On the flip side, none seemed nearly as daunting when accounting for my complete lack of coordination and balance. But as luck would have it, in a summer of less than ideal water-sport weather, we scheduled our tour with RKC on what would turn out to be a gorgeous day. Warm sun and an ever so slight breeze made conditions nearly perfect for an inexperienced kayaker such as myself.
When we arrived at Maheras Gentry Park, after being fitted for our kayaks (and taking some pictures where I strongly resemble a child being sent off to her first year of summer camp), our tour leader Chris gave us some basic kayaking tips and the “tour” began.
While still on dry land, we were regaled with a vision of century-old Detroit. The Detroit that Chris described to us had an entirely different landscape, one with rolling hills (still found in such locations as Elmwood Cemetery) and a river much wider, stretching almost to what is now Woodward Avenue. The area was also infamous for its racetracks, one of which was located where Maheras Gentry Park now stands. This track, in fact, was where Henry Ford won the only automobile race he participated in, and in turn won benefactors that allowed him to manufacture cars of his own.
Chris also relayed a brief history of the two gentlemen from which the park borrows it’s namesake. First Maheras, the first soldier from Detroit to be killed in WWII, and Gentry, a man who
championed a location where kids could participate in activities to keep them out of trouble, culminating in a pool to serve the lower income area near the park.
After whetting our appetite for Detroit trivia, it was time to set out on the river. We had already sat down in our kayaks to make sure everything was adjusted properly, but the task seemed hugely more challenging as we walked down to the water. Luckily, it only took a couple of pointers and a few unsteady seconds for me to get in my kayak and off to practice paddling. (For those of you who are worried that kayaking is too daunting an activity, the experience as a whole was MUCH easier than I’d anticipated.)
Once everyone else had safely made passage into the water, we were off! According to my dad’s later calculations, the tour covered about three and a half miles of the river and canals and took us a few hours.
On our way out, we passed Pirates Cove, an historic home on Greyhaven Island which has been featured on A&E’s Paranormal State and is available to rent for meetings, weddings, and even murder mystery parties. Just past the iconic home, we paddled up next to the Fisher house. Lawrence Fisher’s estate clocks in at an astounding 33,000 square feet — with only two bedrooms. Throughout the years, it has changed ownership, including being acquired by the city of Detroit, and then later purchased by Alfred Ford, great
grandson of Henry Ford, and Elisabeth Reuther Dickmeyer, daughter of Walter Reuther, to eventually be donated to the Hare Krishna as a temple.
A bit further, we arrived near Garfield “Gar” Wood’s former area of residence. This was probably my father’s favorite part of the tour, as Chris entertained his kayaking crew with the tale of the hydraulics inventor, whose true passion was speed boat racing. The story of his race for the Gold Cup against his brother and English racing driver Kaye Don is too long to recount here in full, but definitely one worth hearing.
After paddling out onto the river briefly, we entered a canal lined with somewhat more modest homes, in an area once well known for bootlegging. Bootlegging (a term coined because it was so profitable that even housewives would hide alcohol in their boots to sneak across the border) was popular in the area because of the proximity to Canada by boat. Many houses in the area at the time even had lookout towers to warn of approaching police boats. The infamously violent Purple Gang was rampant in the area before eventually being taken down (another story worth telling, if not too long for this forum).
We went somewhat further through the canals, and then headed back on the river
(a feat that seemed much more difficult this time around). Getting out of the kayaks once we got back turned out to be a bit dicey, but not nearly to the degree I’d assumed it would be. Once we were out, I went over to thank Chris for a great experience, and was thrilled when he asked me to come back on Wednesday for the Pine Street Paddle!
Though the trip on Wednesday was much less tour and much more consistent paddling (I was the least experienced and slowest kayaker in that group), both excursions with Riverside Kayak Connection were amazing. I ended both days with sore shoulders, plenty of pictures, and the distinct desire for summer to last a little while longer so that I could paddle out with RKC again.
All of the stories from our tour have been significantly pared down to keep this feature from being extremely long-winded, but if you’d like to hear more of them yourself, sign up for a Detroit Eastside Canal Tour!