The Huron River’s main stem flows 126 miles, from its origin at Big Lake and the Andersonville Swamp in Oakland County to its mouth at the shores of Lake Erie. Through a complex series of wetlands and lakes, the river meanders in a southwesterly direction from its headwaters to Portage Lake where it begins to flow south to the Village of Dexter in Washtenaw County. There, the river turns to the southeast and proceeds to its final destination at Lake Erie.
Between its headwaters at Big Lake and its point of entry into Lake Erie, the Huron River drops 446 feet. Along its course, 24 major tributaries flow into the main stem. However, the Huron is not a free-flowing river system. 17 impoundments are located on the river’s main stem. Throughout the whole system, at least ninety-seven dams segment the river system. This number does not include undocumented dams.
Geography of the Main Branch
In the following section, we divide the course of the Huron River into five geographically defined sections. This is simply a convenience; it is a practical way to describe the geography of the river and its watershed. However, the boundaries imposed by these divisions are man-made images and have little to do with the ecological distinctions found in nature. With that caveat in mind, the imposition of five geographical sections does help us to understand the river’s 126-mile progress from steeply sloped, relatively unpopulated land areas to more level urban industrial areas where population density is high. It also underscores the impact that human beings have on the natural environment of the river and the watershed.
Section I: Big Lake (Oakland County) to Kent Lake Dam (Livingston County)
Length 35.9 miles; Drainage Area 152 square miles
Descent 1,018 to 869 feet above sea level
In the upper half of this section, the Andersonville Swamp is the dominant feature of the landscape. The river is shallow and narrow, with many lakes punctuating a rolling and often hilly terrain. Land use within this drainage area is mostly rural residential, with clusters of urban development at Walled Lake and Milford. There are two major impoundments (bodies of water created by dams) at Milford and Kensington MetroPark. Recreational opportunities abound along the southern stretch of the Huron River in Section I − fishing, swimming, canoeing, hiking, bicycling, and picnicking.
Section II: Kent Lake Dam (Livingston County) to Portage Lake Dam (Washtenaw County)
Length 17.6 miles; Drainage Area 372 square miles
Descent 869 to 850 feet above sea level
The upper reaches of this section are primarily natural and undeveloped. Island Lake Recreation Area protects a variety of habitat and wildlife, and the river’s varied shoreline includes steep wooded banks, flat areas, gentle slopes, and extensive wetlands. The river is relatively wide, yet shallow, and the southern stretch of Section II is often called the Chain of Lakes. Both the river and the lakes are popular for water recreation, and Portage Creek (one of the river’s largest tributaries) enters the Huron at Portage Lake. A few pockets of viable agriculture remain in this section’s drainage area, but advancing residential development is evident.
Section III: Portage Lake Dam (Washtenaw County) to Superior Road Bridge (Washtenaw County)
Length 26.7 miles; Drainage Area 277 square miles
Descent 869 to 711 feet above sea level
The northern stretches of this section include woodlots, farms, pastures, and steeply wooded slopes. The southern stretches are intensely commercial and residential in their development, and increasingly urban in character. Section III is renowned for recreational opportunities. It is a destination for world class fishing, canoeing, and kayaking, with notable rapids at Hudson Mills and Delhi MetroParks. In this section, the river is wider and deeper, with major impoundments at Barton, Argo, and Geddes Ponds. Mill Creek, the largest tributary to the river, drains 144 square miles of agricultural land and enters the Huron River near the Village of Dexter.
Section IV: Superior Road Bridge (Washtenaw County) to US 275 Bridge (Wayne County)
Length 35.3 miles; Drainage Area 66 square miles
Descent 711 to 580 feet above sea level
In Section IV the river becomes even wider (up to half a mile across) and deeper, as well as steeper in descent, with the riverbanks dropping off sharply. This section includes the river’s two largest impoundments: Ford and Belleville Lakes. Most of this shoreline is privately owned, with multi-family residential development very near the water. Industries and municipalities use the river for both waste disposal and recreation, primarily boating and fishing. South of the major impoundments, the topography becomes increasingly flat, and most of the land use is densely urban and/or suburban in character.
Section V US 275 Bridge (Wayne County) to Pointe Mouillee (Monroe County) at Lake Erie
Length 9.3 miles; Drainage Area 41 square miles
Descent 580 to 572 feet above sea level
In Section V the Huron River achieves a mature river form − very wide and slow-moving. There is an abundance of wetlands along its banks and the entire drainage area is flat. The river’s final large dam (originally created to produce hydroelectric power) is found at Flat Rock. Below this point, the drainage area narrows rapidly, with land and water merging into marshlands that nurture a rich variety of fish and fowl. Two international migratory flyways intersect over Pointe Mouillee. At the mouth of the Huron, diked and drained land supports productive traditional agriculture. Throughout this section, one can sense the presence of a larger body of water (Lake Erie), a longer history of human habitation, and the influence of the river on the lives of the people who live here.
There are a variety of resources available on the main branch: