Visitors to Grand Rapids might be surprised to see that its river calmly courses through its center, without explosive rapids bubbling under the seven downtown bridges. But for the organizers of Grand Rapids Whitewater, the city's namesake is more than just a holdover from its founding days: it's a vision they intend to make a reality.
Grand Rapids Whitewater, a non-profit volunteer group led by Chip Richards and Chris Muller, is spearheading the charge to restore the river to its former glory. Although other organizations have kicked the idea around, Grand Rapids Whitewater is the first to receive approval and funding from the city to pursue the steps needed to make it happen.
"It's been talked about for years, but no one really studied it to see if it was feasible," says Jay Fowler, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, which has shown its support for the project by providing the organization with $5,000 to get started.
In the early 1800s, rapids flowed along the river bed stretching from Sixth Street to Wealthy Street, which has a fall of nearly 18 feet. However, the river now has a serene appearance because it was harnessed by companies for more than 100 years along that shoreline through the use of dams, power canals and tailraces, some of which exist today.
Revving up the River
Richards, 49, and Muller, 38, both Grand Rapids residents and kayaking enthusiasts, are leading the charge to revitalize the river for the benefit of the local economy, environment and their fellow paddlers. "Chip and I are passionate about the idea, but it's going to take lots of people investing a lot of time," says Muller. "This will change the landscape of the city."
The duo met through their other passion, mountain biking, and came together to discuss their shared goal of turning the downtown stretch of the Grand River into a whitewater park. Both have lived in other areas – Richards in Alaska, Muller in New Mexico and Washington D.C. – and have seen how natural and man-made whitewater parks can benefit a city in many forms.
Grand Rapids Whitewater was formed in January as a result of the Green Grand Rapids initiative. The non-profit organization is made up of a board of directors and hundreds of volunteers, enthusiasts and activists. The group recently got the go-ahead and initial funds from the city to proceed with the research and implementation launch the initiative.
"Now that we got permission from the city, our next steps are further research and raising money and public awareness," said Muller. "We've launched the machine and it's ready to operate."
Twist and Turns
One of the reasons for the initiative is the inherent danger to sportsmen that lies in leaving the river the way it is now. "The Fourth Street Dam will get you at any water level," Richards says. "It's extremely dangerous by Bridgewater Place." He cites an incident in October when two people nearly drowned after their kayak capsized after going over a cofferdam. "The dams create perfect hydraulics, where the water turns back around," says Richards. "It will pull up a boat and flip it. We hope to reengineer the dam to make it safer and more aesthetic."
As it currently stands, kayakers have to get out before the dam, and there is no indication as to how to get it over a flood wall. "We need to add signage and remove the physical barrier to make it easier and safer," says Fowler.
Fowler and Richards encountered some initial reservations from "steelheaders," avid sport fishermen who were concerned that removing or partially removing the Fourth Street Dam would have adverse effects on their catches and could damage the ecosystem of the river. Fowler says the city and Grand Rapids Whitewater will continue to seek input from the steelheaders, who understand the river better than anyone. After listening to the fishermen's concerns, Muller and Richards say the group plans to pursue an option that keeps the Fourth Street Dam intact, putting in a portage and making modifications downstream.
"The first step to make it navigable," Richards says. "But more importantly, the DDA has set aside $25,000 of matching funds that will aid in our ability to hire a consultant who will determine the feasibility and the design for the implementation."
The group will have to raise another $25,000 in private funds to receive the $25,000 DDA money, but "we have no doubt that the community will step up and support this," Richards adds. "We've been seeing more enthusiasm, and people talking about how great it is going to be. Our team is ready to proceed."
The initial $5,000 pledged by the DDA will go toward the study and design for a portage around the dam to be conducted by the environmental consulting firm of Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber. As the organization that funds and promotes the use of downtown public facilities, the DDA will stay closely involved with the project.
"This will enhance the image of the city, and promote an active lifestyle, which is good in a state like Michigan that has health issues related to inactivity," Fowler says.
Work to be Done
The duo is quick to point out that they don't have defined estimates on how much it will cost to enhance the river's use for whitewater recreation because they don't yet know how much work is to be done. "There are 40 or so projects like this across the country," Muller says. "The price ranges depending on what the city wants. Until the engineers have completed their study, we won't know the scope."
"We want to do it right, because if we don't, we'll have a lot of disappointed people," Richards says. "We want it to be natural, safe and good for the economy. If we do it right, people will come from other communities."
"This will help on a lot of different levels," Fowler says. "It's a new recreational opportunity, not just for those who live in the city, but also in the region. There's nothing like it around here."
Muller says he envisions spectators on the riverbanks, watching the kayakers battle the whitewater. "The number of people who will kayak might be small, but it will activate the riverfront with people watching," Fowler says. "It will enliven the riverfront and make it seem like a more natural river. It will also be a healthier habitat for fish and the entire ecosystem."
"We'd like the portage to be done by next summer," Richards says of the first phase. "The whitewater is probably two years away due to permits."
If the portage is completed by summer, the scientists, educators, students, environmentalists and others comprising theGreat Lakes Expedition will have a safer option while passing through Grand Rapids in July. The group will take 12 days to navigate their kayaks and canoes from Jackson County to Grand Haven, studying the river and educating others about it along their journey.
"We want to create features that promote both fish habitat and recreational activities," says Richards. "If it looks like a natural set of rapids and there are people playing in it, it provides a better impression of downtown."
Kelly Quintanilla is a freelance writer born, raised and living in West Michigan. She is also the marketing director at Ada-based CUSO Development Co.
Chip Richards and Chris Muller, leaders of Grand Rapids Whitewater a non-profit volunteer group
Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved