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.
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.
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.”