of Utica site and the ideas of which section of the river we should paddle from the Clinton River Watershed Council site.

This would be perfect. The Clinton River is almost right in our own backyard, metro Detroit Michigan. I grew up right by the river. Lived the majority of my life by the river. Enjoyed its presence, but have never paddled it. This was our chance and would make for a spectacular date with my remarkable wife.

A few days before, I was keeping a close eye on the weather. It was still going to be in the 90s, but expecting thunderstorms all day. That didn’t scare me off. I mean, when do you really plan a river trip and not expect to get wet? I could almost see the color of my kayaks begin to get brighter, as they knew I would take them down and let them splash around in the river.

The day was finally here. My parents came and picked up the girls just after 9 am, and I began loading the yaks in the truck, packed a couple of lunches, brewhas, and the emergency supplies, first aid kit, and other essentials in the dry bags, along with a change of clothes and a couple of towels. We made sure our trusty guard dog, Kacy (she’s a beagle), was fed and had plenty of water for the day, locked up the house and hit the road. After a quick stop at McDonald’s for some breakfast, we drove to Yates Park on 23 Mile Road and Dequindre Rd. in Rochester Hills, right across the street form Yates Cider Mill, unloaded the yaks and our dry bags full of our river trip supplies, and set them under the shade of some trees near the river, not far downstream from Yates Dam.

Jackie agreed to hang out with the kayaks while I drove the truck to our take out at Dodge Park at Dodge Park Rd. and Utica Rd. in Sterling Heights. It was only a 15-minute drive but would end up being a 4 1/2 hour float. My neighbor, Rick Hall, was kind enough to meet me at the park and drive me back to my wife at Yates. By the way, have I ever told you that I have some really amazing neighbors? We are so lucky to have found our home in such a great neighborhood with some really cool people. You know, one of those neighborhoods that you can borrow a cup a sugar, and share your duct tape, and trade some door frame installation help for a ride to a local paddling spot. Thanks again for the ride, Rick.

Jackie was excited to see us pull up and start honking the horn at her while she was relaxing in the beached yak, internet shopping for our next vehicle. You should have seen the ear-to-ear smile on her face as I jumped out of the truck and ran arms wide open toward her, hungry to hit the waters and begin our adventure together. As soon as we both were snug in our cockpits and loaded up, we paddled under the bridge and the small rapid began almost immediately, making for a really fun outset. After a couple of rapids, the water settled down a bit and we passed a large group of kids sitting on the picnic bench at the cider mill and turned the corner. Here, the pace of the river picked up a bit and we could see a tree that was uprooted from the ground along the west side of the river, leaning across the entire river with its branches only leaving about a 4-foot gap to make it through.

I was behind my wife and saw that she was lined up perfectly to make it through, but as I was about to warn her to pull in her paddle, she was upon the opening with her paddle still sideways. The current was moving her pretty good, and the branches of the tree were too thick to give. So, as you can just imagine, I cringed as I heard a loud “SNAP” and saw one of the paddle blades drop to the water as she and her boat were spun around backward with only one blade left on the paddle in her hands. Her eyes were as big as saucers and you could lip read her attempt to say “Oh poop!” (or something of that matter).

I made my way through the opening safely and paddled up next to her laughing, and being the gentleman that I am, I gave her my paddle in exchange for her one-bladed paddle. I had to jazz her a little bit, so I told her to be careful not to snap a blade off of this one. We had a good laugh together, as we weren’t even out of Yates park yet and still had our entire trip ahead of us. I guess I’m now in the market for a new yakkin’ paddle, but for now, I had to deal with what I had. It’s a good thing I have experience steering a canoe with just a one-bladed paddle, so it wasn’t really as bad as it seemed. However, Jackie will never live this moment down for the rest of our lives.

As we gained our bearings and got back on track, the river remained decently swift with quite a few small rapids, shallow waters, sharp curves, and plenty of log jams and downed trees in the water to keep things exciting through the Rochester-Utica State Recreation Area, and into River Bends Park. We could tell right when we arrived in River Bends, as the sounds of rifle shots echoed through the trees from the shooting range. Don’t worry, the river was well below the level of the land, and the echoing of the shots make it sound like it is a lot closer to the river than it actually is. After the gunshots subsided, we came upon a shallow part of the river where the stones piled up above the water level, creating an island in the middle. This seemed like the perfect spot to beach the yaks and stop for lunch.

We sat down on the edge of the island of stones just in the water to keep cool as the sun was blazing, as solar noon had past and the heat was building quickly. The sun’s rays were streaming down on us directly, as there were no clouds in the sky blocking. I thought to myself, “Hey, wasn’t it supposed to be cloudy all day with thunderstorms on and off?” Well, that’s Michigan weather for you. The place where the weather forecast is just really a suggestion or educated guess and is mostly wrong. I wasn’t complaining though. The day turned out to be beautiful, hot and bright all day. A perfect combination for a day on the river. I just wished at this point that I had not forgotten the sunscreen. My wife and I sat in the water on our little island eating lunch and just talking about our upcoming plans for the barbecue bonfire at my brother’s house this weekend, our camping trip to the upper peninsula in a few weeks, and whether or not we should get rid of our truck for a minivan. We even got to talking about how whenever we get an opportunity to spend time with just the two of us without the kids, that we feel and act like kids ourselves. We have so much fun together and have such an amazing relationship. I feel like the luckiest man in the Universe to have found such a remarkable woman to be my wife, and to be able to spend the rest of my life with.

After lunch, we continued on our journey and got to the point in River Bends Park that seemed very familiar. Ah yes, it was all coming back to me now. The sounds of the chains rattling as the plastic disc hit them and fell into the basket. We were rounding the bend of one of the holes on the back half of the disc golf course; hole number 15 where the fairway curves left along the bend in the river. It was interesting seeing the hole from the viewpoint of the mouth of the monster that gobbled up and swallowed so many of my discs back in the day. I almost felt like Gepetto when he was swallowed by Jonah the whale in the story of Pinocchio. I already have a left pull to my right-handed disc throw that I had to aim far to the right in attempts to keep my disc from coming back too far left and into the drink. I peered into the water to see if I could find any but came up empty.

After leaving the park and ways downstream, a familiar area appeared. I could see a bridge with a much wider bridge just beyond it. The faint sound of vehicles driving at faster speeds was coming from the far bridge. Between the two overpasses were red park benches up on the embankment. I remembered these from Mother’s Day last year when we went to Jimmy Johns Field on M-59 for a baseball game and brunch. As soon as I realized where we were, it appeared to my right. It was the back of the outfield scoreboard. I had almost forgotten that the baseball park butted up to the Clinton River.

Our adventure commenced as we paddled under the M-59 bridge and then along the quaint Clinton River Heritage Park in Utica. I had remembered this park as it was next to the old glass shop I worked at back in the day just off of Van Dyke Avenue; Prieh’s Glass, which is now a Ziebart, I believe. In the park, there was a family with a young girl wading in the river, fishing with her dad. We waved as we paddled on by and continued on our adventures. At this point in the trip, we really started to feel the sun beaming down on us. Jackie could feel the tops of her thighs were scorched. Her mention of the heat caused me to look down at my bare stomach, and I then realized I was burnt to a crisp as well.

A little further downstream, when we reached Clinton River Park, I heard Jackie whispering to look to the right side of the river as she pointed. She noticed a deer standing there, not even twenty feet from us. I tried to quietly pull my phone out of the dry bag to snap a quick shot, but the velcro spooked him, and he dashed into the woods before I had a chance. Wow, what a beautiful creature. I was bummed that I wasn’t able to catch a photo, but then I then I heard Jackie whisper again. Another deer was laying down, catching the sun’s rays not much further up ahead. I was able to snap a great shot of this one, and she didn’t even budge as we floated on by.

After we rounded the next corner, the river got very shallow, and our kayaks got stuck. We were forced to get out and pull the boats to deeper water. However, at this moment, I thought it was a good idea to leave my yak, walk myself into deeper water, and jump in for a swim to cool down. The water was cold, but it felt amazing in hot day’s sun. My wife decided to join me, and we both had to try and dig our hands deep into the sandy bottom to keep ourselves from floating downriver with the strong current. It was perfect…amazing…relieving. After a bit of cooling down and laughing with each other, we got back to our yaks and recommenced.

After about another hour of beautiful scenery through Clinton River Park, I noticed that we were passing by the Sterling Heights Nature Center, and almost to the end of our journey. It was here that I noticed a couple of Blue Jays fluttering around the river not far ahead of us. It appeared that they were leading the way and welcoming us to Dodge Park. We could see families riding bikes on the trail along the river as well. I think that I am going to have to put that bike trail on our list of future trips.

As we turned a sharp bend in the river, I could see the red bridge up ahead with bright yellow flowers that marked the take out from the river. There were kids swimming here, which gave us enough of a reason to take another dip ourselves before walking our kayaks back the truck. One more refreshing splash around was fitting. After a few minutes, we were ready to carry the yaks to the truck, dry ourselves off (at least what the sun didn’t dry itself), strap down the kayaks in the bed of the truck, and head to my parents’ house to pick up our daughters.

What an amazing river adventure to add to our memories. Almost the entire journey felt like we were up north, but yet, we were pretty much right in our own backyard. Our trip had taken us exploring 10.6 miles of the Clinton River. I guess that just means that we still have another 71 miles to explore.

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