VASSAR— A group of local volunteers and government officials seek to earn the Cass River the prestigious status of a National Water Trail, but admit they have a long way to go.
Vassar City Manager Brian Chapman said he and the group known as the Cass River Greenway officially began the process June 30 by applying for a special assessment of the waterway.
The hope is to move toward having almost 22 miles of the Cass River designated a National Water Trail by the U.S. government.
Experts say it won’t be easy — it could take up to five years — but earning the designation would not only draw tourists to the region, but likely lead to more use of the Cass River by locals, and serve as a source of pride.
“Having a water trail would bring tourists and visibility to our natural resources in the city of Caro,” said Caro City Manager Jared Olson. “Anytime we can promote our cities and the Thumb region, it’s a positive for everyone.”
A long way to go…
The fish just weren’t biting for Travis Fletcher near Caro on Monday.
The Flint native thought the water was too dirty but cleaner than it is where he lives.
“I don’t think I’ve ever caught anything,” said Fletcher, 33, before remembering he caught a single bass on one other occasion.
To make Cass River an attractive location for tourists and recreationists, including fishermen like himself, it would take funds and local residents interested in river upkeep, Fletcher said.
“You would have to filter out the river,” he added. “It’s just dirty.
“In little towns people tend not to care. It would take a lot of time and a lot of money … I don’t see Caro turning into a tourist attraction.”
Caro resident, Jami Ritter, 51, thinks the river just needs to be cleaned up. Ritter came to the river Monday and visits regularly. Her sons fish in the water but she said they won’t eat the fish and other visitors will not swim in it.
Then, there’s the Caro Dam.
“Caro Dam is not helping the trail,” Chapman said.
The Advertiser reported in a July 20 article one of the control gates is broken and water is about three feet below the Caro Dam spillover. The dam is privately owned by Eric Fox.
“It’s our desire to include (Caro) in our field of areas,” said Chapman. “But the dam is impeding kayakers from going down to the southern part.”
Paddling upstream can be a challenge for kayaking and canoeing, said Robert Zeilinger, chairman, of the Cass River Greenway, because there’s nowhere to go.
Cass River Greenway is a local group of volunteers seeking to enhance recreational opportunities and environmental well-being of the Cass River.
“Right now the (Cass River) water trail has to start below the (Caro Dam), because you can’t paddle through it or around it, Zeilinger added. “Until the dam issue is resolved, we’ll start downstream at the dam toward M-46.”
Currently, the Cass River Water Trail begins north of Vassar and continues down to the Shiawassee River toward Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. Chapman said that portion is close to completion once it gets the designation.
The hope, Zeilinger said, is to include the Caro area toward Cass City, spanning 21.9 miles.
But that will depend on figuring a way to fix or get around the Caro Dam and getting the communities along the area involved, he added.
Benefits of designation
According to a recent press release, “The National Recreation Trails program is jointly administered by the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, in conjunction with a number of Federal and not-for-profit partners, notably American Trails, which hosts the National Recreation Trails website at http://bit.ly/2asPWJg.
“National Recreation Trail designation applies to existing trails and trail systems that link communities to recreational opportunities on public lands and in local parks. Newly designated trails will receive a certificate of designation, a set of trail markers and a letter of congratulations from the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
“While national scenic trails and national historic trails may only be designated by an act of Congress,” the press release says, “national recreation trails (including national water trails) may be designated by the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture in response to an application from the trail’s managing agency or organization.”
Designated national water trails are managed individually by a local entity (e.g., local, state, or federal government agency; nonprofit organization; interagency organization). Ongoing management responsibility and related costs of the designated national water trail are the responsibility of the management entity.
Only three trails received the designation as National Water Trails in 2016.
The idea to earn the designation for the Cass River originates with Chapman, who said he started looking for ways to help turn the river back into a gem for the community almost as soon as he started as Vassar city manager last fall.
“I did research on how to spike kayaking and canoeing and found an example to the Huron River in Ann Arbor,” said Chapman who later informed Cass River Greenway chairman Bob Zeilinger of obtaining water trail status.
Huron River is one of two bodies of water in Michigan to have earned the designation of a National Water Trail. The other is Island Loop Route in St. Clair County.
Applicants must meet four criteria to become a national water trail. According to the National Water Trails website at http://bit.ly/2aLucgg, the trail must be:
- Open to the public and designed, constructed, maintained with best management practices and water access points have “state-of-the-art design”
- Adheres to environmental and land use laws
- After receiving the designation, the trail will be open to the public for at least 10 consecutive years
- The designation must be supported by the public or private landowners on which the access points exist.
In addition, applicants must include recreation opportunities, education, conservation, community support and several other items into their management practices.
“That’s what we’d like to be when we grow up,” said Zeilinger.
Zeilinger said for seven years Cass River Greenway’s goal has centered on setting up kayaking and canoeing launch sites, or access points to the river, for every five miles.
Two will be set up this month. One in Davis Park behind the township building in downtown Bridgeport and another near M-46 at Cass River Crossing in Juniata Township. This fall the group will establish a launch site in downtown Vassar off of Water Street. Next summer, two more will be set at the new Hoffman Park along Dixie Highway and Cass River Crossing.
In addition to a group like Cass River Greenway, officials from cities and townships have to participate to get the designation, said Zeilinger.
To include all steps to gain the designation, Zeilinger estimated it could take up to three years — Chapman said about five.
But Chapman and Zeilinger are believers.
They say having the Cass as a nationally recognized water trail, would assure increased publicity. Being added to a designation list would also cause people outside the Thumb area to look at the list and research activities the area has to offer.
George Pattullo, owner of Pattullo & Sons Sports Inc., said during the summer his business is swamped with boat repairs. Business is coming to him, but no boaters to the river.
“It would be a big help if we could get the dam fixed, or at least get something that could keep the water in it,” he said emphasizing the river used to hold more water years ago.
Having the national recognition in addition to fixing Caro Dam would help everyone in the community, he said.
“If people would use our resources (it) would definitely help,” he said. “We’d like to see the river back to where we can use it. Not just me, but lots of people in the community.”
The group applied for an assessment grant from the National Park Service, to get expert help to meet the criteria in mapping, planning, wayfinding and branding. No money comes from the grant, just expertise. The information was sent June 30.
Cass River Greenway expects to hear back from the National Park Service in September or October.
If designation is not achieved, Chapman believes it wouldn’t be a failure to the group. After all, it would help the area become an ecotourism attraction to the region.
“If we don’t get the grant the committee could decide to use the designation criteria to work on some of those ourselves to make the water trail better,” Zeilinger said.
“It’s the process to earn that designation that’s honorable,” Chapman said. “… It’s using the criteria to further improve the trail system. It’s the journey, not the end.”
Debanina Seaton is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at email@example.com