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Sports

Down the lazy river

Kayaking in St. Clair County

Photo: Cortney Heileman
For once, we're up the creek with a paddle.
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Published 6/11/2008

Man, it's sure nice to get away, even if away is not that far, and the time gone isn't all that long.

I'm thinking this as I paddle a rented kayak along the languid Pine River, which runs through the little town of St. Clair and into the much bigger St. Clair River connecting Lake Huron and Lake St. Clair.

The town is an easy hour drive from Detroit. Just hop on I-94 east and motor north (you'll understand when you look at a map) toward Port Huron until you get to Exit 257. From there you head east about nine miles. St. Clair, with a population of less than 6,000, is dominated by the Cargill plant, which draws brine from deep wells and, through something called the Alberger evaporative process, produces an exceptionally high-quality salt. The process was developed here back in the late 1800s.

I know none of this before starting out. Accumulation of arcane facts is one of the rewards of travel.

Figuring I need to be fueled up before tackling the Pine, I stop in at Mike's Voyageur. Located on Riverside Avenue, the main drag running north and south through town, Mike's offers both fine dining with a view of the St. Clair and bowling. It's way nicer than I expect from a place connected to a bowling alley. Big windows offer a glorious view of the river. On an overcast day, the river is only a shade or two darker than the pewter hue of the low-hanging clouds it reflects. I order the lake perch, which comes pan-fried, with a crisp, lightly breaded crust.

So far, so good.

But when I get to the marina and ask about renting a kayak, I get a question in response. "You know there's a storm coming, don't you?"

Seems those pewter skies could soon be turning black.

"You want to see it?" asks the helpful young woman working the office. She taps a few keys on her computer and there it is, a satellite image of a swirling storm bearing down fast.

"But we're just on the edge here," she says. "Who knows, maybe it will miss us."

"Let's do it," I say.

The city charges $7 an hour for a kayak; $24 for four hours. (See cityofstclair.com/harbor.htm for specifics about all that's offered at the facilities.) Within a few minutes I'm out on the water, trying to find the right stroke for this twin-bladed paddle — one that will keep me going in a relatively straight line rather than a string of zees.

Before long, I have the hang of it and am gliding west along the Pine River. There's no way I can get out on the St. Clair. "The current will take you down to Algonac," I'm told.

The Pine's current is so slow it's barely perceptible. It could be a lake I'm skimming across. Up river a bit, I run into two high school seniors wading in the water to beat the day's 80-degree heat. Above them is a tree with a rope swing attached.

Lining the river much of the way are houses ranging from a three-story near-mansion and large ranches to modest little places. At one point there is a stretch of funny little shacks that look like they could be clubhouses for kids. I find out later from some fellow diners at a place called Murphy's Inn that these places are owned by Cargill and years ago were leased long-term to plant employees and others.

"They fish for carp and suckers using dip nets, and do a lot of beer-drinking," a guy at the next table tells me when I ask about them after my paddling is done for the day.

And it is, really, a wonderful day. What I think is a great blue heron plays tag for a while, standing along the shore until I come close, then taking off down the river, its belly so close to the water that it seems impossible for its wings not to touch it, but they don't. It is a beautiful, graceful bird that plays this game of stops-and-go with me much of the afternoon.

As I pull through the water, shoulder and back muscles that have gone too long between workouts feel the strain, giving hints of the ache that will come the next morning. But the river's tranquility seeps in, and the world's troubles seem a million miles away. Wearing no watch, I'm surprised when I return to the marina and find I've been gone three hours. It felt more like one.

And that storm? It edged north, missing me completely.

Sometimes you just get lucky.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or cguyette@metrotimes.com.

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