Sunday, June 21, 2009

The year of a long-beleaguered river

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio during the fifties and sixties. Cleveland's Chamber of Commerce slogan was "The Best Location in the Nation".

Cynics called it "The Mistake By the Lake".

I remember when our mayor's hair caught fire when he attempted to cut the ribbon at the opening of a new factory with a blowtorch instead of a pair of scissors. I sat and shivered through Cleveland Indians games in the nearly-empty Municipal Stadium in late April as Lake Erie-effect snow flurries fell.

I was also there when the "Mighty Cuyahoga River" caught fire forty years ago. That probably did more than anything else to put us in the international spotlight.

It's nice to see that things have changed dramatically since then. (GW)

Tainted Cuyahoga River sees sporadic return of recreation

By Michael Scott
Cleveland Plain Dealer
June 14, 2009

This is one of a series of stories The Plain Dealer will print this year as a part of "The Year of the River," a recognition of the Cuyahoga River's return to health 40 years after it caught fire.

CUYAHOGA FALLS -- Mike Larkin's snub-nosed kayak has just been shot from an unseen underwater cannon.

The lightweight and slender one-man boat springs out from a craggy jumble of rocks, then appears to briefly hover above unruly waters.

When the little, red plastic craft smacks loudly into the frothy pool at the bottom of the rapids, Larkin whoops and waves his paddle. A few fellow kayakers holler their appreciation along with several whitewater watchers on a ledge high above the banks of the Cuyahoga River.

That's right, the Cuyahoga River.

That's right, whitewater kayaking.

And in The Year of the River -- marking the 40th anniversary of the June 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga and its ongoing ecological recovery -- Larkin's leap is much more than a brief but wild ride down Cuyahoga rapids.

It's also high-flying evidence of advances along a much lengthier journey: restoration of recreation on a river known mostly to outsiders for its fires than its waters.

Kayaking on the Cuyahoga River

While a work in progress (we're still reminded not to eat too many fish and not to ingest any water if we fall in), the return of recreation on the Cuyahoga has people excited.

"There are a lot of things you can do on this river -- this is just the most extreme," said whitewater kayaker David Hill, director of environmental safety for ParkOhio and unabashed river-recreation evangelist.

None are more spectacular than kayaking, however, in the rough-and-tumble middle section of the Cuyahoga, making it a destination for kayakers from around the region. In fact, an eighth-of-a-mile stretch near Cuyahoga Falls is considered expert-class (class IV) whitewater.

"We have geography here more extreme than the Niagara River -- over a stretch of 2.32 miles, the river falls over 208 feet," said Elaine Marsh of Friends of the Crooked River. "That's an unheard of drop in most of the Great Lakes region -- OK, maybe around Lake Superior, but not anywhere else around here."

That is why the Cuyahoga -- already designated a Heritage River along its entire length and a state Scenic River along 25 miles of its upper reaches -- is unique, Hill said.

"Sure, it's been the poster child for a number of years because of the Clean Water Act and the fires," Hill said. "But when you look at the Cuyahoga, you have to look at all the different facets of it.

"It's not characterized by one event -- or even just one type of environment."

Recreation returns

The Cuyahoga is best understood as a three-part river.

The upper reaches -- from the headwaters in Geauga down to Lake Rockwell near the city of Kent -- are mostly pristine, if slow and casual.

The middle section becomes wild, especially in rapids through Kent and Cuyahoga Falls and near the Gorge Dam in Summit County -- though the waters there also become more tainted by Akron's wastewater and suburban runoff.

And the lower end, where water quality and fish populations are improving dramatically in places like Cuyahoga Heights, remains urban and gritty, especially at the mouth.

On-water recreation there is limited to mostly boats and jet skis passing through the shipping channel near Lake Erie.

And it is that very lowest section -- the 6-mile-long shipping channel and steel-mill, oil-refinery-lined urban waterway that caught fire June 22, 1969 -- which many outsiders still imagine when they think of the Cuyahoga River.

But that was 40 years ago.

And, of course, that description was never true of the rural upper reaches of the river in Geauga and Portage counties, where it meanders lazily through marsh and forest.

And the middle section -- drastically less foul than it once was -- had always featured the rapids and riffles where Larkin and Hill and friends play all summer.

There are, of course, many natural parks along the nearly 100-mile river that have improved along with the quality of water in the river -- most notably the sprawling 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

The park formed during the course of the Cuyahoga cleanup. President Gerald Ford signed the legislation that created Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area in 1974, and it was redesignated a National Park in 2000.

But there are others, from Headwaters Park in Geauga County where the Cuyahoga is born out of a series of small streams and swamps, to the Gorge Metro Parks in Summit County to the Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation in Cuyahoga Heights.

But while those parks and others allow visitors to experience the Cuyahoga from land, on-water activities are harder to find.

Fishing and boating

The general goal of the 1972 federal Clean Water Act was to bring America's waterways back from the brink of death toward being "fishable and swimmable." The Cuyahoga River is not there just yet but is getting closer, according to EPA standards.

It's certainly not swimmable -- except unofficially in the upper portions of the river. Even up there, however, there are no designated swimming holes, just canoers who turn into swimmers.

"This is probably the only place on the Cuyahoga where most people would consider swimming," said Kendra Hazlatt-Becker at Camp Hi Canoe Livery in Hiram.

But the Cuyahoga most certainly is fishable. Recent environmental reports have chronicled great numbers of healthy fish species (and the macro-invertebrates they feed upon) to the river.

For that reason, officials expect that the crucial middle portion -- from just north of Kent through Akron all the way up to Harvard Avenue in Cleveland --will meet U.S. EPA standards for aquatic life habitat (fish and bugs) in time for the river fire commemoration this month.

Even so, that 45-mile section continues to struggle with industrial pollution, sewage and suburban runoff.

And the Ohio EPA still advises against eating too many fish from portions of the Cuyahoga -- only one smallmouth bass caught anywhere on the river in Summit and Cuyahoga counties because of excessive mercury, for example. (To see the entire list, go to

Still, park officials and anglers will tell you that there is good sport fishing -- catch and release -- on the river.

Fly-fishermen line the riverbanks in the National Park just below the Ohio 82 bridge in Brecksville. In Summit County, the park district suggests Cascade Valley Metro Park and Deep Lock Quarry.

As for boating, the river still lacks a great number of public access points. You can put in at places in Mantua and Hiram in Portage and Burton Township in Geauga, where you can also rent a canoe or kayak.

Downstream, however, you will rarely see canoes or kayaks on the Cuyahoga -- even though it courses its way down the center of the gorgeous national park.

That's because up to 2 billion gallons of Akron sewage still end up in the river each year.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed a lawsuit this year seeking more than $100 million in penalties from the city, claiming that it had violated the Clean Water Act for the last 15 years.

Until that sewage is treated completely before reaching the river, it is unlikely that canoeing and kayaking would thrive in the park. In fact, the National Park Service "discourages using the river at this time, however, due to highly variable water quality."

But pioneers like Marsh and her husband do it, and so do others -- thrilled to boat on the river but cautious not to go in it.

It's a fitting contradiction for the crooked Cuyahoga.

But that recreation exists at all along a river with a legacy of filth and fire is evidence of how far the river has come in 40 years, and how far it has to go. It also is proof that we no longer consider the waterway as a place to dump things, but as a natural resource to enjoy.

"The recreational benefits of a river are exceedingly important in determining the value of the river to the people around it," Marsh said.


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