State, conservationists differ on how to protect Jordan River from overuse

Print More

By Andy McGlashen

If you’ve ever run the rapids of northwest Michigan’s Jordan River in a canoe or kayak, you know what makes it a paddler’s paradise. There’s the clean, swift water, the springs trickling out of shadowy cedar forests, and the chance of spotting a mink or a bald eagle.

A group of paddlers prepared for a day on the Jordan. Photo: mikep (Flickr)

And sometimes there’s the band of beer-drinking revelers, whooping it up on the riverbank.

Heavy use of the Jordan by party-minded paddlers is raising tough questions about how to preserve the wild character of Michigan’s first designated Natural River. Local conservationists want to build structures to protect the resource, but they face opposition from the state program that restricts development on wild streams.

“It’s a fragile resource that’s being loved to death,” said John Richter, president of Friends of the Jordan River Watershed. “Somebody told me we should let nature take its course. And I said, Wait a minute. This isn’t nature. It’s people.”

Richter says about a half-dozen sites on the river are being degraded in one way or another from overuse. Paddlers and tubers litter and relieve themselves on private land. Stream banks are eroding, which can ruin fish spawning habitat. And the landings where people launch and end their canoe trips don’t have enough space or parking.

“People are just pulling off the river where there’s high ground and converting them into campgrounds,” Richter said.

Perhaps the most popular party spot on the river is Frog Island, an area of riverbank surrounded by wetlands where repeated loading and unloading of canoes and kayaks has caused severe erosion.

“Frog Island is probably a third the size today of what it once was,” Richter said.

When Friends of the Jordan and other partners installed woody debris a few years ago to shore up Frog Island’s banks, “people just ripped it up,” according to Brian Bury, administrator for the Natural Rivers Program of the Department of Natural Resources.

Richter said he would like to see stream banks at Frog Island and other sites stabilized with logs–larger than the woody debris used there previously–to stop erosion. At Old State Road, where heavy paddling traffic creates problems with parking and trespass on private property, he favors building a new parking area and a landing with toilets and a boardwalk just upstream from the road, on public land.

But those ideas have met resistance from the Natural Rivers program, which was created in 1970 to ensure that development doesn’t diminish designated rivers’ aesthetic character, wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities.

“We’re looking for a natural river that offers a certain kind of experience,” Bury said.

For now, Bury said any ecological damage caused by overuse of the Jordan isn’t significant enough to merit changing its aesthetic character, and building new landings would just set the table for heavier traffic and more elaborate parties.

“The general thought is that, at this point, we’d do more harm than good” by building the structures, he said.

Richter said he respects Bury and his work, but thinks the state’s position is shortsighted. The “certain kind of experience” the program promotes has disappeared on the Jordan, he added.

“I’m not sure Brian has spent enough time on the river, say on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July,” he said. “I understand their point of view, but the program isn’t working. They want no man-made features, but what’s happening is worse.”

Richter said another solution proposed in public meetings is a limit on the number of watercraft on the river. But he and Bury agree that such a limit would be unpopular and hard to enforce. Paddlers need permits to float some rivers within national forests, but the state has no permit system.

“To control private use of watercraft, we’d need a legal mandate,” and that’s not something the state is interested in, Bury said.

Impromptu river bank parties can lead to problems like bank erosion and tresspassing. Photo: mikep (Flickr)

Don Montfort, whose family owns the Swiss Hideaway canoe and kayak livery, said his clients are on too tight a schedule to cause much trouble. He said the main problem is the growing number of locals who have flocked to the river as canoes and kayaks have gotten cheaper, a position Richter shares.

“The locals say, ‘This is our river, and we’re going to stop wherever we want to stop,’” Montfort said.

Other ideas under consideration include increased law enforcement and more signs indicating restrooms, access rules and river etiquette. But enforcement has already been stepped up with little effect, said Montfort, and signs are unlikely to discourage bad actors.

“When you block off one area” from riverside partying, “it’s just going to pop up in another,” he said.

Richter agrees that it will be tough to find solutions that work for paddlers, conservationists, anglers, homeowners and the state, but his group will continue holding meetings and seeking input.

“We’ve got to do something,” he said. “Before we know it, I think we’re going to have a dozen Frog Islands.”

6 thoughts on “State, conservationists differ on how to protect Jordan River from overuse

  1. I’ve had friends mention being invited on large group river trips, only to find that sandbars are now stopping places for more jello shots and more beer. I’ve heard of 2-hour trips stretching to 5 or 6 because of all the stops for drinking. I’ve heard of groups doing an overnight camp to have TWO river trips, the drunk one and the sober one. All the brochures from the various liveries mention drunkenness being illegal, and that they won’t tolerate it, but this seems completely ignored and completely uninforced. The pleasant stops along the Au Sable are now filled with garbage. You’ll see a firepit with 20 empty Lunchables, and two empty bourbon bottles. Why canoe drunk? What is the point? I sometimes wonder if the outdoors are not only powerful, but now so different from our loud and cluttered lives that many people just don’t seem to be able to stand it. The healing silence instead is overwhelming, so people yell the whole way, and in my experience, seem to need to yell about their recent or upcoming bodily functions constantly. Maybe the sight of pristine woods and banks jars the minds of those from littered cities, so the tossing of beer cans is actually calming and comforting to those unused to real nature.

    But we OWE Mother Nature, and what canoeing has turned into in Michigan doesn’t reflect that. People need to have loud, drunken parties at home, or at their cabin. But respect for others on the river and respect for the environment needs to be the top priority. It’s awful that when we come up on a fly fisherman, he seems expect a boatload of jerks who will run into him or barely miss, but will always disrupt his fishing. Rivers with trails won’t provide a quiet hike on weekends anymore. You’ll hear the yelling of drunks in canoes
    the whole way.

  2. We’re frequent paddlers on the Jordan and other rivers. I don’t mind novices and expect them especially on weekends. I’m fed up with drunks. Most of my friends who describe a recent canoe excursion talk about drinking. It seems one of the main points of canoeing now. I don’t mind anyone “floating with a beer” and don’t think anyone else minds a peaceful group of reasonably quiet people (although I also don’t get why such an excursion needs the anesthetic of alcohol, which I also enjoy, just not on rivers). I’m talking about large groups of drunks in canoes.

    I’ve seen liveries unloading boats while groups of already obviously drunk people do more jello shots, and the employees say nothing. Rivers are now just loaded with beer cans, because apparently to drunk thinking, canoes loaded with full cans are manageable, but the empties are not. I KNOW who’s a slob. The drunk who yells the whole way down the river, is rude and dangerous around anglers, and tosses trash. No question between that person and the novice.

    If there’s ever a bill introduced to completely ban alcohol on rivers, I’ll now support it, because this is completely out of hand. Snowmobilers and hunters get a worse rap while behaving better. BTW, as many beer cans as we recently saw on the Au Sable, main and south branches, is not unintentional, unless those people were really drunk. Those cans were emptied and tossed in the river. Dozens of them. If this WERE unintentional, people would make effort to retrieve that can they just accidently dropped.

  3. These people give Coors Light a bad name . . . .

    Seriously, though . . .how do you decide who is a “Slob” and who is just a novice paddler? Do you designate unsightly sections of the river for these paddlers? How do you decide? This a tough problem because how do you decide who is worthy of the river and who is not. The Jordan is not alone . . .I see it on my sweet Au Sable all the time. But I am not without sin, for I have been on both ends of the argument — wildlife watching/canoeing one day and floating with a beer the next — and have enjoyed both.

    One quick thing that can be done on all rivers — trash cans or trash containers (notice not bags) attached to each canoe. Make the liveries pay for this to be installed (they will pass the fee on to us) so cans and debris can be loaded into there. Would everyone use it? Nope . . .but most of the litter is unintentional and this would help out greatly.

  4. These people give Coors Light a bad name . . . .

    Seriously, though . . .how do you decide who is a “Slob” and who is just a novice paddler? Do you designate unsightly sections of the river for these paddlers? How do you decide? This a tough problem because how do you decide who is worthy of the river and who is not. The Jordan is not alone . . .I see it on my sweet Au Sable all the time. But I am not without sin, for I have been on both ends of the argument – wildlife watching/canoeing one day and floating with a beer a next – and have enjoyed both.

    One quick thing that can be done on all rivers – trash cans or trash containers (notice not bags) attached to each canoe. Make the liveries pay for this to be installed (they will pass the few on to us) so cans and debris can be loaded into there. Would everyone use it? Nope . . .but most of the litter is unintentional and this would help out greatly.

  5. Let’s face it, there are too many people wanting to recreate in the great outdoors, and people are slobs. Decades ago there were mostly only anglers using these water resources, some of whom were slobs also. Now there are these alternate forms of recreation being pursued by people that, instead of holding a fishing rod or a paddle, hold a brew. All too often recreation revolves around consuming alcoholic beverages, no matter the activity. And, of course, alcohol consumption usually brings out the worst in normally responsible people.

  6. I applaud John Richter and the Friend’s of The Jordan River for their constant efforts at keeping this the beautiful and pristine river that it is. Much time and research has gone into this watershed andit need protection and care, otherwise we will lose this fragile resource, and very few individuals will travel a diatance to canoe or kayak its’ flowing waters.It truly is one of a kind and a jewel in the Tip of the Mitt. Keep up the good work>
    Tight Lines,
    Koz
    MVWTU ex-officio
    Greenfish Ambassador

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.