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Your Rouge, Your Story

We all have a story to tell; why we are passionate about the Rouge River, how we got involved with FOTR… Share Yours Today!

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By Kevin Green

The Lower Rouge River Basin has been a major part of my life for more than 50 years. I fondly remember spending time as a child and teenager playing basketball, tennis and hockey (we built and shoveled our own ice rink) at Perrin Field, playing baseball and swinging on a rope over the Rouge at Nolar Bend, and going sledding on Deadman’s Hill (now Middlebelt Hill), all in Hines Park. As an adult, I spent many hours riding and racing bicycles on Hines Drive, from one end to the other (and beyond), as well as golfing at Warren Valley and Dearborn Hills. My son and I also worked on several Rouge Rescue Days with our church and the Boy Scouts. For almost 30 years, my wife and I have owned many homes near the Rouge. These days, my dogs and I frequent the Gateway Trail, the trails behind First Presbyterian Church and Dearborn Country Club, and the trail along the Rouge from Ford Field to Outer Drive. On these walks, in addition to enjoying the flora and fauna, we have taken on a mission of helping to clean up after the many people who apparently were never Boy Scouts and/or didn’t learn the lesson of “always leave a place better than you found it.” Specifically, we collect trash, frequently filling at least one grocery bag with garbage and recyclables (bottles, cans, cups, etc.). In fact, it’s not unusual for us to collect 10-20 recyclables on a single walk (we picked up 11 on the day I wrote this article). For the sake of the River and its many furry, feathered and aquatic inhabitants, as well as our fellow humans, I implore everyone to pick up after themselves, using the trash receptacles along the way or taking your trash home for proper disposal. If we all do our part, the Rouge Rescue can be a daily, instead of just an annual, event! PS Please pick up after your dogs, too!

By Peggy Collins

9/09/2020 Southfield, MI

I arranged for a water blessing of the Rouge [River] where it runs in Southfield at Valley Woods [Nature Preserve] (Telegraph and Civic Center Drive).  I invited a tribes member from SW Michigan to lead us (we were able to pay her). There were about 30 people taking part.

By David Nowlin

8/26/2020 Livonia, MI

My parents both grew up in Delray and I spent a lot of my childhood in Delray.  It is sad to see it now compared to the memories from my youth.  My grandparents lived one block off of Jefferson and we could hear the boat whistles from their house and would go running to the foot of Dearborn Street to see them pass by in the canal. I also worked 32 years in the Ford Rouge plant with many of those years in the Power House which used the water from the Jefferson Screen House to cool the condensers for the three steam turbines that drove the generators that produced the power for the Rouge complex. 

Want to learn more? Read Shawn D. Lewis' recent Detroit News article

By Carol Oz

8/12/2020 Mokelumne Hill, CA

I vaulted into an environmental protection career due to early bike rides along the Rouge. My big brothers told me not to touch the water or my hand would fall off [due to pollution]. I craved a clean River I could swim and play in. Later, when I found there were rivers and lakes in this world you could swim in, I thought wow. Let’s try.

By Cathy Dyer

7/29/2020 Ann Arbor

You know you have to write your “Rouge Story” when you move 20 miles away, and start telling your friends that you’re excited to move to your first house, but you’re sad that you’re leaving your watershed!

Stonefly Hunt 2014

Most of my life has been lived on the developed land entwined with and fed by the Rouge. Growing up I played first near Lola Valley Parkway in Redford, and then in Livonia where my brothers and I explored along the nearby paved creek and then later the more natural ones.

I tolerated the garter snakes my brothers caught at Bell Creek and kept in the garage one summer preferring to climb my maple tree in the backyard. One way I see the suburban areas where I have lived, is as an interplay of the rectangular houses on the straight swaths of cement with the branches of the curving Upper Rouge. I walked and drove along the pavement, but my heart moved along the river. 

Heritage Park, Farmington Hills, Photo by Cathy Dyer

Soon my river connections moved beyond play. In the Girl Scouts we visited Nankin Mills Nature Center and hiked at parks including the then new Rotary Park in Livonia. What I most remember about it was the mud! This was before any pavement or sports fields in the area in front of the forest and river. At Dickinson Junior High School my biology teacher got us involved in one of the first river cleanups pulling trash out of the long-ignored river. I remember being excited and energized by doing something for the outdoors. These awakenings would bring me back to the river later.

As a young adult I lived and taught elementary students in Puebla, Mexico and San Antonio, Texas for a while, but I found my way back to the Rouge in Northville and Plymouth in the mid-1990s. By that time, many of the Rouge road signs had been installed. These signs appeared in so many places that they got me curious about how all the parts of the river were connected. Did the creek I lived by in one part of Livonia flow into the one where I lived when I was in high school? How did the sign near my apartment fit into this watershed? I saw a Rouge Cleanup advertised and decided to participate.

I was so happy to be back in the familiar tall Michigan trees, and the four seasons after years in very different ecosystems. That, and the hopefulness of the Rouge doing much better than it was in the 70’s, called me to learn and do more. 

I spent a couple of summers driving and hiking to about ninety places on the Rouge. I eagerly explored from Firefighters Park in Troy to the Kosch Headwaters near Ypsilanti to Rouge Park in Detroit and many others in Canton, Farmington Hills, Southfield and Walled Lake. I explored and took photos. Then I marked my sites on a 3 x 4 foot map of the watershed with push pins.

Other days I searched and read at libraries for stories of the Rouge’s past. I discovered French sledding parties and horse races on the ice, as well as cheese making, brick making, and of course, the old mills. Then I started attending naturalists’ programs at parks: about trees at Bennett Arb, ferns at Holiday Park, butterflies at Rouge Park and birds at Heritage Park. I kept going to Rouge Rescue clean ups too. I can honestly say that tickets to a musical concert didn’t get me as excited as the chance to go on the first public canoe trip on the Rouge in Westland. Even though we had to portage around many fallen trees, you could feel that all of the efforts by so many people were bringing the river back into the lives of the community. We were connecting the points into a flow.

The river tugged at me so much that I switched from teaching high school Spanish to teaching about nature and the environment at a nature center. My desire to help the river led me to create rain gardens at my home so less storm water from my property ends up eroding the banks of the river and flooding homes downstream. I still wanted to know more so I got a master’s degree in the teaching of environmental science. Even though I had moved to the Huron watershed, I maintained my connection to the Rouge. For one project I mapped some of the rain gardens in part of the watershed- this time with digital push pins!  Even the extreme weather of the 2014 stonefly search didn’t dampen my call.  I seemed to have caught a river bug. I made felted Rouge fish art through felting and I ran a Meetup for hiking in parks near my current river home.

To me, a watershed is so much more than its basic definition as a drainage area. It’s a community of plants, animals, fungi, people and more, all held together by the course of the river from the headwaters through the forests and wetlands, over the lawns and fields and houses and factories. Recently, I have broadened my connection to include our larger watershed, the Great Lakes/ St. Lawrence, but I still love and support my home watershed. I hope to travel following the route of a drop of water from our community all the way out to Lake Erie, Niagara, Montreal and Quebec and out to the ocean.  

By John Deslippe

7/15/2020 Farmington Hills

I have always loved exploring nature and in my youth the Rouge River floodplain provided opportunities to interact with forest, meadow, riparian, and wetland habitats. I spent many days climb Ash and Maple trees in Rouge Park and escorting turtles that found they’re way unto the ball fields at Parkland Park to safety. Each year, with inundation from spring rains came sanitary sewer overflows and fish and bird die offs. As a child, I associated this with industrial pollution and the auto industry.

Today, I realize that the biggest contributor to water quality impairment is non-point source pollution- runoff and associated contaminants from each and every roof and driveway, roadway and parking lot. As an ecologist, I work in the urban setting focused on implementing solutions to stormwater runoff and restoring health to ecosystems. I am passionate about the work FOTR does because I know that education and informed, involved citizens are an essential ingredient in long-lasting and meaningful restoration.

By Kathy Klein

6/15/2020 Dearborn

I grew up downriver in the 70’s, in the shadow of the Uniroyal Tire and Thunderbowl Lanes, in Allen Park and Melvindale, one of the many working-class communities of SE Michigan. If the wind was from the north or northeast we could often smell the industry of the steel mills, the Rouge complex and the wastewater treatment plant. A trip over the I-75 bridge over the Rouge River always fascinated me because of the view of industry, Canada, the rivers, pollution — it was fascinating.

This was my little corner of the world. Reecks Drain, a part of the Ecorse Creek watershed in Allen Park was my “great outdoors”. This is where I discovered my love of nature. Every day after school I would rush back to “the crick” as we called it then. It ran along my school yard and we had many Gilligan’s Island and Huckleberry Finn themed adventures. I’m sad to say it is now fenced off, so children are separated from it by an 8 foot chain link fence. Kids no longer have easy access to it like I did as a child. I will never forget all the “soakers” (falling in)…never mind how polluted it likely was back in the early 70’s!

Our little backyard in Allen Park also had the best climbing tree.  That great maple tree had the most amazing arms for climbing and roosting in.  It was almost as if that tree was meant to hug the many children that would grow up in that house – and there were six of us.

I don’t know if this early experience is necessarily what inspired me to be in the profession I’m in, I feel I fell into my career more by accident and opportunity than a goal I set out to accomplish…but I couldn’t be happier about where happenstance has taken me for the last 30 years.  Being in the waste industry gives you an archeologist’s perspective on humanity.  How we live, how we have become disconnected from our waste generation and our role in environmental responsibility…and fortunately, how we are reconnecting.  I love being an educator and spending time with other naturalists and watershed professionals, all of us working to make the world a better place.

I was thrilled when I finally got an opportunity to kayak the Rouge River with Friends of the Rouge.  After years spent near this river, crossing it many times over I-75 or to go to the office with my dad on the weekends, he worked in transportation at a trucking terminal in the neighborhoods around Marathon.  I’m thrilled that people are being given an opportunity to get up close and personal with the Rouge again, whether by kayak or picnics on Heine’s Drive, and the new Frog Island Park near Marathon.  The quality of the watershed has greatly improved through the efforts of organizations like Friends of the Rouge.  Thank you for the important work you do.

By Laura Wagner

6/15/2020 Dearborn

Share a special memory of the Rouge River and the delight of Winnie the Pooh, with Friends of the Rouge Board President, Laura Wagner!

By Colleen Sturm

6/3/2020 Livonia

As a young child in the early 1960’s, I lived near the Ford Rouge plant and the Marathon oil refinery. For me, the river was nothing more than an ugly, polluted industrial channel that was avoided at all costs. That mindset stayed with me through the decades, and I never paid much attention to the river. I only became involved with FOTR a year ago after attending a Rain
Gardens 101 presentation at the library.

I am a gardener, and about 10 years ago I became an enthusiast of gardening with native plants. I try to garden for birds, bees, and butterflies. When my friend suggested we attend the Rain Gardens 101 presentation, neither of us even knew what a rain garden was. During the presentation, Matthew Bertrand (FOTR Restoration Coordinator) explained the problems with rain run-off in suburban and urban areas. He showed how the vast loss of the urban tree canopy from the 1960’s through today contributed to so many environmental, flooding, and pollution problems. He presented the need for new solutions – such as rain gardens and demonstrated how important proper native plant cover is to all aspects of watershed health.

My big takeaway from the presentation was the discussion of tree canopy loss. It was a powerful message for me because I remember the wonderful tree canopy of Detroit in the 1960’s. For those too young to remember, Detroit (and the inner suburbs) was once covered by beautiful and majestic American Elm trees. It was amazing, and there is nothing like it today. I remember beautiful streets lined on both sides by regal elms that created leafy cathedral ceilings. It wasn’t just a few streets; it was most streets. I grew up under that canopy, and I loved it. I also remember the loss of it.

I was born in 1959, and for all my early years (1959 – 1967, I think) DDT was sprayed from helicopters. (We had to run inside if the sprayers came.) The government authorized widespread DDT spraying over Detroit (and the inner suburbs) to try to stop invasive beetles from spreading Dutch Elm disease. It was a bad time. DDT was so widely used back then that birds were dying off, and Rachel Carson wrote the famous “Silent Spring” book in protest.

I remember the summer the trees were cut down on our street. Dutch Elm disease claimed our street sometime around 1971. All the trees died, and all the trees were cut down – at the same time. The overnight change was devastating. It has been many decades, but I still miss the trees. What has been planted since has never compared in magnitude and beauty.

The elms are gone, but FOTR has been trying to preserve, protect and restore the Rouge River watershed since 1986. I hope to help a little.

By Orin Gelderloos

5/20/2020 Dearborn

My experiences with the Rouge River watershed began intensely in 1971 when I directed a National Science Foundation grant for high school and middle school science teachers at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.  Our group took a canoe trip on the River from the Henry Ford Estate to the Rouge Plant before the concrete channel was installed in 1975.  We saw Great Blue Herons and Red-tailed Hawks and Belted Kingfishers perched in the trees.  Floating down the River with us were green algae mats, up to a square foot in size, that grew on nutrients from the human sewage being discharged into the River from the combined sewer overflows (of course the odors went along with the sewage mats).  Since that time, I have had the opportunity to teach  numerous classes and study groups about the Rouge River as a watershed as well as lead bus tours of the landscape which comprises its drainage system.  I introduced a graduate course on Watershed Analysis at the University as well. Currently, I am analyzing vascular plants and the groundwater levels of the various ecological communities of the floodplain on the UM-D campus.  

The Rouge River is an excellent watershed for a Friends group because of the diversity of urban and rural people living in it.  Furthermore, with its modest size of 467 square miles, we can “get our arms around it.”  Yet it has all the complexities that the United Nations has with differences in ethnicities, languages, income and education.  Friends of the Rouge with its dedicated staff is a model non-profit organization of which I am pleased to be a member.  I look forward  to the time when our watershed can be a leading and unifying political entity for all the 47 communities in it.

By John Covert

5/4/2020 Livonia

My Parents purchased a new home on West Parkway in 1947 when I was age 5. Our house was just north of Ann Arbor Trail. The Middle Rouge, called “The Crick” ran beneath a steep bank paralleling Ann Arbor Trail.  I was fascinated by the Crick, I took my life in my hands every time I crossed Ann Arbor Trail, not because of the traffic but because my parents had forbidden me from playing there. A couple of years later, a neighborhood girl was lost falling thru the ice. 

Throughout the ensuing years my family took regular Sunday rides along Hines Drive which then ran from Merriman Rd. to Northville. Over the years, Hines Drive progressed to the east, making stops at Telegraph Rd. and Outer Drive eventually reaching Ford Rd. in the late sixties. To a young kid Hines Parkway was like a wilderness, a continuous corridor of woods and water stretching for miles. When I started recreational flying as a retirement project I was shocked to discover that the parkway was merely a thin membrane of vegetation stretching thru miles and miles of, forgive me, urban wasteland. That is one of the reasons why I was so disappointed to see Wayne County selling parkland and mill sites to developers.

One fifties summer, I heard chainsaws and heavy machinery coming from the direction of the Crick. I took a seat at the top of the ridge and was fascinated to witness bulldozers and drag lines cutting a straight path across an extensive oxbow. An ecological catastrophe today but a fantastic triumph of engineering for a child of the fifties. If you drive Hines and observe carefully, you can find remains of many oxbows across from stretches of the river that appear unusually straight, the oxbow that ran upstream from Warren Rd. is still very prominent. 

Life took me away from the Rouge during the sixties with Naval service and college at M.S.U. then brought me back when I was assigned a science teaching job at Whittier J.H. (now Cooper Elementary) across from an eventual Super Fund dumpsite (then Cooper Elementary) along Ann Arbor Trail, between Inkster Rd. and Middlebelt Rd. My classes made many rushed hikes (50 minutes) over to the big hill and along the Crick. We were amazed to find a beautiful grove of Pawpaw trees a little west of Inkster Rd. and the field next to old Cooper (now demolished) was an awesome site for netting and banding migrating Bobolinks. 

The eighties found me high and dry teaching electronics (not my idea) at Churchill H.S. After a few years I convinced the principal to allow me to create a two hour outdoor education block. Once a week I was able to cram 18 kids into the back of a pick-up camper (never happen in this century) and make a short drive to the Holliday Nature Preserve.  I was back on the Rouge (Tonquish Creek).  With some help from fellow staff members, I was able to recruit 200 to 300 students every spring for the Rouge Rescue.  Thirty to forty wildly enthusiastic kids pulling on an old ski resort tow rope could do quite a job on some of the log jams. Bill Craig (FOTR technical expert) was a big part of those efforts but he has since found more constructive applications for log jams.

I retired from teaching twenty years ago but never missed a Rouge Rescue, at least not until this year.

By Kathy Ableson

4/22/2020 Birmingham

Q: How did you get involved with Friends of the Rouge?

A: It was actually my son’s idea. He wanted to do something to help the environment for a school service project so we both signed up for the Frog and Toad Survey. I remember being so impressed by Sally Petrella’s training session, I left thinking this was an organization I’d really like to be a part of. Plus, it was kinda cool going out at night with my son to stand in the stillness at our listening posts. Beautiful spring evenings, citizen scientists, what could be better? 

Q: What made you decide to create Froggyvoice? 

A: Well, I started off with lots of enthusiasm for surveying but sadly, I wasn’t very good at it. I just had a hard time remembering which calls were which frogs once I got in the field. This was back in the day when the only real choice was to learn the calls from a CD. Luckily my son was much better at it so we were okay with our reporting. But then years later, when I was looking around for a way to test some new app technology I’d been working with, I thought of field help for frog and toad surveyors.

Q: Why is it called Froggyvoice anyway?

A: When you go to get a new domain name, obviously it has to be unique. But all the names having to do with frogs and calls and Michigan were already taken, even if they weren’t active. So I had to get creative and Froggyvoice just popped into my head. Which was fortunate really because the name gave me license to have fun with it, to draw bright colorful frogs and make them bounce when you tap the arrow. It was originally supposed to be just a small test app, maybe our seven SE Michigan frogs and our one toad, but each time I showed it to the subject experts, Sally Petrella, James Harding, Ian Ableson, and Jess Getschman, they persuaded me to add just that one more feature. They wanted all the Michigan frogs, identifying characteristics, info sheets, everything! It’s really because of them that the app is as comprehensive as it is, but I hope it can help other surveyors out there or anyone else learning about Michigan frogs and toads.

By Paula Trilety

4/8/2020 Detroit

Sally Petrella inspired me to get involved with supporting Friends of the Rouge. That and the fact that I grew up 1/2 block from Rouge Park and now live on W. Parkway, which abuts the park.

As a kid, our Ann Arbor Trail science teacher, Virginia Bohenek, took us on regular forays throughout the park and to the Nature Center in Rouge Park. We all developed a healthy respect for the environment under her watchful eye. The river, being a major attraction of the park, was closely observed during heavy downpours and major flooding.

The story of the Rouge River catching on fire about 20 years before was heart breaking to a kid who grew up in close proximity. Donating and promoting the Friends of the Rouge is the least I can do as I am indebted to all of the staff for their diligent efforts and success in cleaning up “my” river.

By Paul Draus 

3/23/2020 Dearborn

Paul Draus, FOTR Board Member & Sociology Professor at UM Dearborn, shares his Rouge River story. We all have a story to tell; why we are passionate about the Rouge River, how we got involved with FOTR…Share Yours Today!