Essays > Flint Kayaker A Man Devoted to His Watershed

          “I drank water from the Flint River today.”
When Riley McLincha of Clio wrote those words in April 2005, he was on the first leg of a kayaking saga on what he considers to be his “home watershed.”
The lean General Motors retiree, 57, has paddled – through garbage and swamps, through cold and heat, through tip-overs and rapids, through exhaustion and exhilaration -- over four years and four rivers.
He goes out once a week, usually on Wednesdays, averaging about 10 miles a day. He keeps track of where he leaves off, takes photos along the way, and documents each leg in colorful, witty emails to a large band of fellow river rats and friends.
After the Flint River, he tackled the Tittabawassee and Shiawassee before taking on the Cass. The Flint River, he says, was his “first love” and his favorite, with many beautiful stretches and congenial kayaking.
McLincha expects to finish his adventure in mid-September on the last few miles of the Cass River, following it into the Saginaw River and gliding finally into the Saginaw Bay.
If the name Riley McLincha sounds familiar, it’s perhaps because he often pops up in other contexts – always joyfully and with a bit of mischief. He has run in every Crim race since it began – that’s 31 times so far – and invented the practice of “drubbling” – a combination of jogging, juggling and dribbling three basketballs.
He qualified for two Boston marathons and “drubbled” the second one – a feat, he stoutly asserts, he will never do again. The ordeal landed him, vomiting, in a wheelchair at the finish line.
He’s also a musician with a couple of CDs who performs occasionally at the Farmer’s Market. And once he memorized 7,500 digits of pi, enough to win him a fleeting berth in the 1978 Guinness Book of World Records. But his achievement was beaten before the book came out.
Back to that water. “No, I wasn’t feeling suicidal,” he wrote in what he may someday transform into a memoir. “It just looked so drinkable and I could not control the temptation.”
McLincha is the first to admit that he understood about the Flint River’s reputation as polluted and disgusting. In fact, he says, he’d often referred to it as the “Phlegm River.” And he knew that even if the water was pristine, “its name still would be ‘mud’ all because of the city named after it.”
But on that spring day in 2005, he was 50 miles upstream from Flint, near the Lapeer/Oakland County line, where the river is “a small stream three feet wide at places and the depth is measured in inches not feet.
“I was in a kayak at the time; the spot was very shallow and clear. On the riverbed pebbles in the gravel glistened…I dipped in my cupped hand and drew an ounce towards my face. My eyes detected nothing but crystal clear H2O. I knew there could be some dangerous one-celled organisms, but I still took my chances. It was refreshing and tasty…as tasty as any water I’ve ever drunk.”
McLincha is not deeply philosophical about his pilgrimage, except to say that “I like doing things seldom, if ever, tried by others. ‘Why?’ is a question I often get asked. I’m often embarrassed that I cannot give them a good reason, only that it pleases me in some way.”
He was born at the old Women’s Hospital on Twelfth and grew up in a scrappy neighborhood the residents sometimes called “Little Chicago,” four miles from where he now lives in Thetford Township.
He thinks people should claim their watersheds just like they claim their hometowns. He makes a point of saying, “I grew up in the Cass Watershed via Dead Creek,” where he and his mates built boats out of little logs and sticks and raced them. Now, however, the Flint River watershed is his “home.”
Despite that in what he calls his “dilapidated” rural neighborhood people rarely finished high school, goats and cows were chained to the ground in back yards next to outhouses, and the Tuscola County cops were often called in to try to quell “child and spousal abuse, incest, rape, prostitution and alcoholism,” McLincha has fond memories of the watershed.
“Somehow I grew up sticking with rivers,” he says. “There was a love there.”
Many of McLincha’s escapades flowed from the fact, he says, that in all his 31 years at General Motors, all as a skilled trades fork truck repairman at the truck assembly plant on Van Slyke, he never liked his job.
“I made a real life of what I did when I wasn’t at the shop,” he said. That reality also drove him to UM – Flint, where he got a BA in teaching in 1999 with a 3.96 grade-point average.
McLincha paddled all four rivers in a light, basic kayak he picked up for $180, on sale at 50 percent off. Its brand name was Swifty. That’s what he’s always called his much-toted buddy, and they’ve stayed together for the whole adventure.
Most of the time he kayaks alone, but occasionally some of the others – kayakers, athletes, or curious river dilettantes, join in. Beer is occasionally involved.
The cleanest river of the four rivers, McLincha says, was the Shiawassee, and the worst was the Tittabawassee, burdened as it is with Dow pollutants.
“I’m not the EPA,” he quickly qualifies, “but that’s how it looked.”
And it’s how the rivers sometimes smelled. At a swampy, garbage-ridden spot at the end of the Shiawassee called the Shiawassee Flats, for example, the water smelled so badly he and even his van reeked long after he got home.
More than once he had to maneuver Swifty through stinking pile-ups of rotten garbage, plastic bottles and abandoned toys, especially rubber balls.
“It really makes me mad to see the litter,” he says. “If I dropped something in I’d look for it until I got it back. I really want to say to people, keep the litter away from the river. Be more aware.”
The longest was probably the Flint, at roughly 112 miles. And the Flint had the best wildlife – out beyond Birch Run, especially, he saw many beaver, deer and wild turkeys.
Now that his river journeys are almost complete, McLincha is ruminating on his next adventure.
“I’m sad it’s going to be over,” he says quietly. “Maybe I’ll do the tributaries – there are lots of them. Or maybe I’ll do the Saginaw Bay. Next summer, I’m not going to be sitting around the house. I know I’ll think of something.”