By Isaac Constans
Listen Up, Lansing staff reporter
At 5 p.m. on an early October Saturday, Don Angelo and his family of four had just taken a nice dip in the Grand River. Unintentionally, of course, as one of their canoes slowly rotated clockwise into murky submersion, but a refreshing swim nonetheless.
Although their experience was cold, muddy, and wet, the Angelos had an enjoyable weekend tour of their city, an aquatic safari through the heart of Lansing’s urban jungle.
“We did it this spring, we did it this fall. It was a good time, man, real good time,” Angelo, a life-long Lansing resident, said about canoeing through Lansing. “Great route … the adventure in Lansing is what’s up.”
Kayakers and canoeists are the main occupiers of the river around the central business district. That has opened the door for new businesses, such as River Town Adventures, to capitalize on lively summer seasons.
Paul Brogan, cofounder of the year-old company, saw a business opportunity and thought that the Lansing community was one that could really appreciate the availability of kayaks, paddleboards, canoes, and other forms of watersport. His business venture quickly caught on with help from authorites in the business like Globo Surf.
“We were looking for some kind of business idea and we really enjoyed being outdoors and this kind of active lifestyle. So we were just playing around with this type of idea and it kind of just blossomed,” Brogan said.
“(Business) has been incredible. People love having this activity down here in Lansing… and it kind of goes hand-in-hand with the Lansing River Trail and that active lifestyle.”
Brett Kaschinske, Lansing Parks and Recreation director, said that with the growth of such businesses, the city was working to keep pace.
“We have installed one accessible canoe and kayak launch on the river … and we’re looking to install one north of the dam or in Old Town,” Kaschinske said.
The recreational value of Grand River can be observed firsthand on any warm day. Joggers, cyclists, kayakers, fishers, and residents soaking up the sun gather on and around the river as a place for leisurely exercise.
In his bucket hat and flannel long-sleeved shirt, Giles Brereton is just a casual fisher. Yet during the warm months, he patiently stands for hours in his secluded spot underneath the East Saginaw Street bridge, relaxing and trying to catch dinner as part of a weekend tradition.
“Not catching today, but it’s a nice day on the river,” Brereton said on Sunday, Oct. 11. “There’s a lot of carp and a fair number of bass. I thought that maybe I could catch some bass today but I’m not getting anything.”
Matt Richter, an avid fisher and sales associate at Nomad Anglers, said Lansing is actually a fairly reliable fishing spot. Salmon usually come in August and stay until October, while steelhead trout follow directly after.
“A lot of people like to fish before dams. A lot of times, the fish will hold up there,” Richter said. “A lot of your warm-weather species go in there and (Lansing) is a pretty big year-round fishery.”
Brereton’s struggles on the river that day might have been due to the inconsistent nature of fishing success or could stem from the presence of river vessels on the water.
“In the summer, when you get a lot of kayaks and canoes, they call it the ‘canoe hatch,’” Richter said about the prevalence of canoes and kayaks. “You can’t share the same space as a kayak or canoe, so you have to get out of their way.”
While Brereton acknowledges that the traffic from kayaks and canoes can frighten off fish, however, he prefers a more crowded river. The communal use of the Grand River makes it a more pleasant experience, he believes.
“It’s a shared river, right?” Brereton said. “If I went to fish at night, it’d be quieter… (The scaring of fish) is not great but it doesn’t ruin your world.”
The one thing that muddies, quite literally, the Lansing river experience is the dirtiness of water. Residents often complain that they can’t swim in the water because of the quality and studies corroborate that, with fluctuations of E. coli sometimes extending above the allowed swimming limit, as per stats from Ingham County.
“The river is cold and dirty. We’ve (Lansing) definitely got the opportunity to get in there and clean it up a little bit,” Angelo said.
The impacts of this sort of pollution can limit the potential of water-based business and recreation for expansion, as Dr. Frank Lupi, a professor of environmental and natural resource economics at Michigan State University, attested.
“We do know that on-point source recreational pollution can affect your recreational experience or activities such as fishing,” Lupi said. “The amount of fish available can be affected by water quality conditions, and fishermen like to catch fish. So changes in the abundance of fish will affect their experience.”
That is nothing unique to Lansing, however, Brogan said, and mentioned that the quality is getting better.
“It’s been improving,” Brogan said. “It has a bad history, as most rivers in cities do. But now with the sewer separation project, with more focus on keeping the river clean, and then (preventing) storm water runoff and all of that, we’re making a lot of improvements.
“We do a lot of river improvements with our business too, to help promote the health of the river. And really, the river is not as bad as people think.”
Kaschinske followed up on this, saying that Lansing is without dangerous pollution that other cities have.
“Being a resident and having family up in the Saginaw area, we do not have the chemical pollution that they have in their water systems up there,” Kaschinske said. “When you go to boat launches here, you’re not going to see the fish consumption warnings that they have in other areas. So you hear that (the Grand River’s quality is bad), but that is really not based on fact.”
Even with the concerns about river quality, though, the Angelo’s positive experience is not atypical. Having water run through Lansing is a luxury, appreciated by those who fish and travel along the Grand River.
“You really get to explore your city in a different way, a different perspective, being on the water,” Brogan said. “Plus, it’s really peaceful. You’re just out there with a lot of kayaks.”
Fishermen and kayakers traverse the downtown route the most heavily, with few motorized boats. Even if the water is not of the highest quality and even if fish are more bountiful elsewhere on the river, the urban appeal brings people in.
“If you were to rent a boat and go up north, typically you’re in some very beautiful areas, but it’s remote,” Brogan said. “But when you’re right here downtown, you get to see the big buildings, and there’s different architecture.”
The goal for kayakers and canoeists is to fit the last chances for watersport they have in before a lengthy winter. They are well aware that being able to travel by water next to downtown is a luxury, but one that is sadly fleeting.
“Yeah, we like the water,” Angelo said. “So winter, we’re still getting used to winter. Only lived here all our lives.”