Dividing Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario, the Detroit River flows through the fifth largest urban area in North America. From Lake Huron down to Lake Erie, the water drops almost three metres, with an impressive flow of 120,000 cubic feet per second—more volume than the Niagara River at the other end of Lake Erie. For urban paddlers, kayaking the Detroit River is a classic big-city experience that ranks with New York City and Chicago.
Detroit River kayaking in three parts
Think of the Detroit River in three sections, each of which offers a different kayaking experience: the upper and most urban section from Lake St. Clair down to the Ambassador Bridge; the midsection of industrial Detroit; and the lower section chock full of islands and waterfowl habitat teeming with birds. Keeping to channels with the best flow, the entire 50-kilometre (30-mile) trip from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie takes four to five hours.
Upper Detroit River: Surf, zoo and parks galore
The upper river flows from east to west, and from the river’s edge standing in Windsor you look due north to Detroit. The prevailing westerly winds blow opposite the current and build impressively huge waves—surf kayakers can get their fix in comfortable water temperatures that reach 25 Celsius (80 Fahrenheit). There are some long sections of steel sea wall blocking the river exit, so it’s essential to plan exit points carefully.
Windsor, more so than Detroit, has embraced its river. The city motto—”The river and the land shall sustain us”—attests to its extensive public riverfront access and parklands. Kayak Cove, located just east of Lakeview Marina in Shanfield Shores Park, is the main put-in at the top of the Detroit River. The cove has been used as a free kayaking access point for well over 20 years and is the starting point for a number of great Detroit River day-paddling options.
For a short jaunt, explore the Peche Island nature park right across from Kayak Cove. This former provincial park is the hub for local paddlers, with beaches, canals and a Carolinian forest habitat hosting nesting great horned owls and a pair of bald eagles.
Downstream via the Peche Island channel is Belle Isle, a city park on the American side designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed New York’s Central Park. Among the attractions are the Dossin Great Lakes Maritime Museum, an aquarium, a zoo, the Detroit Yacht Club, a public beach and the old Detroit Boat Club—home to the oldest rowing club in North America. Many American paddlers access the river here.
Passing south of Belle Isle, keep near the channel markers in Fleming Channel and run with the three- to four-knot current downstream to the International Peace Fountain—a wonderful floating fountain off Coventry Gardens and Reaume Park that provides a refreshing shower on hot, humid days. There is a parking lot with washroom and refreshment facilities here and Goose Bay Park, less than 100 metres downstream, offers a break in the steel seawall for an easy pullout. You can take out here or paddle back to Kayak Cove—along the shore, out of the main flow—for a 10-kilometre round trip.
For the great urban downstream paddle between the cities, continue down to the Ambassador Bridge. If reflective waves and erratic conditions are not your forte, do this trip early in the day. At the foot of Lincoln Road just downstream from the Hiram Walker Distillery and the large white grain elevators, local paddlers have successfully lobbied for a safe river exit complete with a stone beach and washrooms. Beyond here on the Canadian side is five kilometers of premiere parkland all the way down to the University of Windsor campus and the Ambassador Bridge. You’ll paddle overtop of the Windsor–Detroit car tunnel and the 100-year-old twin railway tunnel and take out at Chewitt Beach parking lot at McKee Park, just past the Ambassador Bridge.
Middle Detroit River: Steel mills and Yankee troops
Kayakers normally only paddle the 10-kilometre middle section if they are kayaking the whole Detroit River. This is the old industrial and port section—Detroit’s steel mills and factories. The river here bends and flows south. Along the Canadian shore is the oldest permanent European settlement in Ontario. On the U.S. side sits old Fort Wayne where Yankee troops once gathered to fight the south during the Civil War. Much of this area was also the terminus of the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping to Canada.
Lower Detroit River: Land of floating pitas
The Lower River begins in the town of La Salle, a bedroom community below Windsor on the Canadian side. At the foot of Laurier Drive across from the top of Fighting Island is a put-in with parking. At Fighting Island, a one-time battleground between Canada and the U.S., you have a choice of several channels. The express run is the main seaway channel down the west side. There are also two eastern channels passing many private marinas, a sailing club and the Windsor Crew Rowing Club. Below Fighting Island and Turkey Island, the Detroit River opens to resemble a lake with natural wetlands. Waterfowl often flock so thick that they darken the sky, and thousands of tundra swans winter-over here. There’s a handy put-in just inside the Canard River at the public Walter K. Ranta Marina. On the American side is Grosse Ile, the river’s largest island and an affluent Detroit suburb, tethered to the American shore by two swing bridges.
As you near the picturesque town of Amherstburg, Ontario, the seaway splits into the upstream-bound Amherstburg Channel and downstream-bound Livingstone Channel. This stretch has the fastest and most powerful current with the flow directed into the shipping lanes. From Livingstone Channel, swing through Hole-in-the-Wall and into the sheltered mooring pools at Hidden Lake and Crystal Bay. Here among the islands, between the channels, is one of a very few areas that the limestone bedrock rears to the surface in this part of Ontario. This is one of the most popular areas with recreational boaters, who come out by the thousands on hot summer days. It is so busy that food service boats float around offering everything from cheeseburgers to pita wraps.
Out of the main river flow at the tip of land on the east side of Hidden Lake, wait for a thousand-foot-long freighter to come upstream in Livingstone Channel. When these behemoths kick it up to overpower the current their displacement is incredible. The large whirlpools and boils will give you one wild ride. Fort Malden, on the Amherstburg shore, was a strategic post to control the mouth of this waterway for the British during the war of 1812. The Kings Navy Yard where much of the Lake Erie fleet was built is now a beautiful park. A Canadian Coast Guard station is just downstream.
There are many beaches along the road south of Amherstburg, but most are private. Your best bet for Amherstburg access is the town ramp at the foot of Gore Street at Duffy’s Motor Inn and Tavern. You must park on a side street. The island off Amherstburg is one of the most historic islands in all the Great Lakes. Bois Blanc, named by French explorers in 1670, is more commonly called Bob-lo Island. For almost 100 years, until the 1980s, the steamboats Columbia and St. Clair transported tourists from Detroit and Windsor to the island’s amusement park. Today, Bob-lo is being developed as an upscale community with multimillion-dollar homes.
A long finger of land protruding from Bob-lo Island toward Lake Erie forms the White Sands Beach Conservation Area. From here, you are almost out of the Detroit River and have begun kayaking into the western basin of Lake Erie. You have paddled the crossroads at the centre of a continent, an adventurous and historic destination that should be on every paddler’s list of urban hot spots.
This article was first published in the Spring 2004 issue of Adventure Kayak Magazine. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.