It started as just one of those crazy ideas. Kevin Haight had often thought— wouldn’t it be cool to kayak the entire Paw Paw River from headwaters to the mouth?
At a Two Rivers Coalition Board Meeting, Dave Foerster was sharing information on Freshwater Future’s Walk, Paddle and Roll joint fundraising event, when Kevin shared his crazy idea out loud.
With concerns about the recent pipeline break in the Kalamazoo River Watershed on his mind, Kevin volunteered at the meeting, “I want to do something to both raise awareness of local water quality issues and raise funds for local conservation efforts. Although I may be biting off way more than I can chew, I could paddle the entire main branch of the Paw Paw River from the dam at Maple Lake in Paw Paw down the approximately 66 miles of winding river (including countless logjams) to its confluence with the St. Joseph River.”
Hence a crazy idea turned into the Paw Paw River Odyssey.
Kevin paddled his 66-mile on Aug 22, 2010 on a beautiful summer day, the first of 11- legs, his first paddle in the upper stretches was a naturalist’s delight. An excerpt from Kevin’s blog that he posted on the Two Rivers Coalition website (www.tworiverscoalition. org) shared the following highlights:
The scenic beauty of the river did not disappoint… As I rounded each bend in the river, startled turtles would slide off sunny logs back to the safety of the water. The water was so clear that trout, fresh water clams and mussels were easily seen as I floated over gravel bars.
Over the next 11 weeks Kevin experienced a new side of the Paw Paw River with each leg of the Odyssey. He traversed dozens of log jams that left him physically and mentally exhausted. Soaked up the beauty of Zululand, a stretch so quiet you could only here birds and wildlife.
Witnessing the use of the river and its banks as a trash dumpster was discouraging, but Kevin and paddling partners removed all the trash they could carry in certain stretches. He saw salmon spawning and on one stretch was joined by 23 paddlers. He paddled by shoreline development, some done sensitively—far back from the river with native vegetation in between—and some not so good, large green lawns to the rivers’ edge. Floating by agricultural areas he noticed the large flood plains and considered the often high E-coli levels due to runoff from agricultural feeding lots. Hope for restoration was found in many locations including the inoperable dams in the City of Watervilet that will be removed thanks to grant funds from National Oceanic and Atmoshperic Administration (NOAA), DNR, Berrien County, Michigan Wildlife Fisheries and Berrien County Brownfield Authority. The funds will also be used to restore the old channel of the river, improving the overall health of the river as it will allow native fish, mussel and invertebrate species to move more freely up and down the river.
For Kevin, the experience was unforgettable. From his last post on his blog, he shared his lessons learned:
Most important, I re-learned what I had already known but kind of forgot: The Paw Paw is a tremendous natural resource right here in our own backyard. Paddling the entire navigable portion of the river over a time span of 11 weeks allowed me to see the river differently and with a continuity that you miss if you just know the Paw Paw from driving over it on a bridge. It is beautiful, some of it is wild, and it is a treasure to be cherished and protected.
The Paw Paw River Odyssey was a great event for the Two Rivers Coalition. They raised over $1,300, garnered much media attention, including national coverage when one article was picked up on Yahoo’s national kayak page; got 23 paddlers out enjoying the River, and used electronic media to increase connections to promote their organization’s mission. It wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.