LORI ESCHENBURG: Paddling Along

When Lori Eschenburg was growing up in Traverse City, her father took her into the woods and taught her how to hunt and fish and to find her way home again. She and her brothers used the local waterways as their personal playground, canoeing the Boardman River.

As a child, she never thought she would grow up and use of her knowledge of the great outdoors, on both land and water, in her professional life.

Eschenburg, a planner with the St. Clair County Metropolitan Planning Commission, makes good use of a wide range of land-and-sea skills in her work as a cartographer, or “map maker,” for the county, as well as in her role overseeing the Blueways of St. Clair, a program that ties together more than 138 miles of paddling routes in the county.

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Lori Eschenburg of the St. Clair County Metropolitan Commission

A 1985 graduate of Northern Michigan University, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in geography, Eschenburg began her work with St. Clair County in 1998, when she was hired part-time to serve as a cartographer.

“Anything can be mapped if it has an address,” she said. “I can tell a story with a map. We have data that even shows the building heights. Mapping makes connections. It tells a story and it can solve problems. It’s amazing and it’s fun.”

It was in 2011 that Eschenburg began working full-time for the county for the planning commission, which gave her the additional task of managing a number of grant projects. Eschenburg then became responsible for grants related to recreational trails and waterways, as biking and paddling became more popular, and communities recognized the importance of developing such amenities as an integral part of economic development.

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In addition to mapping out roadways, Eschenburg said communities are now beginning to also map out trail systems. “This is important so each community knows the condition of their trails and when repairs and replacement need to take place.”

Eschenburg was instrumental in obtaining the grant dollars that brought about the Blueways of St. Clair water trail system, as well as the Island Loop National Water Trail designation, which was obtained in 2013.

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“We got a grant, and that’s when water trails were just becoming popular,” she said. “Ours was the 12th water trail designation in the nation, and the first in Michigan. The national park system considers it an exploratory trail.”

Eschenburg is working to build on the success of the nationally designated waterway and the local water trails by putting together a strategic plan to help capitalize on those successes.

“We’ve never had a plan and we’ve never had a budget, beyond the grant that got us started,” she said. “Our access points are on public land that are owned and maintained by the municipalities, and we’re looking at industry adopting-an-access point. For example, Enbridge is adopting an access point at Mermaid Park in Marysville.

“We’re also looking at how to market ourselves and the future of the Blueway…where should it be?”

A resident of East China who also owns a farm in Yale, Eschenburg feels just as connected to the outdoors in the Blue Water Area as she did growing up in the Traverse City area.

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“My dad would take me hunting, and it wasn’t just about hunting or killing something or eating it, it was about appreciating the outdoors,” she said. “Now, I go kayaking and I walleye fish with my husband, and we hunt and shoot out on our farm in Yale, and it’s a great place to have a bon fire and relax.

“I do love St. Clair County,” she said. “And a lot of people don’t know about St. Clair County, and it’s very unique. We have the largest freshwater delta in the country in Clay Township. We have a wide variety of paddling experiences, and we want people to come eat, shop, and sleep here, and explore our 17 water trails.”

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