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Ann Arbor 200

Huron River Day

Ann Arbor is well-known for its role in bringing national attention to the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Students at the University of Michigan held a “Teach-In on the Environment” that drew over 50,000 people. Activists led a Huron River Walk to protest pollution and industrial waste being dumped into the river. These and other nationwide efforts led to the passage of the amended Clean Water Act.

A decade later, Ann Arbor residents gathered to observe the tenth anniversary of Earth Day. The event was much smaller than in 1970, but it started a local movement that has become a cherished Ann Arbor tradition: the annual celebration of Huron River Day.

Two children and adult paddling kayaks on river, with tents and canoes on shore
Twins Shannon and Chris Peck Learn to Kayak During Huron River Day, July 1982
Two children on riverbank point at ducks in water while couple in canoe floats by
Canoeing and Feeding the Ducks at Gallup Park During Huron River Day, July 1981

Two local activists, Eunice Burns and Shirley Axon, used the momentum of the 1980 Earth Day activities to form the Huron River Community Coalition. The Coalition called for a “Huron River Day” to highlight the river’s role in the local ecosystem and promote public awareness of conservation efforts. 

With a watershed covering 900 square miles, seven counties, and 73 communities, the 125-mile length of the Huron River is a massive natural feature of southeast Michigan. It is also a huge area for possible contamination to occur. Many Ann Arbor residents did not know that the Huron River was a source of drinking water for the city. Yet as late as 1987, fourteen municipal sewage treatment plans emptied into the Huron or its tributaries.

Dozens of children carry signs with environmental messages
ENACT March, Carpenter School, March 1970
Three people look at display of t-shirts and buttons, with Earth Day 1980 banner above
Earth Day in Ann Arbor, April 22, 1980; Photographer: Peter Yates

Axon was a member of the American Association of University Women, which had begun studying the Huron River in the late 1970s. Burns, a former Ann Arbor city council member, brought her leadership and organizing skills to the table. The Huron River Community Coalition’s goal was “to make people aware of how individual and collective actions affect the river and to educate and inform individuals of steps each can take to improve and maintain the water quality and aesthetic value of the river."

Woman and three men raise right hands during swearing in
Ann Arbor City Councilperson Eunice L. Burns Takes Oath Of Office, April 1962
Woman sits on dock speaking to cameraman, with canoeist next to her
Organizer Shirley Axon Promotes Huron River Day, July 1988
Drawn map showing facilities along Huron River in Gallup Park
Published in the Ann Arbor News, June 29, 1980

Residents of Ann Arbor celebrated the first Huron River Day on July 5, 1980. The event’s focal point was Gallup Park, but sponsored activities stretched from Argo Park near the Broadway Bridge all the way to Geddes Dam. Popular activities in the early 1980s included picnicking, fishing, swimming, canoeing lessons, walking tours, bicycle maintenance workshops, free balloons, and a “Taking of the Bridge” reenactment by a local medieval theater group called the Society for Creative Anachronism. (Unfortunately AADL archivists did not find photographs of the bridge battle, but here’s a great selection of other reenactments!

People stand around display of balloons and sign reading "Huron River Day"
Huron River Day Participants Get Free Balloons, July 1981
Dozens of swimmers sit on or prepare to jump off Gallup bridge
Swimmers Jump Off Gallup Park Bridge During Huron River Day, July 1981
People standing with bicycles near sign reading "Bicycle maintenance"
Bicycle Maintenance Workshop During Huron River Day, July 1981
Sailboat on river with woman seated and dog standing up
Dog Rides on a Sailboat During Huron River Day, July 1981

For forty-four years since that day, Ann Arbor has continued to observe Huron River Day. In the first decade, the event grew from a city-wide celebration to include twenty other communities along the river. Every few years a new event or sponsorship brought greater awareness to the mission of protecting the Huron River.

In 1982, participants in Huron River Day saw the dedication of 3 ¼ miles of trail as part of the National Recreation Trail System. This section of Gallup Park became the first recreational trail in Ann Arbor to be recognized by the National Park Service.

Newspaper photo showing USA and "Tree City" flags next to trail marker being unveiled by two women
Published in the Ann Arbor News, July 11, 1982

In the same year, two new events made their debut on Huron River Day. The first annual “Gallup Gallop” drew over 60 runners to 2.6-mile and 1.3-mile courses in men’s and women’s categories. The race was sponsored by the Huron River Community Coalition and the City of Ann Arbor Department of Parks and Recreation. Another popular activity was the Youth Fishing Derby. Winners had their name published in the Ann Arbor News.

The construction of the Gallup Park Canoe Livery in 1984 prevented residents from holding Huron River Day that year. However, the new canoe livery–complementing the existing rental facility at Argo Park–increased recreational access to the river. Paddlers could now enjoy a one-way trip with shuttling available between the two locations, or a leisurely paddle around Gallup Pond.

Multiracial couple with two children paddle canoe
Goss Family Paddles a Canoe in Gallup Park During Huron River Day, July 1997
Boy wearing Gallup Park fishing derby shirt carries a bass
Joseph Starcher Catches A Bass During Huron River Day Youth Fishing Derby, July 1997

Seven years after the event’s founding, Huron River Day became Huron River Week. Jim Murray, Washtenaw County Drain Commissioner, got in touch with other communities interested in expanding the impact of Huron River Day. In July of 1987, the Ann Arbor News published dozens of articles in honor of Huron River Week. Features included a map detailing the Huron River watershed and key facts about human impacts on the river; a spotlight on field research about the endangered purple pimpleback mussel; and a five-year plan to implement the Huron River Pollution Abatement Project, including surveying water quality via sampling of storm drain and dye-testing.

Newspaper article with large illustration of Huron River watershed
Published in the Ann Arbor News, July 5, 1987
Newspaper article with photo showing two field researchers standing in river
Published in the Ann Arbor News, July 9, 1987
Newspaper article with photo showing dye-testing
Published in the Ann Arbor News, July 12, 1987

The late 1980s also brought the debut of one of the most popular features of Huron River Day: the Ann Arbor News Canoe Races. By 1988, the canoe races included two-, four-, and eight-mile races, a corporate race and a race for disabled canoeists. Age categories ranged from 10+ to over 40. All participants received a t-shirt with their $5 registration, and winners received an 18-inch lacquered canoe paddle.

Another Ann Arbor News-sponsored race that made a big splash was the Community Cup Mayor’s Race. The event featured mayors, city council members, and city officials who set aside political differences to partner in the canoe race against teams from competing cities. In 1987, Republican mayor Jerry Jernigan and Democratic mayor pro tem Larry Hunter got in a canoe together to race against 11 other teams. In 1991, Mayor Liz Brater and city council member (and future mayor) Ingrid Sheldon also crossed the aisle to team up. Proceeds went to the Ann Arbor Parks & Recreation Scholarship Fund. 

Several people working on securing banner reading "The Ann Arbor News Canoe Races"
City Employees Display Banner for Huron River Day Canoe Races at Gallup Park, July 1988​​​​​​
Several canoes jockey for position on the river
Canoe Races Are a Highlight of Huron River Day, July 1990
Newspaper article with photo of people waving from dock as canoes line up for race
Published in the Ann Arbor News, July 13, 1987
Newspaper article showing two women paddling in canoe
Published in the Ann Arbor News, July 15, 1991

During the 1990s, the decades-long positive impact of Huron River Day brought a wave of new awareness to conservation efforts. Volunteers joined efforts to study insects, fish, and other wildlife along the river. In 1993, sixty experts participated in an eight-day trip down the 125-mile length of the Huron River. Dubbed “Huron Riverfest,” the expedition allowed scientists to study water quality and the impacts of development throughout the watershed. The year of 1995 was designated “The Year of the River” in Michigan and the Huron River was named “Michigan’s Cleanest Urban River.”

Huron River Watershed Council, founded in 1965, has been a longtime sponsor of Huron River Day. In addition to raising awareness about environmental impacts along the river’s 900-square-mile watershed, the organization’s volunteer programs have collected a huge amount of scientific data. Beginning in 1992, a program called River Roundups started sampling dozens of locations for benthic macroinvertebrates, an important indicator of water quality. A decade later, the Chemistry and Flow program started seasonal water monitoring via sampling and flow measurements.

Two people watch canoes in river and activities on shore beyond
Onlookers View the Scene at Gallup Park During Huron River Day, July 1982

In 2015 the Huron River was designated a National Water Trail, notable for its 104 miles of accessible inland paddling amidst a largely urban region. According to the National Park Service, the Huron River watershed “contains two-thirds of all public recreational land in an area of 5.5 million people.” It is the only waterway in southeast Michigan with a true “Up North” feel.

This year’s Huron River Day takes place on Sunday, May 19th at Island Park. The day’s activities are sponsored by the Huron River Watershed Council, with support from Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation, and the City of Ann Arbor. On whatever day you read this, here’s a reminder to get outside and enjoy the resources, wildlife, and natural beauty brought to Ann Arbor by the Huron River!

 

Huron Coalition

Huron Coalition image
Parent Issue
Day
27
Month
April
Year
1980
Copyright
Copyright Protected