10-29-15

Commuting the Crooked River; Making a Present out of History

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by Dax Roman Godkin

Morning. The river glistens with sunlight and possibilities. I paddle my kayak around a bend. A magnificent great blue heron rises from its quiet hunt in front of me in the river. I have disturbed its potential breakfast and it will have to seek different hunting grounds. The extended spread of the heron’s wings carries it into the horizon, two skinny little legs dangling along like an afterthought.

I am on the Second Annual Crooked River Commute down the Cuyahoga River. Organized by David Jurca, Associate Director of Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collective (CUDC), this trip begins at Kent State’s main campus and ends near the CUDC in Cleveland. More precisely, the trip ends at the river’s egress into Lake Erie at the U.S. Coast Guard station at Whiskey Island, site of the Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Burning River Festival. Many of us brought our own equipment, but there was a generous contribution of boats and gear from Mark Pecot from 41 North Coastal Kayak Adventures. Additional gear was rented from Dan Hudak of River Cruiser Kayaking.

The purpose of this event is to “promote the river as a shared regional asset for education, recreation, and sustainability.” Our intention, besides just enjoying the river, is to look for areas of improvement along the 50-mile stretch of river between Kent and Lake Erie.

The Cuyahoga River has the dubious reputation of catching on fire in the late 1960’s. This was not an isolated event. River fires were not uncommon in those days, but this particular fire became the catalyst for the creation of both the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency. Vast improvements in water quality on the river have come about from the interventions of these governmental agencies. There are over forty species of fish that call the Cuyahoga River home, many of which live only in clean waters.

The group met for the first time at Waterworks Park in Kent. Most of us were strangers with David being the primary connection between us. I knew David because we had lived in the same neighborhood for a time. When I heard about last year’s trip, I made sure that I got myself included in this year’s adventure by consistently pestering him for months.
Another member of the crew, David Brandt, a Cleveland Heights native and graduate of Kent State who now resides in the Washington DC area, read about the trip in an alumni newsletter and similarly pestered David to be included. Sometimes it pays to be perseverant.

There was one return member from last year’s trip, Chris Maurer, a freelance architect and instructor at Kent State, who would act as our primary scout and guide.

We all said our hellos and had a little breakfast, then hit the water for the morning.

The weather could not have been nicer, seventy-five degrees, slightly overcast, with an occasional breeze to keep it cool.

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The water through Kent was placid and serene. However, as we expected, the water levels of the river were a little low. High-centered on the bedrock and gravel riverbed several times, we scooted our way into deeper water or just got out of the boats and walked around the longer shallows. This did not take away from the beauty of the morning as we wound around the bends in this truly crooked river, talking and laughing, getting to know one another without the usual filters.

Conversations were often interrupted with the necessity to pay attention as we maneuvered through the obstacles and occasional obstructions in the river. We all watched and learned from each other, sometimes following in a member’s path as they had obviously chosen a good line through the potential stickiness, others going a different way as they got stuck in their path; the low water levels adding spice to the complex decision making processes.

We stopped for lunch and a necessary portage of the Sheraton Falls in Cuyahoga Falls. These falls are impassible for all but the most experienced paddlers.

Charles Frederick of the CUDC was in charge of the truck for this portion of the trip. Charles, a member of last year’s Commute, was quite disappointed that a shoulder injury kept him out of this year’s trip. However, his and others efforts as the support crew were invaluable assets to the trip.

A good portion of us rode with the gear in the back of the truck. We felt we were on a secret spy mission during the dark, jostley ride to the next put-in below the falls.

The next section of the trip took us past Akron and into the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Paul Vogelsang, a video editor who relocated to Cleveland from Buffalo four years ago, brought a ball designed to bounce on the water called a Waboba. We skipped this back and forth through some of the deeper areas and had fun playing with it. The word caught on and throughout the trip came to mean many things. Calls of wabboooba echoed through the eddies.

The river through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and throughout most of the trip, felt isolated and separate from the known human life buzzing above the banks. These high banks are covered in Japanese Knotweed which is a lovely plant with wispy white flowers, broad leaves, and bamboo-like stalks (also an invasive species but who are we to judge). This and other foliage block out everything human except the occasional glimpse of a bicycler on the towpath and the sounds of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad as it ferries these bikers back and forth on its runs from Rockside Road to Akron and back.

Around midafternoon, we ran into a snag. A recently downed tree splayed across the entire river that would require a portage. This obstruction was not visible at first and a few paddlers ended up caught up in the tree branches. One paddler, Emily Goode a graphic designer for Great Lakes Brewing Company, was so tangled that she had to let her boat go and swim to the other side. She was uninjured and we retrieved her boat easily.

We were able to get around this trouble by having two people, David Brandt and Tom Euclide, hold a rope on either side of the river while we ferried our boats across. The water was moving swiftly through this portion, and even with the rope, it was challenging to get across without being pushed into the tree.

At Independence, we shuffled through a break in the dam and rounded the corner. There is a tree stump solidly planted sideways, river right, that had upended two paddlers on last year’s Commute. The current is fast here and the lower level of the water brought that tree to head height.

The first two paddlers made the passage safely and then I tried my luck.

I hit the tight channel a little left and got stuck on the higher rocks, then when I got into the current I could not get enough momentum to carry me past the tree, so I pushed of, listed sideways, and went over. My boat floated facedown and I hung onto my paddle, cruising down on my behind with my feet out in front, carried along by the strong current.
As I was enjoying my Cuyahoga bath (Baptism by Fire!), my fellow travelers all made their way through the strainer, except Tom who took a similar plunge in the river. We got ourselves sorted, emptied the boats of water, and continued downstream.

Soon after this incident, I noticed that a lens was out of one side of my glasses. They are old glasses, so it was not a catastrophe, but still would make the rest of this journey down the crooked river a little more askew. In the next set of rapids, I took on a little more water and, there, floating in the boat, was my lens. Amazed how that little piece of glass survived all that commotion and stayed in the boat, I popped the lens back into place and carried on, all-seeing.

By this time it was getting late, we were all truly exhausted, and we still had a bit to go before the campsite. The light grew dimmer and the rocks blended into the river more. I felt a little out of sorts – scared, tired, sore, hungry, and thirsty. We finally reached the take-out and got our gear loaded in the truck.

Two members of the CUDC team, Terry Schwartz and Kristin Zeiber, had generously set up our campsites. Even though we had enough trail mix and granola bars between us to fuel a small army through a Russian winter, we were absolutely ravenous upon arrival. I pulled out a big bag of homemade cookies my wife had sent me with and the group collectively devoured them in about thirteen seconds. I do not think that any cookies have ever been eaten so fast or enjoyed so much. Interestingly, although we were in the middle of a national park, at a campground, we were not really that far from ‘civilization’. David had pizza delivered and we all went to bed with full bellies and warm hearts.

The next morning we arose surprisingly chipper and excited for the new day of paddling. Bill Willoughby of the CUDC brought a breakfast us of high-end bakery and Starbucks coffee and for a moment we were glamping.

Our crew changed a bit second day. Emily Goode and her friend Nolan Beck departed the night before and Doug Paige, an art professor from the Cleveland Institute of Art, joined the group.

While waiting for the Bike and Ride train to load at the Brecksville Station, we noticed two kayakers putting their boats into the back of the train with the bicycles. They told us that they were headed up to Peninsula to kayak the portion between the two points. The question of whether or not you could treat a kayak the same as a bike for the Bike and Ride trains had come up the day before and we were very happy to see this was the answer. Several of us began making plans for future trips in this fashion. The cost for water-going vessels is nine dollars.

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We put in just below the Brecksville dam, which is a little bit of a hike from the parking lot. This area is one area of improvement. It is truly treacherous to get a boat down to the put-in, scrambling down huge broken concrete slabs with rusty rebar hanging off them, dangling in the air like a tetanus kiss. A concerted clean-up would do wonders for helping to make this a safe put-in for kayakers.

Day two of the trek was a much mellower and easier paddle. There were a couple of portages around blockages, but very little of the Boot Scoot Boogie of the day before. The river just wound around lazily, each turn creating a new view, an engaging perspective.

Wildlife sightings were numerous including a bald eagle sitting on top of a huge stump of a tree. We also spied kingfisher, great blue heron, swallows, finches, hawks, beaver, muskrat, river otter, and mink among others.
Connected by the landscape, shared experience, and the ever-changing river, the group became more of a bonded unit. Conversation was still fluent, but our level of group communication had heightened and was now stripped down to its essential elements, “Rock”, “Branch”, “Woboba”.

I had been through the CVNP on several different kayaking trips in the past as well paddling up river from Whiskey Island to the steel mills, but I had never been on the portion of the river between the park and the shipping channel. What surprised me is just how ‘wild and scenic’ the river is all the way up to the shipping channel. Certainly, there is evidence of our presence along the way: whitewall tires in the water, the occasional shopping cart, a rusty canoe. However, the predominant feel of the river is that of isolation from the hum of humanity. One member said he felt he could be in North Dakota.

The Cuyahoga River is 115 miles long, and runs from north to south, then south to north to its outflow into Lake Erie. It is infamous as an industrial river. However, the only portion of this river that is truly industrial is the last five miles that constitute the shipping channel. So, for one hundred and ten miles (minus a couple of man-made reservoirs), the Cuyahoga River remains relatively unspoiled, not that different than it was when the early settlers came here beginning in the late 1700’s. As an intrepid camper I noted several areas that would be good for an evening of quiet contemplation under the stars many of which were less than ten miles from downtown Cleveland.

Entering the shipping channel, we saw the Achelor Mittal steel mill in full operation on a Saturday afternoon. We were all impressed at the might of this old beast of a mill, especially from our water level perspective. The steel mill looked like a Rust Belt version of a Donkey Kong game; coal cars going up and steel moving down while Frodo and Samwise try to maneuver through the lava-filled mayhem of Mordor. Somebody put their hand in the water and said it was much hotter here which did not surprise me.

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Whatever our aesthetic opinions of industrialization are, the truth of the matter is that none of our grandparents would have moved here if it weren’t for those industrial jobs and Cleveland as we know it would not exist.

The river through this stretch, artificially widened by the rusty steel bulkheads, is more lake like and still with almost no current. As the city came into view, I am certain that I was not the only one that got goose bumps. After experiencing forty-five miles of natural beauty, entering the city from this direction felt dramatic and dynamic, like coming home for the first time.

As we passed beneath the many suspension and jacknife bridges that cross the Cuyahoga we felt we were seeing the inner skeleton of the city. A train passing on the tracks above us, seemingly close enough to touch, made the last leg of our trip that much more exciting; the music of the train car clang filling our ears and our spirits.

Cheers from the waiting crowd at the Burning River Festival were an invigorating motivator as we came down the final stretch. At the final turn into Lake Erie, a freighter, the Buffalo, met us. Interestingly, the group passed this same freighter last year. Bow thrusters blasting, the Buffalo pushed into the channel, shrugging us off as it headed in to take care of business.

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We have some business of our own as the trip ended at the Burning River Festival, hosted by Great Lakes Brewing Company. Exhausted and elated, a Burning River Pale Ale never tasted so good.

Driving to work Monday morning I felt a renewed sense of connectedness to this place I call home. I passed the Cuyahoga and felt that I knew it more intimately than ever before.

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My wife and I moved to Cleveland thirteen years ago and quickly fell in love with all the wonderful things that the town has to offer. We did not understand the poor reputation or the somewhat dour attitudes of the locals. Since that time we have witnessed Cleveland continue to improve and become an even better place to make a life. Civic pride, once a rarified commodity, has blossomed and is now more the standard than the exception. T-shirts with creative Cleveland insider jargon are ubiquitous and the ‘made-here’ mentality has flourished.

This trip down its central watercourse reminded me why I love Cleveland; it was a little gritty, a little challenging, surprisingly beautiful, and always interesting and engaging. It was tough, haunting, dirty, and hilarious. It was perfectly imperfect, funky, and soulful. There were a few times I wanted to throw in the towel, but I didn’t because I couldn’t because we can never quit the fight for a better community, a better reality. Woboba!

Story by Crooked River Commuter Dax Roman Godkin. Dax is a writer and poet residing in Rocky River. He is the author of Kayaking the Cuyahoga – A Haibun Journal as well as many other works combining poetry and prose forms.

 

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