Summer Discovery Cruises offer a journey to remember

Swimming deer, a soaring bald eagle, and a Viking ship on the Detroit River? Lucky cruisers saw it all.

Viking ship Draken Harald Hårfagre sails on the Detroit River. Photo: Courtesy of Michelle Lamour

Viking ship Draken Harald Hårfagre sails on the Detroit River. Photo: Courtesy of Michelle Lamour

Michigan State University Extension and Michigan Sea Grant, in collaboration with the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, have offered Summer Discovery Cruises for the past 15 years. These educational cruises offer the public an opportunity to learn about our Great Lakes by being on them.

One of the most popular cruises – Journey through the Straits – provides a rare opportunity to traverse the entire 30 mile length of the Detroit River. Over the course of the five hour cruise, we learn about the rich history of this region from the time of its habitation by native tribes, to its current stewardship under U.S. and Canadian flags. The informal setting allows the cruise participants to share their own river experiences, adding to the richness of the voyage.

On our August 2016 Journey, the education vessel Clinton set out from her dock at Lake Erie Metropark and into the swift current of the Amherstburg Channel. Along the way, we described the many islands in the lower river with a focus on the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. We ducked into the Livingstone Channel and marveled at what was considered one of the wonders of American engineering when it first opened in 1912. We were overtaken and passed by the Tecumseh, a huge 740-foot freighter on its own voyage to carry cargo to the upper lakes, so close the deckhands returned our waves.

Then, hearing a message on marine radio, we altered course to the Fighting Island channel near Wyandotte where the river is 2 miles wide. First, someone pointed to an object that resembled a log floating toward us. As we got nearer, it turned out to be a young deer swimming from Fighting Island to Grassy Island. Then eyes went skyward to admire a bald eagle soaring a hundred feet above. But then – the ultimate sighting – we saw a red square sail approaching us, sailing out of medieval history into our world.

This was no Pokémon Go illusion, but a full scale replica of a Viking ship that has been travelling the Great Lakes since early June. The Draken Harald Hårfagre set sail from Norway in late April and we encountered her on her way out of the Great Lakes to the Erie Canal. One of the purposes of her voyage was to test the feasibility of the hypothesis that Vikings first came to the New World some five centuries before Columbus.

As we oohed, aahed and snapped photos, the Draken glided past the Clinton, so near that we could hear the crew grunt as they struggled to hoist the heavy sail.

All this and we still had 10 miles of industry, bridges, downtowns and riverwalks to go. By the time we reached our destination at the mouth of Lake St. Clair, this Journey through the Straits had more than lived up to our motto “You learn something new on every cruise!”

Tickets are still available for this year’s final cruise, another Journey through the Straights on Sept. 17, 2016. More information online.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

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