River recreation advocates see hope in kayaks, inner tubes, breweries

by Rosalie Murphy

Editor’s note (June 4): The Akron Beacon Journal is reporting that one person was swept away in the Cuyahoga River and another body was found along the river during Memorial Day weekend. If you choose to recreate on the river, please heed warnings about high water levels and fast-moving water. When the operators in this story cancel outings, the river is dangerous. Be careful.

When the first Cuyahoga River dams came down in 2012, Moneen McBride and her husband, Brad, had already been canoeing and kayaking on the river for years.

They wanted to share the experience and started talking about a business plan. In 2015, Burning River Adventures launched with 10 kayaks and one canoe, taking locals and visitors out onto the Cuyahoga River.

Today, the company has nearly 100 single kayaks, 12 double kayaks, and four canoes operating on the Cuyahoga River. They’ve also expanded to the Mahoning River, where they operate two additional tours out of Leavittsburg. In 2019, Burning River will likely take thousands of people out onto the river.

And there will be thousands more out there with them — fishing, floating on inner tubes and paddling watercraft.

“We started because we have a love for the outdoors. We knew this would be a great opportunity, and people wouldn’t be able to resist getting out and enjoying the river,” McBride says.

In addition to those who paddle with guides like Burning River, scores of people take to the river on their own. But there’s not much infrastructure for independent paddlers. There is no cohesive list of public access points or bathrooms, for example.

Paddlers want “confirmed access points. They want to know where they can put in [kayaks] and where they can take out. They want maps,” says Andrea Irland, who works for the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program in Peninsula.

Irland is organizing a group of dozens of individuals and organizations who want the state to designate the Cuyahoga River an Ohio Water Trail. The state designation will make funding available to do things like print brochures, Irland says.

“One of the things I think is most interesting about the water trail is its diversity. We have scenic river, we have Kent and Cuyahoga Falls, we have whitewater, we have the national park, we have the shipping channel…” Irland pauses to laugh. “There’s experiences that everybody can have.”

As of Memorial Day weekend, those experiences now include floating down the river on an inner tube.

TJ Mack started “floating” while living in Central Texas, where he says people did it every weekend. He and Savannah Snyder, a University of Akron Ph.D. candidate, went floating on the Cuyahoga River for the first time in 2017. Then they began bringing friends.

When the couple launched Float the River, Snyder says they got a few jokes — ”bring a fire extinguisher,” for example — so they’ve been sharing information about the health of the river on social media.

When you’re out there, Snyder says, “all you can hear is the bugs, the birds the geese.” “We probably see 15 turtles every time we go out,” Mack adds.

“Of the people who’ve contacted us seeming excited about it, definitely not all of them have been in a river before,” Snyder says.

Irland says that when she was soliciting input on the water trail, a few people raised concerns about noise, litter and crowds along the riverbanks. In popular campgrounds like Mohican, State Park, inner tubes are associated with that experience.

But Float the River does not allow alcohol or disposable containers on the river. And Snyder, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry, hopes to make citizen science part of the floating experience — allowing people to conduct their own water quality tests or bacterial probes, for example.

McBride says she sees Burning River paddlers becoming stewards of the river, too. Customers bring back discarded tires, Polar Pop cups, water bottles and other trash. Burning River gives them discounts in exchange.

“A lot of our customers have never been on any body of water, let alone a river,” McBride says. “They didn’t necessarily have that draw or that feeling of needing to be a steward of the river until they went out and saw how beautiful it was. We proactively try to take care of the river, but also start people on their own journey of becoming stewards.”

Irland is even trying to turn beer drinkers into river stewards with the Cuyahoga River Brewery Trail, a collaboration of 18 breweries located within a mile of the river between Kent and Cleveland. Participating breweries are creating “I Paddle Around” IPAs this year; a portion of proceeds from sales or special events will fund the creation of the water trail.

There are no comprehensive estimates of the economic impact of recreation on the Cuyahoga River. But the Rails to Trails Conservancy estimated that 222,000 Towpath Trail users spent $6.9 million in 2016. And the National Park Service estimates that 2.2 million visitors to Cuyahoga Valley spent $63.1 million while in town in 2017.

Anecdotally, McBride says many of the people who kayak with Burning River are out-of-town visitors looking for something interesting to do. The Cuyahoga Falls Kayak Race draws a few dozen whitewater kayakers to Cuyahoga Falls each year, race coordinator Don Howdyshell adds. And the river’s reputation as a “park and huck” — a short, fun run that you can do over and over again — is spreading among paddlers.

“It’s like when you plant a garden in the spring,” Irland says. “There’s so much hope in it. Every time I see somebody drive by with a kayak on their car, I get excited about what the potential is. And helping people to realize the river, discover the river, is what I see as the big hope.”

Burning River Adventures: www.paddletheriver.com

Float the River: www.floattheriver.net

Cuyahoga Falls Kayak Race: www.cfkayakrace.com

Cuyahoga River Brewery Trail: www.facebook.com/CRBreweryTrail

Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip.