Detroit is better known for its crime rate than its water sports. So when Travel Michigan and the Detroit Metro Convention Visitors Bureau recently hosted me for a visit in May, I was surprised to be offered a kayaking option.
Really? I thought. Kayaking? Right in Detroit? Will I get shot at? Is the water totally nasty?
I was thoroughly ignorant about the fun outdoor activities Detroit has to offer. During my four days there, I got to spend a good deal of time outdoors, and meet some of the entrepreneurs dedicated to getting visitors and locals onto the (surprisingly clean) river and bike paths. Here are some of the best ways to get outdoors in Detroit.
On a Saturday morning, I got my chance to kayak the Detroit River. Our little flotilla including three travel writers, a CVB host who was an experienced paddler, Alex Howbert, Matt Lennert, and Matt’s dad, Gary. Alex grew up sailing on the Detroit River, wondering why hardly anybody else did. Now his Detroit River Sports rents kayaks and leads kayak tours. Gary raised his son Matt on the water. Now Matt organizes standup paddleboard races and is brand manager for BlkBox Surf, a Michigan company that manufactures high-end surfboards and standup paddleboards. Gary was visiting from South Carolina, where he’s an avid paddler. My skills were embarrassingly dwarfed by this august company. On the other hand, surely somebody could save me if I ran into trouble.
Alex led our group into the river, easily rowing backwards so he could face us. He told us stories about when French explorers happened upon the mighty Detroit River in the 1600s, and how bootleggers used it as a handy route from Canada during Prohibition. We passed sailboats and motorboats but saw no other kayakers. It seemed like more people were fishing on the shore—sometimes yelling at us to stay clear of their lines—than out in watercraft.
Matt echoed my thoughts about the river. “I have to admit that even I was surprised the first time I came to Detroit to find that the water in the city is amazingly clean, clear and, in the summer, warm!” he said. He feels freest on the water, and gets a kick out of being in wilderness and urban environments simultaneously.
Alex took us through narrow canals lined with homes. He pointed out one that used to be a speakeasy. A novice kayaker, I needed some help learning to steer, and managed to run into docks a few times. Alex patiently reminded me how to paddle backwards and free myself. He could only do so much when I ran into a dock occupied by a glaring pitbull, but fortunately the owner intervened and saved me from one of the less predictable hazards of kayaking.
If I’d had more time in Detroit, I would have loved to come back and tour the Fisher Mansion, which we saw from the water. This 1927 estate was modeled after Hearst Castle and has 24-karat gold-leaf ceilings. In 1975, Henry Ford’s grandson bought the building and donated it to the Hare Krishnas! It still serves as a Hare Krishna temple. Visitors can join the Sunday program for a vegetarian meal and a peek inside this historic building. Tours are available.
Two different people mentioned to me that signs outside the United Auto Workers headquarters prohibited foreign cars from parking in the lot. But what about bikes? Does the Motor City make way for pedal-powered vehicles?
I joined a tour with Wheelhouse Detroit to find out. This one-stop shop for everything bike offers sales, service, rentals and guided tours. As cool, hip and inspiring as Detroit’s art and entrepreneurial scene is, blight and crime lurk around many a corner. So for visitors like me, a guided bike tour is an excellent way to get out on the streets of Detroit without accidentally winding up on the wrong streets.
Wheelhouse offers about 20 different Detroit tours. If I were staying in Detroit a week, I’m confident I could take a different tour every day and be entertained. Special interest tours include cigars in Detroit, haunted Detroit, techno music, and Underground Railroad. Our group got a kind of general highlight tour. We took a jaunt around Belle Isle, where we got to ride on the track all set up for the Grand Prix, and visited the Heidelberg Project, where artist Tyree Guyton has turned scary abandoned houses into colorful and slightly less disturbing art installations.
Our group had about 10 tourists and two guides. One guide road in front, leading the tour, while the other stayed in the back, making sure they didn’t lose anybody. I felt very safe with the local guides, from both traffic and wrong turns. One of our guides told me that biking is respected in Detroit itself, but cyclists take their lives in their hands when riding in the suburbs. Another biking tip: Stay on the white line between the car lane and the bike lane, because unfortunately the bike lanes are strewn with broken glass.
While kayaking and biking tours might skew toward the touristy, I was thrilled to visit a very nice paved path designed for locals to walk and bike. The Dequindre Cut Greenway, formerly part of a railway, is a 1.15 mile below-street-level path.
Trail extensions bring the total length up to two miles and lead to the riverfront. After raising more than $300 million for revitalizing the area, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy is serious about keeping the Dequindre Cut safe. In fact, it’s probably one of the safest places in Detroit, with an emergency call box every few hundred feet.
My group visited early in the morning and enjoyed a very pleasant walk. Birds singing in Detroit? Check. Cheerful walkers in sweat pants? Yep. Bike commuters? Present. And amazing tons of street art. The route passes murals of all type – cute, weird, disturbing, beautiful. We also saw reproductions of famous paintings hanging from underpasses, courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Art’s Inside/Out art program.
The Dequindre Cut is open 365 days a year, with snow plowed from the path in winter. Cross-country skiers make a ski lane in the grass beside the pavement. Proving that – news to me – Detroit is the perfect place to get outdoors. Every day of the year.