For several years, since environmentalists made the Grand River a live stream once more, fishermen have been a fairly common sight in Grand Rapids. But until this spring their fishing had been confined to the southern part of town, below the 6th Street Dam, a barrier only the heartiest and most spawn-crazed salmon and steelhead were capable of leaping.
Now a fish ladder provides easy access to an additional 150 miles of the Grand and its tributaries. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources undertook the project and, aside from its being the only fish ladder in the middle of a city, there was to be nothing unusual or noteworthy about it. But Grand Rapids has come into national prominence recently, not only as the hometown of the 38th President but also because of its 42-ton stabile, La Grande Vitesse, by Alexander Calder. So it seemed only natural to local sculptor Joseph Kinnebrew that if Grand Rapids was going to have a fish ladder, it should be more esthetically pleasing than the "rectangular septic tank" proposed by the DNR.
Kinnebrew came up with a plan for a fish ladder that would also be a piece of walkthrough sculpture, enveloping viewers in "the white sound of the river and the world of the fish" as they looked down at the salmon leaping two flights of steps to reach the water above the dam. At first the DNR balked at an artist sticking his nose into its business, and when engineering studies indicated that Kinnebrew's aquatic art could cost $100,000 more than the utilitarian structure, the DNR dismissed his idea as frills.
But Kinnebrew was determined, and he managed to talk the National Endowment for the Arts into providing $40,000 for the project. The Michigan Council for the Arts added $9,000. Kinnebrew was faced with raising the balance from local individuals and foundations. He spent much of last year driving all over the city displaying a model of his fish ladder from the trunk of his car. "I felt a little foolish," Kinnebrew says, "asking potential patrons if they'd mind stepping out to the parking lot, but the model was just too big to carry into their offices."
Awkward as his method was, he managed to raise $40,000, and now, by the 6th Street Dam, between furniture factories and warehouses, Kinnebrew's design straddles the fish ladder, pleasing art lovers and fish lovers.
The Kinnebrew sculpture may even become more of a Grand Rapids landmark than the now famous Calder. The DNR predicts that with all the attention the Grand River is getting, within five years downtown Grand Rapids will be the hottest fishing spot in the upper Midwest. Picture, if you can, fishermen flocking to the north country from Indiana, Ohio and Illinois, checking in at The Pantlind Hotel and the Holiday Inn, rising for an early room service breakfast and taking a Checker Cab, hoping to be the first to their favorite spot above the dam. There anglers can lay out a Wiggler Nymph or a streamer below bank towers to lure a 20-pound salmon freshly emerged from a work of art.