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The Rouge River: Detroit's Greatest Outdoor Exploration Opportunity

Once a victim of egregious pollution, Le Rouge's recovering waterways that connect the core of the Detroit region present a once-in-a-generation opportunity for activism and creation of our next premiere outdoor destination.

Growing up in the northern borderlands of Wayne County, there was a little creek that ran through my family's backyard. That small but steady stream of water originated just north of us in Oakland County, but continued flowing to the far south and well out of my community. I always wondered where that stream led to - what larger creeks, rivers, or even lakes would eventually adopt this waterway as one of their own.

Thanks to the advent of Google Maps, these questions were readily answered. The small creek that ran through our backyard eventually empties into Waterford Pond. The drainage from Waterford Pond marks the official starting point of the Middle Rouge River, one of three principal tributaries to the main Rouge River. The Upper Rouge joins the Main Rouge on the western border of Detroit, the Middle Rouge follows suit in Dearborn Heights, and the Lower Rouge finally concedes its autonomy to the main river just south of the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Just to conclude this geography lesson, the Rouge River succumbs to the Detroit River just south of Zug Island, which further feeds into Lake Erie, over Niagara Falls into Lake Ontario, and eventually through the St. Lawrence River into the freezing expanse of the North Atlantic Ocean. For you visual learners, check out this detailed map of the Rouge and its tributaries.

Aside from confirming that I am an outspoken geography nerd (my trivia team can attest to this), this overview aims to demonstrate that even our backyard creeks eventually evolve into profound, region-defining ecosystems. From its humble beginnings as hundreds of miles of tributaries, the Rouge River watershed forms the core of the Detroit region - an interconnected waterway network of approximately 570 miles flowing through Wayne, Washtenaw, and Oakland Counties. An ecological labyrinth filled with environmental habitats, state and community parks, and a lifetime of recreation opportunities.

Now, here's the most mind-blowing aspect of all of this: only 27 miles of the Lower Rouge River have been designated as a part of the Lower Rouge River Water Trail (the "LRRWT"). Newburgh Lake along the Middle Rouge River is also technically a part of the LRRWT, but there is currently no maintained connection between the lake and the primary route of the LRRWT.

While the length of the LRRWT pales in comparison to the larger Huron River National Water Trail or Clinton River Water Trail, the Huron and Clinton Rivers have not faced the same extent of grotesque over-development and pollution that the Rouge River has endured. The fact that we can even paddle along the Rouge River is a near-miracle - the thankless gift of unimaginable volunteer hours and organizational collaboration.

Fortunately for all of us, the criminally under-appreciated work force of Friends of the Rouge has already started the heavy-lifting. And they are absolutely crushing it.

It Takes a Village to Restore a River

For recreationists of a certain age, the thought of even entering the Rouge River most likely comes with a healthy dose of apprehension. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (the "EPA"), the river was first designated as an "Area of Concern" under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1987 due to its location within the oldest and most heavily-populated and industrialized area in Michigan. Decades of urban pollution led to sediment and water contamination from industrial development and discharge, including sewer overflows. Contaminants within the watershed include heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), mercury, oil and grease.

The last 20 years have included a significant comeback story for the health of the river, thanks largely to the tireless efforts of governmental and volunteer organizations like Friends of the Rouge. Since its formation in 1986, Friends of the Rouge has mobilized nearly 63,000 volunteers at over 1,000 work sites along the greater Rouge River. The organization's projects have focused on the restoration of the river's vitality, including the removal of invasive plants, installation of native plantings, and stabilization of stream banks to improve the health of the Rouge. Other EPA-affiliated projects have also steadily focused on habitat restoration, removal of logjams and debris, eradication of invasive species, and removal of contaminated sediments.

On top of their restorative projects. Friends of the Rouge has taken the lead on the development of the LRRWT. While the current prominent segments stretch from Wayne to Inkster and Melvindale to the Detroit River, ongoing volunteer efforts are connecting the entirety of the LRRWT from Canton to the Detroit River. Once fully-implemented, the LRRWT will provide recreational connections to several non-motorized trails throughout the Detroit region, including the Lower Rouge River Recreation Trail, I-275 Metro Trail, Hines Park Trail, Rouge River Gateway Trail, the Downriver Linked Greenways, and the Detroit Heritage River Water Trail.

The Opportunity of Le Rouge

For us at Expedition Detroit, we view the success of the Rouge River's remediation efforts and completion of the LRRWT as one of our region's greatest recreation and conservation opportunities. Take a quick look back at the map posted above, especially in comparison with our Destinations map. The greater Rouge River criss-crosses numerous parks and recreation hotspots that are located outside of the "outer rim" of Detroit's primary destinations for outdoor adventure. Similar to the Huron River's amplification of recreational value for the parks and trail towns that the river flows through, Le Rouge represents a unique frontier for creating outdoor value within several of Detroit's most populated and recreationally-disregarded communities.

Could you imagine launching your canoe in Canton, Northville, West Bloomfield, or Troy, and being able to paddle along an expanded LRRWT to the mouth of the Detroit River? Complete with established canoe campgrounds dotting the route to enable a continuous thru-paddle? Yes, such a dream is possible; conservation pioneers have executed similarly ambitious projects throughout the country, although these dreams take an unfathomable amount of volunteer activism and hours to see them across the finish line. The Huron and Clinton River Trails provide premiere examples of the results from such effective allocation of our collective resources.

We sincerely hope that the LRRWT will eventually be expanded into a greater "River Rouge Water Trail" covering all 127 miles of the river's principal tributary rivers. That being said, we also recognize that such a vision can (and should) come after our full allocation of resources and efforts towards the completion of the ongoing LRRWT. As such, we strongly support lending your time and muscle towards volunteering with Friends of the Rouge during one of their work days. The organization has specifically called for volunteers to assist with opening logjams along the LRRWT route - sounds like an awesome, active way to spend a Saturday.


Looking ahead, we are immensely excited about the future of the Rouge River and the unprecedented trail access that its remediation, conservation, and development will entail. Aside from untapped paddling and fishing opportunities, the land-trail networks being developed in tandem with the LRRWT further evidence that our region is investing heavily in outdoor recreation opportunities and synergies across the Detroit area.

The Expedition Detroit team plans on doing everything within our means to facilitate and expedite the development of those resources, starting with volunteering with impactful organizations like Friends of the Rouge. We hope that you will join us in that mission.

We can't wait to see you out there.

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