By Jacob Wheeler
FLOW Communications Coordinator
Childhood friends William Wright and Chris Yahanda wanted to do their part to protect the Great Lakes and, in particular, to urge Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to shut down the Line 5 oil pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac by terminating the easement of Canadian pipeline company Enbridge.
FLOW and other environmental groups have long made the case that the turbulent waters under the Mackinac Bridge, where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet, represent the most dangerous place in the Great Lakes for a catastrophic Line 5 oil spill. Enbridge has a shoddy track record in Michigan. The company’s Line 6B pipeline rupture into the Kalamazoo River in 2010 caused one of the worst inland spills in U.S. history.
FLOW and our partners in the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign have long pressured Michigan state government to shut down Line 5. Gov. Whitmer announced on November 13, 2020, that she would revoke and terminate Enbridge’s pipeline easement, effective May 12, 2021. The pipeline company continues to fight the order in court.
“We thought, maybe we can tell a story through a paddle journey in the places that we love and show how we can protect them,” said Wright. “The Line 5 issue spurred our desire to take this journey.”
Watch our interview with William Wright and Chris Yahanda and footage of their journey thus far.
Wright and Yahanda are currently paddling 425 miles over approximately 45 days, from the Straits of Mackinac, down the west coast of Michigan, up the Grand River through Grand Rapids, and ultimately to the State Capitol in Lansing. Their friend Davis Huber, a filmmaker based in Los Angeles, is capturing their journey and plans to make a film about their effort.
On June 9 the paddleboarders left Mackinac Island where the Michigan governor has a guest mansion, and headed for the Mackinac Bridge, itself. Sometime in late July or early August, they will bookend their trip when they arrive at the governor’s office.
“We go in support of her effort to shut down Line 5,” said Wright.
For Yahanda, paddling under the Mackinac Bridge, where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet, inspired awe and respect for nature.
“I’ve been over the Bridge many times, but to see it from underneath, to be so close to the water and really see the magnitude of the convergence of that water, it’s different,” he said. “You can definitely feel the energy of the transfer of water. Even the air feels different. How quickly it could turn on a dime.
“We couldn’t help but think of how important that place is to protect and how disastrous it would be if millions of gallons of oil were poured into it.”
Paddling southwest toward the Leelanau Peninsula, Wright and Yahanda encountered days with headwinds that prevented them from making much distance. But they also experienced calm days that allowed them to paddle for 20 miles or more at a time. On June 17 they paddled 28 miles, from Norwood, just south of Charlevoix, to Leland—their best day yet.
“We learned pretty quickly about the power of the water,” said Wright. “There have been times when we came out of a bay and had the wind direction change on a dime. The weather out there can really impact us on paddleboards since we’re small and catch wind pretty easily. We have learned firsthand the respect we need to have for Mother Nature.”
On June 20 they paddled down the Leelanau coast, past the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore’s majestic dunes, and spent the night at Point Betsie in Benzie County.
“We had a perfectly clear day with low wind while seeing the bluff and the sand come straight to the water,” said Wright. “That coastline is so beautiful, from Pyramid Point and down the coast of Sleeping Bear.”
They are currently camping in Ludington State Park.
Wright and Yahanda are collaborating with FLOW, M22, the northern Michigan outdoor apparel brand, Oil & Water Don’t Mix, and Mawby Sparkling Wine—which recently unveiled a “Shut Down Line 5” sparkling wine.
“We are stoked to partner with FLOW. From the very beginning of our project, Liz Kirkwood, FLOW’s executive director, has helped us develop a deeper understanding of the water issues plaguing the Great Lakes,” said Wright.