Sunday, September 16, 2012

USA: Biking Along Lake St. Clair

Jefferson Ave. and Lake Shore Drive

Dad's 005
Bob prefers riding to walking.

Dad’s next door neighbor Bob rides his bicycle almost every day, weather permitting. A 92-year-old ex-bomber pilot, Bob lives with his daughter Kathryn. He bought a bike hoping she would ride, too.

“You can borrow it,” Bob said. “Hell, she’s only ridden it once!”  Next thing I knew, Bob was wheeling the Huffy one-speed cruiser with coast brakes out of his garage, and I was adjusting the seat and handlebars to suit my height. The problem is, I’m used to lightweight, maneuverable bikes with hand brakes and gears. This Huffy is … a bomber. During the three weeks that I borrowed it I fell over twice, once skinning my knee and the other my elbow, not to mention bruising my pride. 

I’ve named the bike after Bob’s WWII B-24 Liberator, Calamity Jane.
Never mind, even though it’s a bomber, Calamity Jane made me feel liberated. I could get out and ride.


My favorite route is Jefferson Avenue along Lake St. Clair in St. Clair Shores and Grosse Pointe Shores. Jefferson is one of Detroit’s five major avenues, dating back to its survey in 1807. ( “Jeff,” as my Grandma Roz used to call it, begins in Detroit and travels north parallel to the Detroit River, through the Grosse Pointes, St. Clair Shores, and Clinton Township, to the town of New Baltimore at the north end of Lake St. Clair.

This little farmhouse could be a remnant of an earlier lakefront farm.
This farmhouse may date back to
the early lakefront farming days.
In the early days, when transportation out of the city was only available to the white and wealthy, people had farms and, later, summer cottages along the lake. The rest of the area was hinterland – farms destined to become housing tracts during the baby boom of the 1950’s and the flight to the suburbs of more recent decades. Originally, the area was settled by French farmers who arrived by boat, giving Lac Sainte Claire its name and also naming Detroit after the river, le détroit du Lac Érie, meaning “the strait of Lake Erie.” (

In Grosse Pointe, Jefferson becomes Lake Shore Drive, and it’s the only portion of the entire 63-mile road that travels next to the lake. The rest of the lakeshore is private property, interspersed with private parks. There is precious little public access to Lake St. Clair which arguably the area’s greatest natural asset. I wonder how the economy there might have been different, had the original planners conceived of public beaches and bike paths? Would it have become an urban recreation destination for paddlers, swimmers and bicyclists? We’ll never know. The forerunner to the modern bicycle didn’t exist until 1817, and the first chain-driven model was built around 1840. ( Who would have thought then that bicycling would be the competitive and leisure activity it is today?

And as for paddling – well – I guess that was what Indians did.

... the Emory W. Clark House, built in 1934 for the president of First National Bank of Detroit.
A grand old house from the 1930's.

As children, the girls in our neighborhood, including my sister Mary and friend Janet (from the previous Detroit story) rode our bikes to Grandma Schreiber’s house in Grosse Pointe Farms once every summer. It was an all day adventure. We would start out from Sunnyside, pedaling through Grosse Pointe Woods to Grosse Pointe Shores.

The GP Farms Pier Park is still a favorite spot for family picnics. Grandma lived up on Kerby.
Grandma lived on Kerby.
We rode south on the sidewalk along Lake Shore Drive until we turned right onto Grandma’s street, just past the Grosse Pointe Farms Pier Park. Along the way, we stopped and gaped at the huge mansions, monuments to the auto industry giants in their glory days, behind great expanses of perfectly manicured lawns. We saw nannies in uniforms – yes, dresses with starched white aprons! – pushing babies in buggies and strollers!

Today you’ll see more people bicycling, jogging and walking on Lake Shore than I can ever remember, although the nannies in costume are gone

Grosse Pointe Yacht Club landmark.
Grosse Pointe Yacht Club
Most of those grand estates have since been subdivided, the original mansions torn down. Now there are newer, more tightly spaced mansions and perhaps fewer acres of lawn, but the elegance of Lakeshore Drive remains unchanged.

As a teenager I spent hundreds, probably thousands of hours on both sides of Lakeshore – on the road and on the water. The tower of the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club, which you may recognize if you saw the movie Gran Torino, is perhaps the most enduring mental image I have of growing up.

Private property signs are posted all along the route.
Private property

Although Jefferson is separated from the lakeshore in St. Clair Shores, you can catch glimpses of the sparkling lake between the trees and houses. And even without the Grosse Pointe lake view, people of all ages are bicycling and strolling on the sidewalk along Jefferson in St. Clair Shores. I even saw a 20-something boy rollerblading and another one on a skateboard, pushing himself along with a pole – similar to paddling a stand up paddle board.

It was refreshing to see so many Michiganders out getting healthy exercise. I kept having to remind myself that the weather – sunshine, temperature in the 80’s, low humidity – was as perfect as it could get. Winter weather can be bitter and bleak.

I couldn’t resist taking Calamity Jane for a ride along Lake Shore, even though it would be a long one from Dad’s condo at the St. Clair Shores Golf Course. From start to finish, it was 24 miles round trip. It took exactly three hours, including getting air in my tires, falling over and picking myself up once while waiting at a stop light, and stopping to take photos.

Lake St. Clair
My ride was 12 miles each way.

Biking Clinton River 030

Calamity Jane, with flat tire.
By the time I got back to Dad’s, my legs were aching – why didn’t I bring some G2 instead of just water?? That heavy bike with the coast brakes did me in. But the next day I found out that our ride had taken a toll on Calamity Jane – she had a flat tire! At least the old bomber didn’t fail me during the mission.

gptourmap copy

For me, this was a beautiful ride along memory lane. If you find yourself in the area, try the driving tour of the Grosse Pointe mansions from the Grosse Pointe Historical Society. and

Many of the now demolished mansions still existed when we rode there as kids.

Thanks for reading.

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