Detroit Rising: OABI (Once Around Belle Isle) as a reflection of a city’s rebirth

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“We’re going to try to get you on the water and started on time to avoid the weather that’s forecasted for later today.”
Thunder boomed in the distance.
“OK. We’re going to check the weather again and we may have to delay the start.”
More thunder.
More thunder.
Laughter.
“I’m sorry. I’m not a tech guy and it seems as though that isn’t thunder. It’s wind on the microphone.”
More laughter.
Matt Lennert, one of the race directors gives one of the more enjoyable racer’s meetings in recent memory.
‘Please pass this around.” 

Hundreds of stoked paddlers, friends, families and vendors pass the black, hand-painted OABI paddle around, laying hands and mana on it. It’s like the Stanley Cup, only you can’t drink out of it.

Storms move in above Metro Detroit in the background. The reflective glass movie set becomes one with the clouds. In a few hours, it will all but disappear behind walls of mist, water and wind.

WELCOME TO DETROIT

We arrive on Thursday, two days before the event and the day before the Paddle Monster clinics. Detroit Metro is clean, modern, easy. Matt Lennert met me at baggage. Fortunately, so did my checked, oversized QB paddle bag stuffed with an OC and a SUP paddle. Visions of 2-piece paddles where one pieces once hid haunted me. But there they were. Safe and ready for water.

We drove to downtown Detroit, dropped my bags at the Marriot Hotel across from the GM Renaissance Center, and picked up Larry Cain and Chris Lightbound who had driven from the Toronto, Canada area for the race, and headed to meet the race event crew having a beer.

@oabidetroit we are loving Detroit. #pdlmnstr #trainingworks #paddleboarding #paddleboard #standuppaddle #detroit

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Walking through downtown was disorienting. It’s not just the mixture of new and old, it’s also a combination of empty and full. Empty lots where building used to be. Manholes spew steam in 90-degree afternoons. Streetcar tracks without streetcars. Gaggles of young after-work girls and guys hop from bar to bar. It’s clean. Almost too clean.

We’re told there isn’t a square inch of downtown that the cameras can’t see. With police and private security always in line-of-sight with each other, nothing happens here that isn’t in the script. And when it does, reinforcements move in from all sides. At very least, it’s safe. We never felt like we were in danger. In fact, it was quite the opposite. We walked around downtown and just enjoyed the city, looking from building to building, soaking it all up.

The Book Tower

One building caught and kept our attention the entire trip. And it wasn’t the Penobscot Building or the Compuware and Quicken Loans Headquarters . It was the copper-topped Book Tower on Washington Boulevard. Designed by architect Louis Kamper, Historicdetroit.org described the building is “intricately carved Corinthian columns, florets, scrolls and crests are all over the place. Horizontal bands of Italian Renaissance ornamentation break up the towering skyscraper with nude female figures gracing its midsection like a belt. Nearly from ground to the top of the 36th floor, the building is covered in detail.” There’s so much to see. The more you look, the more you find. The details are insane. That’s probably why many considered Kamper more of a cake decorator than an architect.

regram @local4 Book Building. #Detroit #detroitcity #MotorCity #DetroitLove #detroitusa (Photo: @mrsteviesoul)

A photo posted by Down with Detroit (@downwithdetroit) on

“Detroit Free Press architectural columnist John Gallagher wrote in 2004 that Kamper’s designs like the Book Tower were dismissed as “clumsy, chaotic, corrupt and hopelessly out of date.”We loved it even know “…he didn’t take a fire evacuation route into consideration when designing it, necessitating the addition of the unusual fire escape all the way down the tower. Kamper had the building faced in a porous limestone that sucked up pollutants in the air, making it almost impossible to keep clean.” (read more: http://www.historicdetroit.org/building/book-tower-and-book-building/) All that being said, we loved it. Every time we walked around downtown, our eyes were drawn to it. The spice is what makes a dish taste unique.

According the Brain Malloy, one of OABI founders, “Since I’ve been alive the people of metro Detroit (Southeast Michigan & Southwest Ontario) have had their ideas about the city Detroit shaped by the local newspapers and TV news stations. The producers and editors of those media, though, don’t typically live in Detroit. They live in the suburbs. So most of the people in charge of Detroit’s story really had no clue what Detroit was all about. And at the national level it has always been even worse.

Detroit bloggers created that source of news and a rallying point for Detroiters and Detroit watchers to get in the game and push our community forward.

For me and my wife, we wouldn’t have dumped our life savings into renovating historic Detroit buildings if it weren’t for two blogs: Model D http://www.modeldmedia.com/ and Curbed Detroit http://detroit.curbed.com/. And the restaurants wouldn’t have succeeded without Yelp and Instagram and Facebook.

The mainstream media are now broadcasting daily from downtown Detroit. But they didn’t lead that narrative. They followed it. Bloggers created the narrative of Detroit’s resurgence and by creating the narrative they brought it to life.

In 1805 when Detroit was 104 years old, the city burned to the ground. The French priest at Ste Anne’s, Gabriel Richard, was passionate about bringing the city back to life? What was his primary tool? A printing press. He had brought it back to Detroit at the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson on a visit to Washington D.C.

Father Richard also coined Detroit’s motto “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus” or “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes”.

You’ll see the motto tattooed on baristas, bartenders and artist all over Detroit. It’s what we do and it’s who we are. Father Richard’s printing press and our modern day bloggers and social media activists are one and the same.”

Former Olympic champion Larry Cain wins #OABI 2016.

A photo posted by Detroit Surf Co. (@detroitsurfco) on

We met the crew at Campus Martius Park, a sandy oasis with basketball and volleyball courts and a tiki bar. Johnny O (O’Hara) from Gloucester, MA was sitting with Dave and Lisa Tuzinowski enjoying a beer on this cool summer night. Dave owns Detroit Surf Co. Surf company? Yes. Dave is an extremely tall, thoughtful, soft-spoken guy with a love for outdoor sports, namely surfing and paddling—so much so that he spends winters in Maui. What started as a single t-shirt Dave made to wear to Maui in 2004 to show his Detroit pride turned into the Detroit Surf Co., a brand which now produces its own apparel, surfboards, stand up paddleboards and snowboards, made 100% in Detroit, Michigan with 100% USA-made materials. (http://www.detroitsurfco.com/) I love my Detroit Surf Co. Shirt and the brand stands for really great things.

Welcome to Corktown

From downtown, we drive to Corktown for dinner, a historic district less than a mile to the west of the city center. The short drive reveals a series of empty lots like the white keys on a piano. But the black keys… the black keys are magnificent. Each gap where a building was removed was met by a violent dream punctuation of an entrepreneur: a chef, specialty retailer, bicycle shop, bakery or gallery. It was as if these people said, “I’ll adopt this corner and make the best (fill in the blank) that EVER existed!” And they did.

According to Brian Malloy, “The Detroit restaurant scene has grown quickly in the past five years, but it had a deep historical foundation. 

Back in the 1890s, President Grover Cleveland’s favorite meal was Detroit-style frog legs. When he was president, French Detroiters had been perfecting their frog leg recipes for 190 years http://www.hourdetroit.com/Hour-Detroit/May-2014/When-Frogs-Were-King/

Like other American cities, waves of mediterranean immigrants arrived in Detroit and drove the dining scene with traditional Italian and Greek dishes. But the Detroit love for comfort food kept things pretty conservative. In fact most Greek diners today serve Coney Dogs (hot dogs with bean-less chili) and are called Coney Islands https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coney_Island_(restaurant).

I think Detroit’s dining scene right now (as great as it is) is mostly about adapting ideas from other cities to our market. However, there are two unique components to Detroit that I have not experienced in other cities. 

1) the first time we ate at Gold Cash Gold, a new farm-to-table restaurant in Corktown, our waiter told us about the specials. He added that three of the dishes included vegetables that he grew on his farm and sold to the chef. His farm was only two blocks north of where we were sitting, which was just 10 blocks west of the central business district. That’s just bonkers.

2) the Arab community in Detroit is the largest in North America. as a result many of us grew up eating middle eastern cuisine served by waitresses wearing hijab and just assumed everyone else was doing the same thing. But it’s pretty unique to Detroit, especially the west side. I think those flavors might have influenced the expectations around flavor and experimentation that Detroit chefs do.

In our neighborhood, Corktown, we have at least a dozen restauranteurs living within 2 blocks of our house. We are steeped in the culture of food here.” 

We learn that much of the food comes from local sources. Matt Lennert, one of the OABI organizers tells us, “There are now over 1500 organic gardens within the city limit of Detroit.” That’s right, farming is booming in Detroit.

Check out the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative:  http://www.miufi.org/

We park next to Mercury Burger and Bar on 2163 Michigan Ave. (http://mercuryburgerbar.com/menus.php) and find our way to outdoor tables and benches atop a recycled-brick patio.

Paddle Monster is in Detroit! @oabidetroit #trainingworks

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I ate my weight in burgers and tater tots. I’m not proud. No. I am proud. They were amazing. Craft beers and talking story. I had the California Turkey Burger and two days later, gorged again at Mercury, this time on The Juicy burger. I’d go to Detroit just for those burgers.

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There’s nothing like going to an event and sitting down for a meal with the organizers. Flip that around and consider there’s nothing more fun to visiting racers than to have their hosts share the things they love. Favorite restaurants, bars, coffee shops, bakeries. Share what you love. They did at OABI and it made us instantly love Detroit. In the morning, we headed to The Detroit Institute of Bagels (http://www.detroitinstituteofbagels.com/) and had one of the best bagels I’ve ever had outside of New York City. It never ended.

And I worked at a bagel shop and made bagels when I was in high school. I know bagels. Add free wifi, great coffee and a friendly staff and you have a winner. I’d camp there every morning if I lived in Corktown.

Aerial view: Avocado, egg, cheese on everything! 🚀👌Flyover by: @BagelsBaconBeer

A photo posted by Detroit Institute of Bagels (@dibagels) on

At this point, I can talk about food for another 3000 words, but this is about OABI, so I’ll skip ahead…

Belle Isle Park

In the 15 minutes drive to Belle Isle, the rising wave of renewal, renovation, and restoration ebbs What was created from the bones of a post World War II promise of wealth and steel and combustion seems to end in ashes and rubble along East Jefferson Ave. Empty buildings. Boarded up businesses. Potholes and debris. No one walking around.

Belle Isle – 6am

A photo posted by 3andathird Detroit (@3andathird) on

Turning onto Belle Isle brings a palpable change in tone. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website, “Belle Isle Park is a Detroit gem and became Michigan’s 102nd State Park in 2014 as part of a lease agreement with the City of Detroit. This 985-acre island park is situated on the Detroit River between the United States and Canada. Home to a variety of attractions, including an aquarium, conservatory, and the James Scott Memorial Fountain, this park provides a wide assortment of educational and recreational opportunities.” (http://www.michigandnr.com/parksandtrails/Details.aspx?id=736&type=SPRK)

A photo posted by @ccjones01 on

This was a very cool day #detroityachtclub #belleisle #detroit #michigan

A photo posted by Sara sharkey (@penny_lane33) on

We wind our way around the island headed toward the Bell Island Yacht Club. Overgrown fields with street lights must have been dozens of tennis courts. Ornate bridges and what was once a thriving rowing club. We’re told that before the state took over, it was a war zone. People were being shot. It could have literally been the setting for a video game. Overgrown and lawless. It was a place to avoid, not visit.

Since the State took over, the park has made a U-Turn. Mowed grass. Rebuilt gazebos and facilities. A coat of paint here, new signs there. Paddles and bikes instead of guns and ammo. In a few years, this will again be one of the jewels of Michigan if not the entire country. And by Saturday, this park would be packed with barbeques, 5Ks, families running and playing and of course, a huge paddle event.

The water in the Detroit river is beautiful.

I swam for a half hour Friday during the paddle clinic, sharing the afternoon with a happy muskrat eating his lunch and swimming around the docks. The cool water counteracted the hot summer sun.

“Flint gave the rest of Michigan a black eye. We have amazing water quality,” Matt Lennert tells me. “That river (pointing at the Detroit River) flows straight from Niagara Falls.”

According the Michigan Live, “Years before the crisis in Flint, before the newfound appreciation across the state and nation for quality drinking water, Detroit-area residents quietly enjoyed the protection of what was considered the most sophisticated water monitoring system in America.”

Stretching from Port Huron to Monroe, high-tech sensor equipment first installed in 2006 provided real-time information on the waterways that serve as the drinking water source for more than 4 million people in southeast Michigan.

Fourteen water processing plants on the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair and Detroit River relied on this interconnected early warning system to detect oil spills, chemical leaks from upstream industrial plants or other contaminants flowing into intake pipes.” (read more: http://www.mlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/02/before_flint_a_detroit-area_wa.html)

In short, there was very little trash. It was refreshing, not too cold and clear. I’ve paddled in some nasty places (like the Harlem River) and this is nothing like that. Blue, clear and cool. More caribbean than river water.

Once Around Belle Isle: OABI

The first OABI Paddlers were Brian Mulloy, Detroit Surf Dave and Lisa, Joe Choma, Larry Balone, Shawn Riley, Matt Reume, Pete & Tracy Dryovage, Omega Mallory (He also makes the black blade trophies), Kristen Bridge, Annalee Marlette, and Tom Oconnor. It sounds like this was another example of a “how hard could it be?” The answer is two-fold: 1) It depends on the weather and 2) It’s hard enough and far enough to keep you honest. “Let’s see if we can paddle around the island” has turned into nearly 300 people in mist and fog walls of rain and freighter wakes.

The course circumnavigates Belle Isle, a water start and beach finish. The course is simple and it’s nearly impossible to get lost, even when visibility turns to near zero. The beauty of this race is its where standup paddleboards bump rails with surfskis, prones (actually one prone), canoes, kayaks, and outrigger canoes. Race boards. Inflatables. They all raced. They all had a place. It was a paddle event, not a standup paddleboard race. That’s how all races should be and will be except for a few specialized “championships.”

See you soon finish line ✋🏼#oabidetroit

A photo posted by jennifer swain (@zzzooey37) on

There was a huge front moving through. We had to get on the water and go. After the racers meeting, we made our way to the water and warmed up. It was loud and there were a lot of paddlers.

More #Oabidetroit photos! Great perspective of the massive amount of participants & crazy clouds. Biggest OABI yet!

A photo posted by MI Stand Up Paddlers (@michigan.sup) on

At first, it wasn’t clear where to go, but the kayaks knew. Kayakers and surfskis always pay attention. They were lined up and ready to go while all the SUPs were doing doughnuts. I migrated over to the line in time to hear them yell “GO!”

I was lucky. I was in the perfect spot to run to the front with Robert Hartman on his Think Surfski. That guy can move a boat. It was almost lyrical the way he rhythmically dipped and moved that double wing blade. He was gone. After the race, I did the math and he was 3 miles per hour faster than I was.

The race went upriver, into the current and with the wind. The question was whether the upriver windswell would be faster than the eddies along the docks, out of the current. Rob’s line proved what Noah Hall and the other locals told us before the race, stick to the docks into the current, go out in the middle after the turn, with the current.

Sticking to the docks was challenging with all the paddlers, but once I got an inside position, it was like being on an escalator. We paddled under fishing lines and around the Eastern end of the island. I was in the first line of long boats that included surfskis, kayaks and OCs. By the time we rounded the tip of the island and got out into the channel, with the current, we started to feel rain. At first, it felt good. It was hot even know there was little sun. Then the wind picked up and we could see not only a wall of rain coming toward us, but a tanker coming up river. That would mean a huge wake on top of the rain.

At times the rain was so hard, I couldn’t see. It stung. When the freighter wake hit, it was as if I paddled through a waterfall. Into the wind, chop, rain, waves and wakes we paddled. I looked around and couldn’t help but laugh out loud. This was NUTS! Still, I never felt in danger. There was coast guard in sight at all times. Everyone had leashes and PFDs. the storm would move through. There was no lightning. It was just one of those amazing experiences where there’s no way you’d have been out there if it wasn’t in the middle of a race with all your friends.

By the time we rounded the west tip of Belle Isle and headed up toward the finish, I was spent. But there was only 2 miles left and to my left was the only other OC in the race. No time to rest. We battled to the last paddle stroke and stepped across the finish within seconds of each other. That last mile was as hard as I’ve ever paddled.

As I crossed the finish and turned, there was Larry Cain. He’d started a full two minutes after me, had 14 feet of board to my 20 feet of OC, and had been walking us all down, stroke by stroke. #trainingworks If the race was another mile or two, he’d have passed all of us except for Robert Hartman and a few other incredibly talented surfski paddlers.

We waited at the finish, shagging boards and congratulating everyone. There were tons of volunteers. Even the people who were wrecked by the course were smiling. It was just one of those unforgettable race experiences that will undoubtedly grow over the years.

The after beach

This is a huge part. And I want to stress this. The location for the OABI is amazing because it allows them to do so much. Tons of vendors selling cool stuff. Food trucks that were AMAZING

Puffy tacos. 🌮👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼 O. M. G. #elcharro #puffytaco #oabidetroit #oabidetroit2016 #belleisle #detroit

A photo posted by Jennette Masserant (@jtrain6382) on

Thank you to Great Lakes Surf Company.

I love my shirts. So cool!

Photos

From Beth Price Photography: http://www.bethpricephotography.com/

From the MULLET: 

Next year is a big year

Why? Because they have the special sauce. The date is perfect. The location is perfect. 7 miles around an island with current makes it a very technical course. There’s enough time to break out or break down.

The location can accommodate bands, food trucks. There is a sheltered demo area. The midwest is growing, so demoing boards there will translate into sales. The local and regional population is passionate and welcoming. There is no CORE feeling. It’s inclusive and inspiring. I can easily see this race becoming a top 10 race nationally if not better. The midwest needs a crown jewel. OABI is a great candidate.

This race is growing as Detroit is growing. I see great things for both the city and this race and paddle community.

RESULTS

You can find all of the results here

Thank you Wendell

Wendell is my #yodabuddhabrudah and he was kind enough to lend me his OC to race. Wendell brought is Outrigger Canoe after the race and turned it into a merry-go-round with no less than a dozen people trying it out. Surf skis and kayaks, OCs, SUPs and prones all played together like they had been playing all along. People shared their equipment, traded boards and paddles and enjoyed each other. Wendell is the embodiment of stoke. Thank you my friend.

Thank you to OABI and all of you who supported Paddle Monster at the clinics. #trainingworks

We appreciate your support. We hope you learned a lot not just about your own technique, but about the theories behind paddling. It was a pleasure to hang out with all you. And for those of you interested in joining the Paddle Monster community, you already have a great start in Detroit. So many paddle monster paddlers within driving range. Use the force.

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