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Blazing a Water Trail

To help the public utilize water trails, Lemberg created an atlas that is printed and available online.
WMU prof helps launch river and big-lake ‘blueways’

Long before Michigan was dotted with municipalities and ribboned with roads, the state’s waterways were paddled by indigenous tribes in birchbark canoes. French voyageurs followed with their large freight canoes and York boats.

Today, Michigan honors those early traditions with two programs for modern aquatic recreationists: the Michigan Heritage Water Trails (for rivers) and Michigan’s Great Lakes Water Trails (for shorelines). And Dave Lemberg, associate professor of geography at Western Michigan University, is deeply involved with both.

Lemberg, a geographer and professional planner with skills in computer programming and geographic information systems (GIS), teaches classes on geography and recreation planning to university students aiming to work in municipal and township planning departments.
Lemberg, who was born in Massachusetts in 1959, grew up in Sunnyvale, Calif., and attained a bachelor’s degree in political economics from the University of California, Berkeley; a master’s in regional planning from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and a doctorate in geography from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

When he accepted his position at WMU in 1997, Lemberg was an avid exploratory caver. Once in Michigan, however, he noted the state’s wealth of navigable waterways and tried his hand at kayaking. Curious about “water trails,” he attended a Michigan trails conference in Battle Creek in early 1998.

“There was only one person at the Department of Natural Resources working on water trails at that time,” Lemberg says. “He said he had been pushing for a water trail program in Michigan for 20 years but the legislature wouldn’t fund it.”

Lemberg noted an economic incongruity. “Land-based rails-to-trails programs were popular even though they cost $100,000 per mile to acquire, pave and maintain property. But water trails are cheap: The state already owns the right-of-way, and trail developers need only create access points and mark them, then clear a path through any large downed trees.”

In 2001, Lemberg partnered with Dean Sandell of the DNR to assist the Michigan 4-H Youth Conservation Council in its request to the state legislature to pass a bill to create river-based water trails. With Michigan in an economic depression, lawmakers feared voters would view the new recreational program as frivolous. Utilizing principles from his studies in political economics, Lemberg helped the 4-H restructure its proposal, transforming the intention from a recreational program to an educational, environmental and economic opportunity.

“The idea was to create an interactive educational experience by paddling down a river,” he says. “Interpretive signs posted on bridge crossings and urban revetments would inform about the history, culture and nature of the river corridor.”

The House and Senate unanimously passed the bill, and Gov. John Engler signed it in 2002.

“The legislation was an unfunded mandate, a proclamation that authorized such a thing as a water trail to exist,” Lemberg explains. This means that the state was not obliged to lay out money for the program, nor was the DNR required to assign personnel to oversee it.

Nevertheless, Michigan residents breathed life into the concept. “Any local group — land conservationists, river preservationists — can designate a river as a heritage waterway. People all over Michigan are doing it,” Lemberg says.

To facilitate these citizen efforts, Lemberg created the Michigan Heritage Water Trails website, established an ad hoc program at WMU to advise groups on how to designate a water trail, and enlisted a student to design signage to put on bridges and revetments.

The River Country Heritage Water Trail (St. Joseph River, Portage River and Nottawa Creek) was the first trail to be designated. This project was initiated by Tim Peterson, one of Lemberg’s WMU graduate students, who undertook the endeavor through his job at the St. Joseph County Conservation District.

But while river trails are wonderful, Michigan’s distinctive peninsular shape is defined by the Great Lakes. What about kayaking and canoeing on those bodies of water that once served as the main thoroughfares of the indigenous Americans and exploratory Europeans?

Yes, Lemberg plies these bounding waters also. In fact, he and his wife, Bridget, enjoyed their first date kayaking from Buchanan to Warren Dunes and back. Then in 2008, the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance office in Chicago began work on a national recreation trail around Lake Michigan. “I got a call asking if I would represent Michigan,” he says.

The invitation came at the outset of his second sabbatical year at WMU, and Lemberg was looking for a project. This one thrilled him. Working with people from Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, Lemberg would denote paddle access points along the Lake Michigan shore. Over the next two summers, he studied online data and county and township maps, explored Michigan’s shoreline from Indiana to Wisconsin, and conversed with local planners and townsfolk.

“I’m a firm believer in directing people to access points within towns and villages, places where visitors will park and spend money locally, and to minimize disturbance in wild areas,” he says.

Lemberg also says viable access points for canoes and kayaks should have adequate parking somewhat close to the water and be free of problematic cliffs or steep stairways. Transportation over dunes can be facilitated by a kayak cart with extra-large balloon tires.

Some good access points are on the inland side of navigational channels. Lemberg cites as an example Holland State Park, where “it’s a lot easier to put in near the campground on Lake Macatawa. Paddling out the channel can be a bit tricky, but it’s better than carrying the boat across the wide expanse of sand or trying to beach a kayak amongst a large group of swimmers on a busy summer day.”

To attain such safety by separation, planners put the access point in South Haven on a narrow beach at the end of Dyckman Road rather than at either of the municipality’s two primary swimming beaches. A local livery already utilized the Dyckman Road beach for its rent-by-the-hour customers.

But how do nonlocal eco-tourists know where to launch their craft, especially when so many potential access points are simply at the end of a country road? Here, again, Lemberg has provided an answer.

The result of his sabbatical research is the State of Michigan Lake Michigan Leisure Corridor Map Set, an atlas of 32 professionally designed maps that show Michigan’s Lower Peninsula’s western shore and the Upper Peninsula’s southern shore in 30-mile segments. Funded by a grant from the state’s

Department of Environmental Quality and with cartography by research assistant Matthew Borr (now an instructor at WMU and Kalamazoo Valley Community College), the atlas is available free online at

Each access point appears as a coded icon that specifies parking characteristics and distance to the shore. Highway rest areas indicate public toilets and potable water. The distance from point to point along the “blueway” is marked in miles. Places to avoid, such as municipal water intake stations and federally protected nuclear power plants, are also indicated.

An index lists GPS coordinates for each access point. This feature relates to a free Android mobile phone app, created by Lemberg and student programmer Jeffery Halleck, that enables paddlers to easily hone in on their next desired destination. “It’s like Jack Sparrow’s compass (in Pirates of the Caribbean) that always points to where you want to go,” Lemberg jokes.

The atlas also provides color-coded lines and textual directions to delineate the Lake Michigan Circle Tour road route and the Michigan portion of U.S. Bicycle Route 35, which stretches from New Buffalo to Sault Ste. Marie. Lemberg is especially excited about this multi-modal feature, which facilitates convenience for motorists and cyclists as well as economic benefits for local municipalities.

“A lot of marketing is destination-oriented: South Haven, Saugatuck, Traverse City and others,” Lemberg says. “With the information in this atlas, we can market Lake Michigan and surrounding states as a destination for region-focused tourism.”

The idea of putting information into the hands of the public fits very well with Lemberg’s view of his profession as well as his love for his adopted home state. “As a professor at WMU, I’m a Michigan employee. I do research. I teach. But the majority of my work is applied,” he says. In short, helping people enjoy Michigan’s wonderful waterways is part of his job.

Robert M. Weir

Robert is a writer, author, speaker, book editor and authors’ coach. You can see more of his work at

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