After an extensive campaign, the Cuyahoga River is now a designated water trail. The designation serves as an example of the river’s transformation from a polluted waterway to a recreational river.
Andrea Irland is with the National Park Service Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance program. She spearheaded the campaign to designate the river as a water trail and brought dozens of partners together to build the best water trail they could.
“We could have had a water trail without the state designation, but the state really wanted to have the Cuyahoga. What a great story that is,” Irland said, “the river that once burned now sparks enthusiasm for recreation.”
Irland said the purpose behind the water trail is to promote the river as a valuable resource for low-impact recreation like canoeing and kayaking and to support the river through economic development, conservation and stewardship.
Fifteen Breweries, all within one mile of the river, have gotten involved with the trail. Each participating brewery developed an IPA called I Paddle Around. Irland said the breweries’ involvement helps call attention to the water trail. “I used to say all trails lead to ice cream, but then beer got more interesting,” Irland said. Participating breweries will also host and sponsor events to build further stewardship of the river, but they aren’t condoning drinking on the water trail.
“It’s not like a bar crawl on the river,” Irland said.
The water trail isn’t like other paths along the river. “It’s a paddling trail,” Irland said. “The (Ohio & Erie Canal) Towpath is like a multipurpose trail, biking and hiking. The Buckeye Trail is a hiking trail. The water trail is the river.”
Stewards of the River take on some responsibility for the continuing maintenance and improvement of the river, said Irland. The Cuyahoga runs through the middle of a National Park and Irland said stewards of the river are, by extension, also stewards of Cuyahoga Valley National Park and other parklands surrounding the river. “Whether its recreation or water quality or scenic value,” Irland said stewardship is essential for maintaining habitats and wildlife along the river, as well as conveying the importance of the river as a resource for Northeast Ohio.
“It isn’t just the water that you paddle in. It’s the watershed, it’s the health of the river, the ecosystems, the wildlife,” Irland said. “That’s what makes up the water trail.”
Now that the river is designated as a water trail, Irland said the next step is removing the Brecksville Dam, slated for removal this Fall. “That (removal) will make the section through the National Park free-flowing,” said Irland. After that is the removal of the Gorge Dam near Cuyahoga Falls.
Irland said the diversity of different sections of the Cuyahoga is a hallmark of the new water trail. “We have the scenic river section; low and slow. Then we have paddling all through (the heritage section which runs from Lake Rockwell to Cuyahoga Falls) with liveries,” said Irland, “We have the only whitewater within 250 miles, we have a national park experience. We even have a shipping channel and a no paddle zone (in Lake Rockwell, the primary drinking source for the City of Akron).”
Recreating on the Cuyahoga River would have been unimaginable 50 years ago. “Even as soon as Ten years ago the national park was not encouraging paddling or recreating on the river,” Irland said. She thinks there’s still work to be done to fully embrace recreation along the Cuyahoga. The park now has several access points for paddlers to embark on the river and Irland said that’s a huge shift from how people used to view the river.
“We’re celebrating fifty years since it burned,” Irland said, “this is what’s going to take us into the next fifty years.”
[Featured image: “Nautica Queen” by James E. Walker Jr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)]