© Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, Michigan State University School of Journalism -- reprinted with permission


Ed Noonan, the River Man, Creates a White-Water Rapids Course
by Jyl Barnett

In the time it takes the average square dancer to doucey-doe his partner across the dance floor, the two could have picked up their heels, climbed in a kayak and yelled out a squeal as they headed down the Red Cedar Rapids, Michigan's first man-made rapids course.

Just ask Ed Noonan, the mind behind the project, who can frequently be seen shuffling along the edge of the river, not far from his house, kayak in tow. Ever since he set one of those aerodynamic "boats" into Muldrew Lake in Canada for the first time more than 40 years ago, he hasn't been able to keep his feet dry. Getting a raw taste for the outdoors at a young age, summers he spent at the lake set a tone for the rest of his life.
"Overall, I learned a lot about myself and my surroundings, said Noonan, whose graying hair and rounded belly don't seem to define his youthful spirit. "It was an incredible experience that got me first interested in many of the things I've done today."

Now in his mid-fifties, this retired lawyer from Williamston, Mich. literally has seen the world from the seat of whizzing bicycles and the insides of narrow kayaks and canoes.

From a 6,011-mile Alaska-to-Florida bicycle adventure in 1996 to a kayak-and-bicycle tour of northern Michigan in 1997 and two-week bicycle trip across the backbone of the Alps in 1998, Noonan's feet don't stay grounded. "I'm terrible that way. I don't let much moss grow under me for too long but the thing to do along with all these adventures is to get friends interested in them. Lots of people don't think they can do the things I've accomplished, but really, they can."

Beyond that, he's brought a hunger to Williamston, a small city not far from the state capital, along the Red Cedar River.
After 16 years in Alaska, Noonan returned to Michigan accompanied by his love for kayaking and his adventuresome spirit. He couldn't wait to get his hands dirty. He began working on his Red Cedar River project after attending a watershed meeting about the condition of the river in the early 1990s.

"I thought about the river and how it worked and how it flowed, and when we faced the idea of replacing the dam that was washed out in 1975 by heavy floods, I tried to think of more aesthetic ways to do that. I got thinking out loud one day and I wondered,'Could you turn this into rapids where you could make recreational use of it?"'

After asking around in the community whether a project like this one was possible, Noonan got the name of an engineer, Rich Whale, who happened to be an extreme kayaker and, who was trying to promote man-made rapids in Michigan, but not getting anywhere. Together, the two set out to do the impossible: Transform the decaying dam into a place where all levels of kayakers and canoeists could play.

After being elected to the Williamston City Council, Noonan shared his ideas even further. And he found he wasn't alone in his dreams for the river.

Noonan and other expert kayakers and canoeists formed a committee to research the cost and reality of the rapids concept and soon found the project could work, and would cost a lot less than a new dam. "When word got out what we were doing, I started getting e-mails from all over the world.

A lot of people worldwide were watching to see how the course went. Even some nationally-recognized white-water-rafting organizations wanted to know more,'' he said.

What started as one man' s vision, soon became a city's reality. And by the end of the summer of 1998, the Williamston Red Cedar Rapids Project opened its course to the first kayaker - Noonan himself.

Although the Williamston Red Cedar Rapids Project isn't the first man-made rapids area in the country, it is the first of its kind in Michigan. Other engineered, rapid areas include the Grand River in Wausau, Wis.; the Ocoee River in Tennessee, where the 1996 Olympic kayak and canoe races were held, and the St. Joe River in South Bend, Ind., which uses hydraulic gates to control water levels and conditions of the river.

The course in Williamston, which runs 1,000 feet and drops six feet, is much less extravagant than those other courses, mostly because it relies less on engineering and more on the natural features of the Red Cedar, said Rich Whale, the designer engineer. "Different sites hold different opportunities, though. The $5 million project in South Bend allows a unique experience to expert kayakers and canoeists because it's much more complex than the Williamston project, which uses a small dam and low water levels," he said.
But less extravagant doesn't always mean less demanding. Noonan said the University of Michigan at Flint, Oakland Community College, Eastern Michigan University and Albion College are all interested in moving their kayaking and canoeing classes to the course in Williamston.

The Red Cedar project includes four small drops and a broad range of flow, between three cubic feet per second to 3,000 cubic feet per second. At the low-flow ranges, it normally wouldn't be considered for whitewater, but for novice, the river works just fine, says Noonan.

"It's a small-scale project," says Noonan. "Much smaller than anything else in the world, to my knowledge. All the others are enthusiasts' courses, and this isn't...But what I like about it is that if you get into trouble you just stand up. You don't have all the dangers a natural course holds, where you don't know exactly what or where certain things are in the river. That's why this is a great course for train in.

Although the site doesn't have canoes to rent yet, a vendor may set up a rental store nearby in the future.
When you think Noonan has done just about everything humanly possible for the river, he surprises you by disclosing there's more. Plans are under consideration to include another one-foot drop in the Williamston course to eliminate traffic on the river from motor boats.

"I really hope the commitment of the community to keep the river clean is fulfilled," he says. "I'd love to see an action photo with someone in the river in the winter, with ice up to their neck and everything. But I've seen people there every single weekend, and on weekdays, too. And I'd love this project one day to be part of a river trail running from Lake Erie all the way to Lake Michigan."

Jyl Barnett, who is studying environmental journalism at MSU, spent the fall 1999 term in Scotland.