We launched our kayaks from the middle of downtown Plainwell, Michigan, a tiny suburb of Kalamazoo located along the Kalamazoo River. Once a watery highway for Native American tribes, the river name likely comes from an Algonquin word for “boiling water” due to the mild rapids along the river course. Frozen stretches at the northern reach of the river were sources of ice and drinking water for indigenous people.
By the early 1800’s, however, raw sewage and industrial waste polluted the once pristine river. Like other small towns up and downstream, Plainwell was a mill town, founded and sustained for generations by employment at paper mills that dot the river. Those now-shuttered mills left a legacy of pollution. Eighty miles of the Kalamazoo River were designated a Superfund site by the EPA, due to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) that leached into the river during the papermaking process. Cleanup has been ongoing for the last 30 years—it is now safe enough to kayak in—but work is still do be done.
In the meantime, the river and its tributaries serve as aesthetic and historic amenities, ecotourism sites, and wildlife habitat. On our 2-hour paddle I was delighted to see flocks of geese, large freshwater turtles, and a pair of muskrats swimming near the riverbank.
Our river guides were a retired veterinarian and his dog, Lucy, who canoe the river on a regular basis. Dr. Kornheiser got involved in river management while serving on the town’s Planning Commission. Once he learned the extent of the environmental degradation in his community, he helped found the Four Townships Water Resources Council and became an outspoken advocate of the Kalamazoo River.
I am here this week with several hundred colleagues for the Association of Natural Resource Extension Professionals (ANREP) conference, a biennial gathering of like-minded, outdoorsy educators from all over the country. We get together to explore, talk, exchange ideas, and form partnerships over 5 days of field excursions, presentations, poster sessions, and meals. I always come away from these meetings with new energy and excitement after learning from my Extension colleagues, and fond memories of discovering a new part of the country.