There is only one authentic Detroit way to cool down on a hot, summer day — play in the Detroit river.
When Alex Howbert was young, he did so by kayaking the canals on the city’s east side and racing sailboats on the Detroit river and Lake St. Clair. In turn, he spent time at a quaint boat launch that housed a small kitchen, where he had his first Boston Cooler — a Detroit original of vanilla ice cream and Vernors — and where he would, years later, create his own city original by bringing his childhood adventures to others.
“We have this beautiful resource right here, and it’s difficult for people to access unless they have a boat,” Alex says.
To make the river and its canals more accessible, Howbert bought the old marina from his youth and started Detroit River Sports in 2012, renting out kayaks and paddleboards and giving tours.
“Even though people have lived here their entire lives, they don’t even know the canals exist,” says manager and tour guide Julie MacDonald.
DRS has nine tours with various levels of difficulty. One involves paddling by the Fisher Mansion, while others take you around Belle Isle and Peche Island. Still others go right past the Renaissance Center, or all the way down to historic Fort Wayne.
Tours are available at sunrise, sunset or by full moonlight.
“It’s a different perspective of the city,” Howbert says, “and we wanted to have a nice mix of experience.”
This evening, MacDonald leads a fleet of twenty on the Canal Tour, which takes paddlers around Grayhaven Island and past the Fisher Mansion, where Lawrence Fisher had a speakeasy with alcohol supplied by the Purple Gang. We set out from the marina in our personal vessels — streaks of bright blue, red, and lime green cutting through the canal. Turning westward onto the river, we propel ourselves toward the Detroit skyline.
“Being out on open water, you forget that you’re in the middle of a huge metropolitan city,” MacDonald says. “Everyone will come back here and be like, ‘if you picked me up and put me here, I would never guess that I was in Detroit.’”
Perhaps that’s the stigma that comes with our city and river. However, MacDonald explains that even though the water has a bad reputation, it’s actually really clean. We are upstream from oil refineries and steel plants, and for the first time in 100 years, beavers are repopulating the river system, a sign that the ecosystem is righting itself.
“We swim in the river every chance we get and we encourage people to get in,” she says. “We really just want to get as many paddlers on the water as possible and not be intimidated by it.”
While each outing on the river is unique, the Paddle to Table event is especially memorable. Last August, DRS collaborated with Coriander Kitchen and Farm, a local farmer-chef duo, to offer something even more imaginative.
“We really wanted to focus on giving people the full outdoors experience,” MacDonald says of the partnership, “which included making sure that all the food was being sourced locally and that we knew who was growing it.”
With a quarter-acre farm just north of Eastern Market, farmer Gwen Meyer grows organic food, much of which is used in the meals with DRS.
A savory aroma from the grill welcomes back our fleet as we return to the marina. Strings of colored lights hang from the white-brick building to dock posts near the tree-covered canal, above three long, wooden picnic tables which are set for dinner and adorned with orange and purple flowers in mason jars.
Presented family style, a different meal is served at each Paddle to Table event. Tonight, chef Alison Heeres explains each course before we indulge: “A celebration of June” salad with the first of this year’s strawberries and Detroit red beets; skewered shrimp with chili sauce on raw asparagus and fennel; citrus-marinated chicken with quinoa, sweet potatoes, and snap peas, garnished with marigold and calendula blossom; and for dessert, lemon verbena ice cream with a balsamic strawberry compote and borage flower.
In addition to the Saturday night tours, DRS and Coriander have plans to open a full-scale restaurant and bar on-site.
“They’re going to have one hell of a restaurant here,” says a woman on the opposite side of my table. “This is delicious.”
Through DRS, Howbert has put a new, more healthy and active spin on the boat launch from his childhood. Instead of coney dogs and hamburgers, there is farm-fresh cuisine, and rather than small fishing boats, there are kayaks and paddleboards, with guides to expose adventurers to unfamiliar territory.
“Even if you know Detroit, you can come out here and you’ll see a completely different side of it,” MacDonald says. “Even if you’ve been here forever.”
To book a kayak or paddleboarding tour, go to www.detroitriversports.com.