Tuesday, October 27, 2015 was a very important day for a lot of folks. It was Ribbon Cutting day for the Frankenmuth Fish Passage Project. Daring young folks from the Frankenmuth Community Youth Advisory Committee had literally stretched a wide blue ribbon across the river, and had a big pair of ceremonial scissors ready to do the job. The countdown was Frankenmuth style, in German, and that worked for me!
I have very strong ties to the Cass River and anything that affects its future is extremely important me, because it is nearly in my backyard, and has been for most of my life (and I owe it deeply for some great childhood memories). I’ve gotten the impression over the years, that as most Michigan rivers go, the Cass River has often been considered a bit of a “Rodney Dangerfield” (unjustifiably referred to with no respect) in the eyes of many, but for those of us who know it well, the Cass River offers a lot and it has the obvious potential to provide plenty more.
An organization that realizes this is the Cass River Greenway and since their beginning not that many years ago, they have made great strides in not only in putting a spotlight on the value of the river, but also in improving and promoting its quality both environmentally and recreationally. The group has been very instrumental in developing canoe/kayak launching sites for better accessibility at several locations on the river, and they perform annual “cleanups” on set stretches (this entails bringing out countless tires, all kinds of garbage and even an engine block or two, believe it or not). They also have been working with all the municipalities located along the Cass River towards monitoring better water quality, and to me their impact is quite obvious.
I first met Bob Zeilinger and Joe Toth of the Cass River Greenway a couple of years ago on the banks of the Cass River, right next to the Frankenmuth Dam, and it was then I learned there had been and were still talks in progress about fixing, improving, or completely redoing the dam. The idea that caught my attention was the one that would allow fish to migrate upstream, something that certain fish species haven’t been able to do since the Frankenmuth Dam was first built in 1850.
The Frankenmuth Dam was first constructed of timber (which was readily available close at hand then), and then eventually concrete, and would undergo various repairs over the years. It was discovered along the way that the dam had actually become a part of the river system itself and supported Frankenmuth’s south bank and the Main Street bridge abutments. It also provided the necessary water depth upstream for local and commercial boating as well as maintaining the river profile that we recognize today. There was little doubt at all as to its importance to the City of Frankenmuth, and a whole bunch of folks.
A short term fix on the dam would have cost an estimated $350,000, but short fixes are just that and in no time at all you are looking at having to step in again, and invest more, and then more again. Frankenmuth (very wisely in my opinion) decided to go much farther and create a permanent fix that would improve the recreational aspects of their community (fishing, canoeing, kayaking and boating) and also improve the environment by allowing a readily available passage for a variety of fish species through the area that have been denied wonderful spawning habitat (about 73 miles) for more than 165 years.
The estimated cost of the project was 3.5 million dollars and the City of Frankenmuth knew that it would have to reach out and collaborate with a bunch of folks including various state and federal government agencies to get it all successfully accomplished. What really helped, due to the recognized water quality and environmental importance of the “Frankenmuth Fish Passage Project”, was that the region attracted national funding of approximately $2.4 million and multiple other funding sources would participate as well.
Right in the middle of all this was Sheila Stamiris, Frankenmuth’s Director of the Downtown Authority. It was her goal to get everyone involved to collaborate and make what appeared to be impossible, actually happen. And happen it did, beginning with a partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, followed by multiple approvals from agencies such as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Agency, MDNR and MDEQ. This was obviously no small undertaking of getting everyone on board to hold hands and make it all possible. But all did so for the better good.
The Frankenmuth Fish Project is unique in that it follows a bend in the river and required a tremendous amount of limestone rocks and literal boulders to be trucked in from quarries in Alpena and Bay Port. It is truthfully an amazing sight on completion to behold.
In reality it is no “fish ladder” most folks might automatically assume it is for jumping fish species like salmon and trout. Warm water fish species such as walleyes (a key species for this effort) do not do any jumping, they just swim into the current to get to important places, and hopefully those places don’t make it all that difficult either.
The Frankenmuth Fish Passage is technically a “Fishway” that is a stone ramp topped with stone weirs developed for non-jumping fish species. The weirs form 30 ft wide pools and fish can use these for a resting zone, or continue on their way upstream. The real key to these weirs is to disrupt the water current and to slow its’ velocity down at key spots, to allow migrating fish ready access. The Frankenmuth Fish Passage also takes care of upstream water levels as well as protecting the south bank at high water levels. It is a perfect example of what can be accomplished when dedicated folks get together, talk it over and make it all happen.
A bonus to all this is the visible rapids flowing between the weirs and on down the river. Taken into consideration are the kayaks and canoes that will need to continue on downstream, and now there is an easy portage trail that is available. (I’ve canoed down the Cass River several times over the years and from all the upstream branches too, and I have always had to discontinue that journey before, because of the Frankenmuth Dam and its very non-negotiable high banks. Now I can continue on, a “Bucket-List” sort of thing). I want to paddle all the way to Saginaw some day!
I must admit that rapids affair is sort of appealing to me, despite getting long in the tooth. No doubt experienced kayakers are going to give it a whirl, head on. They seem to get all the credit in this fast water environment these days and admittedly and justifiably so, as they are great and very maneuverable watercraft for that challenging atmosphere. But I’m not into kayaks. I’m into canoes, something that the Cass River has witnessed paddling its current for eons, and I know how to wield a paddle in a constructive manner, and have been at it quite awhile.
Yep, I’ll be checking it all over at high water next spring. The Frankenmuth Fish Passage is truly a wonderment!