French documentary filmmaker Florent Tillon e-mailed some "bad news" to Joel Thurtell '67 this past summer. Instead of including video of a July 2009 motorboat trip the men took up the Rouge River in Detroit as part of his feature-length documentary, Detroit Wild City, Tillon turned their river excursion into Sanctuary, a 12-minute, stand-alone video.
"This was not 'bad news,'" said Thurtell. "Instead of playing a bit part, I got to co-star."
Tillon and Detroit photographer Geoffrey George were in the bow of Thurtell's boat as they motored slowly up a nine-mile stretch of the Rouge, re-tracing the route taken four years earlier by Thurtell and photographer Patricia Beck. The only difference: Thurtell and Beck were paddling a canoe, sometimes against 30 mph gusts.
The account of their 2005 experience was published in the Detroit Free Press and won the Water Environment Federation's 2006 Henry E. Schlenz Medal for public education about the environment. They later turned their adventure into Up the Rouge! Paddling Detroit's Hidden River, a book published in 2009 by Wayne State University Press. An audio book of sounds recorded during their canoe trip is also available.
According to Thurtell, who was a reporter with the Free Press for 23 years, Tillon's two documentaries are about "the irony of our unceasing need for industrial products that cause irreparable harm to the world around us. We may rail at ravages of industrial pollution, but we still use our cars and for that matter, motorboats whose manufacture leads to the very contamination we deplore."
The Rouge River is a perfect example of this irony, he said. For mile after mile, he and the others slowly cruised along the ugly side of industrial America - piles of coke, ore, and slag from two working steel mills; heaps of salt, gypsum, and four miles of river literally paved with concrete to prevent flooding caused by construction of homes, stores, offices, hotels, factories on terrain naturally prone to flood.
The air along the Rouge, he said, hangs heavy with pollutants belched by the countless smokestacks and blown free from mountains of industrial products and byproducts. After
"Instead of playing a bit part, I got to co-star."his 2005 canoe trip, Thurtell said he developed "raging infections" on his hands from the frequent contact he had with the river water.
Just north of Michigan Avenue, however, the concrete changes to woodland, Thurtell said. "As if somebody touched a switch...it's urban forest with cardinals calling and kingfishers sailing overhead. Welcome to the Henry Ford Estate. It was the personal sanctuary created by auto magnate Henry Ford and seems quite rural, except we know better. We had just passed the factory sprawl and eternal mess Ford and other industrialists created just downstream."
Detroit Wild City will premiere October 8-10 at Detroit's Burton Theater. Sanctuary, which Tillon said will become a "DVD bonus" of the main documentary, can be viewed on Thurtell's blog, joelontheroad.com. Read more about Up the Rouge and Thurtell's other books there, and in the May 2010 Belight. Contact Joel at email@example.com.