5. THE UNTAMED RIVER
I was, I had been told, being perhaps too chummy with danger. The plan was to kayak a 10-mile stretch of the Cuyahoga that runs through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, just less than half of the park’s 22 miles of river. We would skim through some of its remotest sections, then sweep past Peninsula, going over the remnants of a low-head dam there (a not-at-all beginner-friendly splashdown of about a foot and a half) and brave a few tame rapids before trucking through Boston Mills. It seemed easy enough.
As I was going to bed the night before, though, I got a text from my traveling companion. Matt Fredmonsky is an experienced whitewater kayaker (and past freelancer for this magazine). I was trusting him to keep me alive. The current was running at a speed unsafe for someone of my experience level, he wrote. And the water was almost two feet higher than what Fredmonsky kayaks in summer. I could whip around one of the Cuyahoga’s many corners, get snagged on a downed tree dragging in the water (kayakers call them “strainers,” because you can get stuck against them like pasta in a colander), and drown under an unrelenting deluge of water. I slept like crap.
The next day, I scramble down the riverbank beside the Bolanz Road bridge to get a look at the current. It trucks past like a Norfolk Southern train behind schedule. Second thoughts hockey-stick through my mind so fast they threaten to explode out of my skull.
Luckily, Fredmonsky had the good sense to call for backup. It shows up in the person of John Zevenbergen, safety committee chairperson of the Keel Haulers Canoe Club and a recipient of swift-water rescue training. He goes over today’s safety guidelines: “Swim with your feet facing downriver,” and “If you get stuck on a strainer, try to climb over it, not swim under it,” and “Move your body, but keep your head steady.”
Like a chicken, I say.
“Right,” Zevenbergen says. “Like a chicken.”
I try not to think too hard on that metaphor as we stick our kayaks in the water and nose into the current. It feels like grabbing hold of a passing car. The bridge fades into the distance much too quickly. Fredmonsky and Zevenbergen are having such a grand time doing spins in their fancy whitewater kayaks that they miss a glimpse of a small brown animal, maybe a muskrat, that plops into the water. In my open-cockpit recreational kayak, borrowed from Burning River Adventures, I try to mirror their skillful turns, but fail miserably. Matt points out the problem: I’ve been holding the paddle upside-down. Amateur.
The first turn comes quickly, a brutal rightward 180-degree skid that doubles back almost straight south again. Fredmonsky and Zevenbergen show me how to paddle through it like a race car taking a tight corner, making sure the current doesn’t push me against the strainers jutting out of the opposite riverbank.
When the Mohawks named the river Cuyahoga, or “crooked,” they were underselling it. In the national park, the Cuyahoga dips, swerves, turns, backtracks and veers with plain animus for cardinal direction. If the river were perfectly straight, today’s route would be about six miles long. But the turns add four extra miles.
After a few turns, my fear of the current subsides. I begin to notice my surroundings.
Off to the right, in a swampy section, Fredmonsky points out a clump of what looks like at least 100 large bird nests dotted through the high reaches of a grove of trees. Inaccessible from the road, it is the most remote of three heronries in the national park, made by long-necked, needle-billed Great Blue Herons, which pair off there and raise their young.
As we approach Peninsula and pass under a Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad trestle, a familiar jolt again cuts through my gut. A red-lettered sign high on a steep hillside warns boaters to get out before the low-head dam comes ahead. It doesn’t say where. The sun has gone beneath some clouds. The river goes choppy. The current shoves stronger at my back.
My breathing is ragged as we pass under the Streetsboro Road bridge in downtown Peninsula. The kayak bobs and slaps the water. I paddle harder to keep it steady. A chill sloshes onto my wetsuit. Matt’s advice repeats in my mind: “Momentum is safety.”
The old dam is ahead. The drop looks enveloped by roaring whitewater, bank to bank. I’d read people get pinned underneath low-head dams like what used to be there. They drown. And I am pointed straight at it.
Fredmonsky yells, “Dig, dig dig!”
I dig and dig and dig.
I don’t feel the fall. A wave of water smacks my chest, face and eyes.
All I can see is a blob of neon green, the kayak’s prow. It thunks through the spray.
I am level again, seeing, breathing and hollering.
I look around. Fredmonsky and Zevenbergen have, of course, made it too. It was a kiddie ride for them. The current is flowing strong here, though, as choppy as before. We cannot stop. We push and push as the river makes a sharp westward turn, then meanders north again. “Anyone want a break?” Fredmonsky finally calls, once it’s safe.
We pull the kayaks to land. About 20 feet away, joggers and walkers are taking afternoon jaunts on the Towpath Trail. I catch my breath and drain a whole water bottle, admiring the soaring shale cliffs on the opposite riverbank, which are layered and flaky like the innards of a giant earthen croissant.
A few minutes later, we are back on the water, cruising underneath the pylons of Interstate-80 and Interstate-271, past the Boston Mills/Brandywine Ski Resort and another series of bends, until we reach the site of this section of the river’s most significant past environmental challenges. One riverbank is covered in boulders, the site of the old Jaite Paper Mill’s dumping grounds. This section is erosion-prone. The pile of rocks on the bank is supposed to stave off future leaching of sediment downriver.
The current carries us past it and under an old, rusting railroad bridge, where we reach the site where a farmer once dumped about 150 car frames on the western bank. He was trying to keep the river from slowly eating his sod fields.
In 1991, the Friends of the Crooked River advocacy group and the National Park Service cleaned them up. It was part of the first-ever River Day, the goal of which was to attract more people to the Cuyahoga’s banks, Marsh tells me later. “We felt that at that time, there was not enough of appreciation or knowledge of the river,” she says. “We thought that was our main part of our mission, was to get people down to the river because a lot of people didn’t know how much it had improved since what their memory served them.”
The banks show no sign of the piled-up cars today. They are clean and sandy, topped with tufts of bushes and marred only by collections of driftwood that we navigate around in the final bend of our journey.
Fredmonsky and Zevenbergen tell each other war stories as they haul their kayaks up the steep bank, stories about people who have drowned after getting their lifejackets caught on strainers and amateurs they’ve had to haul out of the racing waters. I yank my kayak up the bank after them. I’m a little proud. “Hey,” I deadpan. “At least you didn’t have to rescue me today.”