Riley McLincha, local ‘drubbler,’ ‘runyaker,’ dead at 73

In honor of local runner, kayaker, musician, and friend Riley McLincha’s passing, we’re republishing one of our favorite stories of his unique, adventurous spirit: I drank water from the Flint River today” by Jan Worth-Nelson — originally published in August 2008.

McLincha died in a “runyaking” (a hybrid of kayaking and running) accident on June 18, 2024. He was 73.

“I drank water from the Flint River today.”

When Riley McLincha of Clio wrote those words in April 2005, he was on the first leg of a kayaking saga on what he considers to be his “home watershed.” The lean General Motors retiree, 57, has paddled through garbage and swamps, through cold and heat, through tip-overs and rapids, through exhaustion and exhilaration over four years and four rivers.

He goes out once a week, usually on Wednesdays, averaging about 10 miles a day. He keeps track of where he leaves off, takes photos along the way, and documents each leg in colorful, witty emails to a large band of fellow river rats and friends.

After the Flint River, he tackled the Tittabawassee and Shiawassee before taking on the Cass. The Flint River, he says, was his “first love” and his favorite, with many beautiful stretches and congenial kayaking. McLincha expects to finish his adventure in mid-September on the last few miles of the Cass River, following it into the Saginaw River and gliding finally into the Saginaw Bay.

If the name Riley McLincha sounds familiar, it’s perhaps because he often pops up in other contexts – always joyfully and with a bit of mischief.

He has run in every Crim race since it began, that’s 31 times so far, and invented the practice of “drubbling” – a combination of jogging, juggling and dribbling three basketballs.

He qualified for two Boston marathons and “drubbled” the second one a feat, he stoutly asserts, he will never do again. The ordeal landed him vomiting in a wheelchair at the finish line. He’s also a musician with a couple of CDs who performs occasionally at the Flint Farmers’ Market.

And once he memorized 7,500 digits of pi, enough to win him a fleeting berth in the 1978 Guinness Book of World Records. But his achievement was beaten before the book came out.

Back to that water.

“No, I wasn’t feeling suicidal,” he wrote in what he may someday transform into a memoir. “It just looked so drinkable and I could not control the temptation.”

McLincha understood well the Flint River’s reputation as polluted and disgusting. In fact, he says, he’d often referred to it as the “Phlegm River.” And he knew that even if the water was pristine, “its name still would be ‘mud’ all because of the city named after it.”

But on that spring day in 2005, he was 50 miles upstream from Flint, near the Lapeer and Oakland County line, where the river is “a small stream 3 feet wide at places and the depth is measured in inches, not feet.”

“I was in a kayak at the time. The spot was very shallow and clear. On the riverbed pebbles in the gravel glistened. I dipped in my cupped hand and drew an ounce towards my face. My eyes detected nothing but crystal clear H20. I knew there could be some dangerous one-celled organisms, but I still took my chances. It was refreshing and tasty, as tasty as any water I’ve ever drunk.”

McLincha is not deeply philosophical about his pilgrimage, except to say “I like doing things seldom, if ever, tried by others. ‘Why?’ is a question I often get asked. I’m often embarrassed that I cannot give them a good reason, only that it pleases me in some way.”

He was born at the old Women’s Hospital on 12th Street and grew up in a scrappy neighborhood the residents sometimes called “Little Chicago,” four miles from where he now lives in Thetford Township. He thinks people should claim their watersheds just like they claim their hometowns.

He makes a point of saying, “I grew up in the Cass Watershed via Dead Creek,” where he and his mates built boats out of little logs and sticks and raced them. Now, however, the Flint River watershed is his “home.”

Despite that in what he calls his “dilapidated” rural neighborhood, people rarely finished high school, goats and cows were chained to the ground in back yards next to outhouses, and the Tuscola County cops were often called in to try to quell “child and spousal abuse, incest, rape, prostitution and alcoholism,” McLincha has fond memories of the watershed.

“Somehow l grew up sticking with rivers,” he says. “There was a love there.” Many of McLincha’s escapades flowed from the fact, he says, that in all his 31 years at General Motors, all as a skilled trades fork truck repairman at the truck assembly plant on Van Slyke, he never liked his job.

“I made a real life of what I did when I wasn’t at the shop,” he said.

That reality also drove him to UM-Flint, where he got a bachelor’s degree in teaching in 1999 with a 3.96 grade-point average.

Riley McLincha during a runyaking excursion in the late aughts. (Photo courtesy Riley McLincha)

McLincha paddled all four rivers in a light, basic kayak he picked up for $180, on sale at 50 percent off. Its brand name was Swifty. That’s what he’s always called his much-toted buddy, and they’ve stayed together for the whole adventure. Most of the time he kayaks alone, but occasionally some of the others, kayakers, athletes, or curious river dilettantes, join in. Beer is occasionally involved.

The cleanest river of the four rivers, McLincha says, was the Shiawassee, and the worst was the Tittabawassee, burdened as it is with Dow pollutants.

“I’m not the EPA,” he quickly qualifies, “but that’s how it looked.”

And it’s how the rivers sometimes smelled.

At a swampy, garbage-ridden spot at the end of the Shiawassee called the Shiawassee Flats, for example, the water smelled so badly he and even his van reeked long after he got home.

More than once he had to maneuver swiftly through stinking pile-ups of rotten garbage, plastic bottles and abandoned toys, especially rubber balls.

“It really makes me mad to see the litter,” he says. “If I dropped something in I’d look for it until I got it back. I really want to say to people, keep the litter away from the river. Be more aware.”

But there were serene and lovely stretches, too. Despite its reputation, the Flint River especially, the longest of the four at roughly 112 miles, offered many memorable vistas and had the best wildlife.

Out beyond Birch Run, especially, he saw many beaver, deer and wild turkeys. Now that his river journeys are almost complete, McLincha is ruminating on his next adventure.

“I’m sad it’s going to be over,” he says quietly. “Maybe I’ll do the tributaries – there are lots of them. Or maybe I’ll do the Saginaw Bay.”

“Next summer, I’m not going to be sitting around the house. I know I’ll think of something.”

When East Village Magazine checked in with McLincha in 2023, he said the following of his further adventures:

“Can’t believe the number of years that has past since this story was written. My paddling of the four major rivers of the Saginaw Valley served as my apprenticeship to what I’m doing today. The year after this story, 2009, I invented runyaking. Which is paddling a waterway then running back to get the kayak transport vehicle. I’d always pick up where I left off and continue. Doing this from 2009 to 2017, I reached NYC and paddled around the Statue of Liberty. After finishing that, I started in Flint again .I went westward. I’m trying to connect the Statue of Liberty to Gateway Arch in St Louis. When completed, (hoping 2025), I will have connected the two landmarks by paddling (or manually portaging). Not to mention the running in the opposite direction (est. 4,500 miles when added together). When spring returns I will press on from near the Illinois River near Joliet, IL.”

According to his obituary, McLincha’s family will be hosting a celebration of his life on at 1 p.m. on Aug. 4, 2024 at the Flint Farmers’ Market. In lieu of flowers, they are asking celebrants to honor McLincha’s memory by donating to a legacy scholarship fund for local students.

Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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