Ever Wondered What it was like to Cross the Portage Path?

words and photos by Claude Christensen

06/11/2018

The writer and his brother, Hugo Christensen. It was a bit of a struggle.

If you live in Akron long enough, you’ll invariably learn about the Portage Path.

An eight-mile trail that connected the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas rivers, the Portage Path was an incredibly important route to Native Americans traversing Northeast Ohio.

But have you ever wondered what crossing the Portage Path was like?  

Competitors in the second annual Akron Portage and Paddle race event got to find out on Saturday, May 19. Spoiler: It’s not all that easy. But it is a lot of fun.

Registration for the 2018 Akron Portage and Paddle included a short review of the history of the Portage Path by Dave Lieberth, former Deputy Mayor of Akron and Society Board Chair of the Summit County Historical Society.  

“The Portage Path was  originally formed by elk, bison and deer,” says Dave, “but it became a path that was improved upon and used by native peoples for thousands of years.”

Scott Myers (right) and Gina Burk (left). This is their second Portage and Paddle. This time, they came prepared with a wheeled strut crafted by Akron artist John Communale for the portage portion of the race. “It’s so much easier,” says Gina.

Akron eventually grew on top of and over the Portage Path. The Summit County Historical Society and the William and Dorothy Yeck Family Foundation commissioned artist Peter Jones to create two sculptures, dedicated in 2001, to mark the terminus points of the Portage Path. In addition, Jones made 50 bronze arrowhead sculptures to mark the path.

“I got the idea for Portage and Paddle almost as soon as I moved to Akron and learned about the Portage Path,” says Tom Crain, the organizer of Akron Portage and Paddle. Tom is from Minnesota, where he frequently went kayaking.

And with the rich history of the Portage Path, what better excuse is there to paddle through Akron?

The race itself began at 10 am at Lake Nesmith, off of Manchester Road and near the intersection with 277.

There were about 40 competitors. There was a combination of kayaks and canoes and solo racers and two-person teams. There was also an eclectic mix of small boats that waited in a wavering line for the beginning of the 6.5 mile paddling portion of the race.

The Akron Portage and Paddle organizer Tom Crain (right) and a volunteer (left) registering competitors the day before the race.

I’d volunteered my younger brother, Hugo Christensen, as my canoe-mate for the race. Sitting in the aft of our 15-foot aluminum canoe, he was captain and steersman.

Steering a canoe down a river requires some skill, but when your crewmate has both an inconsistent sense of rhythm and a tendency to chat up the competition, it can be especially difficult.

Still, he did pretty well. Even when other teams flipped over trying to navigate fallen trees or invisible shoals, Hugo kept our team, “Samwisewastherealhero,” on course, upright and dry.

From Lake Nesmith, the race followed the Towpath Trail through Summit Lake. Bystanders on the trail yelled encouragements to the various teams and groaned when someone inevitably fell in the water.

After that, the race route passed the former Goodrich factory, the twin smoke stacks looming tall over the canal, before competitors disembarked near Spaghetti Warehouse.

Which brings us to the second portion and real challenge of the competition: the portage.

On paper, it sounds simple.  

Sisters Michelle and Cait Bonomo of Private Label Beverages, a 2018 Akron Portage and Paddle sponsor. They were ready for some cherry and root beer soda after the race.

My brother and I are two 20-somethings, and we only had to shoulder an 80-pound aluminum canoe. I had backpacks in high school that were heavier.

But in practice, carrying a canoe is surprisingly difficult.

You have to brace the canoe over your head. The canoe’s metal support strut digs into the nape of your neck. It gets hot. The paddles keep falling. You also have to walk in step with your teammate or risk dropping the canoe. And did I mention it’s impossible to see where you’re heading?

We dropped our canoe after half a mile.

That was the finish for the short portage. The true finish of the race came a mile later at the Mustill Store and Cascade Lofts. There was an after party with free boxed lunches, small-batch soda provided by event sponsor Private Label Beverages and an imitation camp.

Race finishers enjoyed the food and the company. They commiserated with each other over boat flips and the difficulty of carrying a canoe, and they promised to come back next year.

So if you’ve always wondered what traveling along the Portage Path was like, look out for next year’s Akron Portage and Paddle. It’s worth it.

For more information about the Akron Portage and Paddle race, and for more photos of this year’s race, check out the Facebook page at facebook.com/akronportagepaddle

 

Summer’s only just begun, but with this 90-degree weather, Claude is already looking forward to winter. He’ll suffer taking ice baths until then.

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