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River!

An Aerial Tour of the Detroit River

[ For more fun while on the tour, follow along with U.S. Recreational Chart 14853 ]

Bois Blanc Island

Entering the lower Detroit River from Lake Erie and proceeding up the Amherstburg Channel, you will encounter Bois Blanc Island on your port side. Pronounced "Bob-Lo Island" by most of the locals, for decades the island was the destination of passengers of the excursion steamers Columbia and St. Clair. The "Bob-Lo Boats" carried millions of people to the island during the warm months of summer to escape the heat of the city and to enjoy the amusement park that operated there.

Aerial Photo:The Horseshoe At the north end of the island, the unusal shape of the shoreline forms a perfect anchorage, known to the locals as "The Horseshoe." It provides a refuge from the river current, and is often the anchorage for sailboats in the area. In contrast, the power boats tend to keep a little to the north in the adjacent bay.

The break in the revetment wall along the Livingstone Channel is known as The Hole in the Wall, and it allows recreational boat traffic to cross the shipping lanes at that point. There is also a strong SW current flowing in that area.


Crystal Bay

Aerial Photo: Crystal Bay North of Bois Blanc Island, the chart neglects to name the island which divides the shipping lanes into the Livingstone and Amherstburg Channels. The strong river current forks around its northern end, leaving a quiet lagoon in the center. Perhaps from some sort of filtration effect due to the hydrostatic pressure of the current against its sandy banks, the water in the lagoon is uncommonly clear. The clarity of the water is enhanced by the lack of current and silting, and thus the local name for this spot, "Crystal Bay."

It is a popular hang-out for small power boats, and on warm summer weekends quite a number of them gather there. Occasionally an entrepeneur sells hamburgers and drinks from a floating barge-grill. Anchoring is made a little more challenging by the weedy bottom. It is not a quiet wilderness refuge, but it is a good spot to get out of both the current and the shipping channels.


Fighting Island Channel

As you continue upstream, take the Fighting Island Channel to the western side of its namesake, unless you've got shallow draft and local knowledge. The eastern passage is poorly marked by buoys, and Turkey Island is often completely submerged.

Aerial Photo: ADM Grain Terminal

Once north of Fighting Island, you'll see ADM Grain Terminals along the Canadian shoreline to the east. Canadian grain is loaded from those silos into the holds of foreign-flagged vessels ("salties"), bound for overseas delivery. That's the M/V Patterson in winter lay-up there now.


Zug Island

Aerial Photo: Zug Island/Old Channel, Great Lakes Steel Ore Dock Continuing up the river, but changing over to the the American side, one finds Zug Island, home of the Great Lakes Steel Division of National Steel Corporation. Its massive steelmill represents industrialization at its ugliest. Whenever I see the dark, rusting machinery of the steelworks, I feel I have found the perfect setting for making some film-noircinema of a post-holocaust America.

Here at their ore dock, those beautiful lakers discharge their rusting, red cargoes of taconite. Despite the ugliness, I find beauty in the setting, especially at night. The bright orange glow of the blast furnaces, the dark piles of ore, the rust stained works, the noise, the strange smells, the escaping smoke and gases, all combine into a montage of industrial might that assults your senses.

Don't worry about the water depth; the Rouge River has 20 feet of water under your keel at this point. Low bridge clearance hinders your casual passage, however. You will need to have almost every bridge opened to proceed farther upstream. I am not sure how cooperative the bridge tenders might be for a small recreational boat.


Rouge River


Aerial Photo: Rouge River at Ford Plant

If you do venture up the Rouge River, you'll find the famous Ford Rouge Plant. Henry Ford created the huge complex in the early part of this century. Its vertically integrated manufacturing located all the industrialization necessary to build cars --steel making, glass making, foundry, assembly, etc.-- in one plant. I like to describe it to people as a factory where they make cars from dirt. The ore boats bring down the "dirt" from Lake Superior, and shiny new Ford automobiles roll off the end of the assembly line. In this scene, the "little Barker" and "little Tregurtha" (M.V. Lee A. Tregurthaand M.V. Kaye E. Barker) lie alongside the Rouge Plant Wharf. To the left is the turning basin, from whose head the natural course of the river continues upstream.

Ambassador Bridge

Continuing northward, the river bends to the east as it comes under the Ambassador Brige. This produces the unusual geography of locating Canada to the south of the U.S. The Renaisance Center towers dominate the shoreline to your left, along with Joe Louis Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings. Just south of the bridge, the J.W. Westcott IIpilot boat is moored.
Aerial Photo: Ambassador Bridge

In contrast to the American side, Downtown Windsor's genteel Riverside Park forms the other shoreline, including a nice seawall where you often find gambling and tourboats tied-to. When you reach Belle Isle, it is best to take the southern route along the Fleming Chanel. On the other fork, the General Douglas MacArthur Memorial Brige restricts your passage to thirtytwo feet vertical clearance, and the low water of the Scott Middle Ground limits your draft to only a foot in some spots (at low water datum).

Upper Detroit River

While passing Belle Isle keep a lookout for the pilot house of the old laker Wm. Clay Ford. It's a permanent exhibit at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. Once past Belle Isle, the main shipping channel returns to the American side, but the recreational boating can keep to the south of Peche Island and still have plenty of water.
Aerial Photo: Lake Park Marina

Lake Park Marina is a good spot for a stop over. Just inside the entrance, along the seaway, there is plenty of transient dockage available. If the restaurant in the marina is closed, there are several others nearby that will send over a car for you. Peche Island--"Peach Isle" to the locals--is a Provincial Park, although I can't tell you what facilities you'll find there. Approach it cautiously, as the chart still shows some old pilings just east of buoy DP3.

Our aerial tour is finished. We've reached the head of the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair. I hope your transit has been a safe one.

Special thanks to my pilot, Jason Weintraub, who, along with some especially clear weather on a warm March afternoon, provided the opportunity to take the pictures presented here.


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Copyright © 1998, 1999 by James W. Hebert.

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Author: James W. Hebert