Victorious in National Park lawsuit, Riverside Canoes celebrates 60 years


Photo: Kyle and Kelly Orr and their family currently own Riverside Canoes on the Platte River.

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

Warm days in July and August are packed with thousands who turn the Platte River into a floating party. National Park rangers sometimes issue citations for drunkenness and groups traveling without a Park pass.

Riverside Canoes will not need a commercial use authorization from the National Park Service to continue renting canoes, kayaks and tubes on the Platte River at the southern end of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Nor will the business have to share five percent of its gross sales with the Park.

On March 1, federal judge Paul Maloney with the Western District of Michigan ruled in favor of Riverside, which will celebrate 60 years of operating on the Platte when it opens on May 1. The National Park Service has until the end of April to appeal.

Kyle and Kelly Orr, longtime Riverside employees who met each other while working there and acquired the livery in 2011 from previous owners Tom and Kathy Stocklen, believed the matter had already been settled. The business opened in 1964, and the Stocklens, who later acquired it, fought a long legal battle with the Park after Sleeping Bear Dunes was created in 1970. The government ultimately dropped its condemnation case, and the Stocklens dropped a declaratory judgement action. In 1992 they signed an agreement that allowed Riverside to continue operating within the National Lakeshore.

The letter of agreement between the Stocklens and the Park stated, “It is our understanding and agreement that we will use our property for the purpose of a canoe livery/marina/general store as it has been used for the past 28 years. … Our use has been and will continue to be consistent with the purpose and intent of the act that created the Sleeping Bear Dunes.” Then director of the National Park Service James Ridenour signed the letter and acknowledged it in subsequent correspondence with the Stocklens.

Then, in early 2022, Sleeping Bear Dunes officials approached the Orrs and asked them to sign a commercial use authorization, which according to the National Park website, “is required if you provide any goods, activities, services, agreements or other function for park visitors that take place at least in part on lands managed by the NPS; use park resources; and result in compensation, monetary gain, benefit, or profit to you, when a concession contract is not necessary.”

It’s unclear why the Park sought to revisit the matter two years ago. Officials with the National Lakeshore declined to comment, citing active litigation.

Several years ago, Sleeping Bear Dunes stopped dredging near the mouth of the Platte where it empties into Lake Michigan. The Orrs said that caused the river’s current to slow down, and a two-hour float from the river weir to Lake Michigan now took four hours. Riverside staff then began launching customers at El Dorado, property owned by the Benzie Road Commission which the Park manages through an easement.

The Orrs were told in 2022 that they needed a commercial use agreement to use El Dorado. But their attorneys warned them that if they signed any new agreement with the Park, it could potentially void any prior agreements, such as the breakthrough 1992 agreement with the federal government. Instead, they countersued in federal court on April 6, 2022.

Judge Maloney wrote in his opinion last month, “The 1992 agreement contemplated continued use now and in the future. Therefore, the plaintiff does not need to execute a commercial use agreement to become compliant with section 5.3, it already fulfills section 5.3’s obligations.”

The Orr family was vacationing in Jamaica when they received the news of the judge’s seven-page summary judgement. Kyle Orr told the Glen Arbor Sun they were pleasantly surprised that the judge bypassed oral arguments from the attorneys and made a decision. They celebrated with more than one toast, said Kelly. With an appeal possible they remain cautiously optimistic.

“Riverside is an anomaly. The business existed before the Park was there,” said Kyle. “We try to provide family fun for generations. But we also recognize that we are stewards of the river.

“We are not anti-park. At end of day, I just want to coexist.”

For the most part, Riverside staff enjoy a good relationship with the Sleeping Bear Dunes rangers who patrol the Platte River and Lake Michigan Road, along which visitors park to access the river, said Kyle. Hundreds of Park passes are sold each summer to tourists who rent from the livery. Warm days in July and August are packed with thousands who turn the river into a floating party. Rangers often issue citations for drunkenness and groups traveling without a Park pass.

“My dad walks Lake Michigan Road every day and picks up trash,” said Kyle. When his family bought Riverside Canoes in 2011, then Sleeping Bear Dunes superintendent Dusty Shultz visited to congratulate them.

But the Orrs interpreted the legal battle of the past two years as a wakeup call.

“We’re under no illusion that (the Park) will ever leave us alone,” he said. “We’ve told our kids to be diligent.”

Kyle and Kelly Orr hope their children, ages 21 and 19, will one day take over the business.

“My opinion is that when you look at the National Park, they want to manage it like it’s an island unto itself. But Sleeping Bear is not one single park, it’s a spider web. You have villages and private lands inside of it. You can’t have complete symmetry here.”

Correction: The April 11 print version of this story, and an early online version, incorrectly reported 1972 as the year the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was founded. In fact, the Park was founded on Oct. 20, 1970. In addition, the Stocklens were not Riverside’s original owners. An early version of the story also misquoted Kyle Orr, who said that “Riverside is an anomaly.” We regret the errors.