By Howard Meyerson
SOUTH HAVEN, MI – It’s been eight long years since work began on the Bangor/South Haven Heritage Water Trail, the 21-mile canoe and kayak route down the South Branch of the Black River between the two cities, but organizers for the ambitious project say the last portion of the route may finally be opened this summer.
“We’re going to push extremely hard and hope to make it through what we call the wilderness section,” said John Mitchell, president of the Bangor/South Haven Heritage Water Trail Association. “It’s a four-mile stretch and there are no roads. We hired a team of chainsaw guys and they were in there once and made it about a third of the way. It’s a continuous battle to get in there.”
The battle has been one of cutting a passable route through the gauntlet of downed trees, some very large, some piled up thick. The natural condition along a river corridor was neglected for nearly 40 years before the project began.
Mitchell and the association’s other volunteers have cleared 17 miles above and below the so-called wilderness section, taking it upon themselves to paddle in with saws and a boatful of determination and grit. The work parties, made up of men and women, have gone out on steamy summer days and in the rain. They’ve waded into tangles all along the river corridor, cutting branches, pulling logs sometimes sawing paddle-routes through massive tree trunks.
The group has installed interpretive signs at 15 of 17 locations along the river including historic sites for a grist mill, saw mill, tannery and Native American settlement.
Part of larger state program
The trail is one of nine heritage water trails around the state. All are part of the Michigan Heritage Water Trail program. They include water trails on the St Joseph, Kalamazoo, Grand, Looking Glass, Shiawassee, and Detroit rivers, along with the Tip of the Thumb Heritage Water Trail, an open-water route on Lake Huron and the Drummond Island Heritage Water Trail.
The program was created by the Michigan Legislature in 2002 under Public Act 454. It is housed at Western Michigan University where a website is maintained. The site lists the trails, discusses the history of the Michigan landscape and provides route maps for some and links to others. That website can be found at wmich.edu/glcms/watertrails
The work to create the trails and funding needed comes largely from the efforts of the grassroots groups that are developing the trails and local planning agencies. Over the years, the list of projects has gotten longer.
“Any group that is working on a water trail with historical interpretation can get assistance and become a heritage water trail,” said Dave Lemberg, an assistant professor at Western’s Department of Geography and the keeper of the program. The paddling trails are intended to showcase significant history along the various water routes.
Finishing it has been tough
Progress on the Black River has been dictated by both by weather conditions and available financial resources, according to Mitchell. Rainy, high-water seasons create new obstructions that require clearing. The group raises money through donations and grants to fund the work and materials needed. They hope eventually to upgrade one of the launch sites and build a handicapped parking area.
There are two “family-friendly” sections on the water trail, according to Mitchell, long stretches where no portaging is needed, where paddlers have no need to climb out of their boat. The first is the upper three miles from the trailhead at Lions Park in Bangor downstream to the Horton Family access on County Road 687. The other is an eight-mile section from County Road 384 to South Haven.
“Paddlers can expect obstacles on the rest of the river,” Mitchell said. “It could be a downed tree we didn’t know about, more than one is likely. We regularly send a chainsaw through the family-friendly sections and check the other areas once a year.
“I refuse to say the wilderness section is closed, but passage there is extremely difficult.”
By difficult he means terribly so, a grim push and pull and climb over experience that once took him seven hours to complete. It is not for wimps and perhaps even not for those considered adventurous and sane, but after eight hard years of work thus far, this may be the summer that changes.
This column appears on MLive Outdoors