Tag Archives: Cuyahoga River

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio: On a bend in the Cuyahoga River near Red Lock


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

On the last warm day of October, I sit on a muddy cutbank, feet hanging over a horseshoe bend in the Cuyahoga.

There is an island in the river, smothered in a thicket of Japanese Knotweed. The woody stems stick up like wiry red hair. Nothing eats it. It spreads like cancer.  Cut it down, and two bushes grow back. Dig it up, and the slivers will root downstream.

The limbs of dying ash trees reach up out of the floodplain, raking the blue sky. Girdled by Emerald Ash Borer, crown cut off from the roots, the ash trees will all be gone soon.

The plump creamy grubs of these Asian wood-boring beetles have fueled a population explosion of woodpeckers across the Upper Midwest. A brief flourish of birdsong in the woods marks the loss of forest diversity.

I have complex feelings about this place. Part of me wants to try to fix these things, to tear up invasive plants by the roots, to inject each ash tree with insecticides. I think I can stop the world from slipping through my fingers.

Some other influence urges me to accept things as they are.

All around me, tall weeds with dried husks rustle in the breeze.  Gone to seed — the phrase connotes shabbiness, an unkempt quality –but in these plants, withered but still supporting their progeny, it is completion, success.

“Every generation has to die in order that the next generation can come,” said Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth. “As soon as you beget or give birth to a child, you are the dead one.”

My middle son sleeps in a stroller I’ve pushed to the edge of the river, wind playing on his closely cropped hair. Shadows flicker across his innocent face in the breeze. The price for his life is paid in sleep, cognition, concentration, the ability to do a single thing for more than ten minutes uninterrupted.

I stop here often to look at this moving water. It reminds me of Oregon, the place my wife and I lived before having children.

Every October, I would wade in a river where the tides licked the roots of an ancient rainforest, wait for salmon to swim up from the beach, to climb into the hills to the clear water where they were born. Females swept shallow gravel beds to lay their eggs. The males turned dark, grew fangs and fought like dogs. As soon as the salmon entered their natal rivers, they started dying.

Now I’ve returned as well, born in Akron where the Cuyahoga makes its U-turn and runs toward Lake Erie. I have come home to raise my sons downstream from the old Jaite Paper Mill, where the pickle liquor flowed, and the river ran foul.

Forty years ago, the National Park Service adopted this valley. The water looks clean and the landscape has grown over most of the scars from the river’s industrial past, 33,000 acres carved out of the mass of unbroken suburbs from Cleveland to Akron. There could be more forest, more fish, and more deer thriving in the Cuyahoga Watershed today than in any other time in the last half-century.

And yet, Aldo Leopold writes in The Sand County Almanac, “The autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.”

The grouse is unmade, wild. The deer feel like cattle, thriving in the environments we have created. We have this godlike ability to shape the landscape, but no way to breathe wildness back into the wilderness we resurrect.

The boy who took apart his father’s watch can’t find all the pieces to put it back together.

When I lived in Oregon, the act of fishing became a ritual, heavy with meaning and spiritual resonance. As if in some cosmic joke, Steelhead that evolved in the Pacific Ocean swim past my backyard in the Cleveland suburbs, up the Cuyahoga River each winter. Throughout the Great Lakes, wildlife agencies stock Pacific Salmonids in tributaries where they do not belong. In some areas of the Upper-Midwest with cleaner, colder water, the fish have naturalized. No feral breeding populations occur in Ohio, and none are planted in the Cuyahoga. But their tendency to wander compels Lake Erie-run rainbow trout to swim to Akron.

I do not find any connection to my version of God chasing lost Steelhead around the Midwest.  Instead, I spend my days looking for glimpses of wilder animals, trying to create a relationship with this place. I’m searching for a story to tell my sons about what lives in these woods.

There will be times in the coming months when the sky will look like wet newspaper, and the deadened landscape like strips of corrugated cardboard, cinders sticking to every frozen thing. I’ll look through the leafless trees and see a line of cars passing on the road and I’ll think that it is too much effort, too much self-delusion to focus on the fragments of living wild beauty here.

Today the warm wind could buoy me up, and I could soar on an updraft and see the whole valley like a Red-tailed Hawk.

But who would watch my son when he woke on the riverbank? Who would keep him from being swept into the current?

My son wakes as I push his stroller back onto the trail.  I point to a Red-bellied Woodpecker scolding us overhead, and start to tell him a story about this red and white bird circling the dead ash trunk.

Matt Stansberry is a Cleveland-based nature writer with three kids and a day job. He used to fly fish. Follow him on Twitter@LakeErieFlyFish.

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CLEVELAND, OHIO: The Flats Will Be Back

A view of Cleveland from an Army airplane in 1937. Courtesy of military archives.

A view of Cleveland from an Army airplane in 1937. Courtesy of military archives.


This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

The river here is brown. Brown and murky, and from a distance, barely moving. But if you look closer, you can see it swirling, like smoke, and you know that something is going on down there. Sometimes people jump into it (usually they are drunk), only to find they can’t get out. There are two eight-feet walls flanking the river, attached to the pilings; the walls are made of steel forged right here in Cleveland, Ohio.

The river divides this city in half. The East Side is known for its historic mansions, white-collar success, art museums and winding, meandering streets. The West Side is known for its factories, blue-collar work ethic, sports fans, and streets that run parallel or perpendicular to one another.

Presently, the Cuyahoga River flows from South to North, emptying into Lake Erie, although that wasn’t always the case. About 10,000 years ago, a glacial retreat entirely reversed the river’s direction; the receding ice sheet also left behind debris and scars, which further disrupted the river’s course, resulting in a serpentine, somewhat shallow body of water that traverses 100-plus miles in switchbacks and oxbows to cover a mere 30 miles of longitudinal distance.

Over time this crooked river carved out a flood plain or valley near the mouth of the Great Lake. This flood plain, known as “The Flats,” was the site of an unprecedented economic boom in the late 1800s. Entrepreneurs like Rockefeller, Morgan and Carnegie seized upon a rare convergence of major railroads and shipping lanes to maximize distribution of their products. Industries like iron, steel, asphalt, petroleum, salt and paint began to take root; indeed they began to soar. By 1920 Cleveland earned its place as the fifth largest city in the United States.

To facilitate increased traffic, engineers designed and built 26 movable bridges to span the river, providing safe transport for automobiles and trains above, as well as river barges below. Architects will tell you this area is no small mecca for studying single and double-leafed bascules (draw bridges), swing bridges (center and pier pivot) and vertical lift bridges (trestles counter-weighted like an elevator).

In fact, many photographs of Cleveland feature these bridges prominently in the foreground—while the city’s western-facing, downtown skyline looms in the distance. At night the buildings announce their shapes in radiant yellows and oranges; daytime reveals a different story. Those same buildings appear gray and beige and brown, darkened in the creases by decades of soot and smog, betrayed by the very industries that made them possible.

Cleveland’s economy peaked in the decade following World War II. By 1950 the population reached an all-time high at 914,808. Business was positively booming in the Flats. Unfortunately, business was booming elsewhere too.

The 1960s brought with it vast infrastructure improvements, innovations in distribution (airplanes and semi-trucks), advancements in technology (automation) and perhaps most damaging, competition from overseas. The gradual loss of manufacturing would devastate this city and its people.

In June of 1969 the end arrived—in the form of a bizarre river fire. An errant spark (possibly from an overhead train) ignited a floating mass of oil, debris and sewage. The Cuyahoga River fire was not the first, but ensuing media coverage ensured it would be the last. Time magazine featured the story on its cover, describing the Cuyahoga as “a river that oozes rather than flows.”  The U.S. government responded in turn by establishing The Clean Water Act and the EPA.

The following years saw dramatic improvement in water quality. The riverfront once again became a viable investment opportunity—but this time for a different purpose. Investors purchased and renovated vacant factories and warehouses, transforming an industrial blight into a vibrant entertainment district. Bars and restaurants and boardwalks sprang to life on either side of the river; boats cruised the nightlife scene, docking at legendary hotspots like Shooters, D’Poos, Fagan’s and Rumrunners; blaring music and shrieks of laughter echoed across the boating channel; colorful neon lights and flashing strobes shimmered and danced across the water’s surface.

For nearly two decades, The Flats reigned as the premier tourist destination in Ohio (rivaled only by Cedar Point), boasting the highest concentration of bars in the Midwest and a steady influx of 100,000 visitors on any given weekend. But by the year 2000, everything had changed again. What happened was and still is a subject for debate. Some say it was the buildings themselves, shut down due to fire and health code violations; some say it was an increasing (and unsettling) number of drownings in the river; some say it was violence, rumors of stabbings and/or gang activity and some say the nightlife simply migrated elsewhere, to newer bars and restaurants in the Warehouse district (and later to East 4th Street). The only thing we know for sure: the Flats was dead once more.

And yet there is hope. The Cuyahoga River remains the place where we bring visitors, people who want to know the real story of Cleveland. We tell these people about The Flats, about the industries and the bridges, about the endless stories that began here. We, the remaining 390,000, point to new construction on the East Bank, hotels and restaurants and apartment buildings, new investments, new interest, new hope. We say things like “The Flats will be back.” As proof, we need only mention the unusual history of the Cuyahoga River, a murky river that once flowed south, a river that meanders 100 miles back and forth, to cover a mere 30 miles of distance, a river that, at least on paper, makes no sense at all.

Pat Pujolas is the author of Jimmy Lagowski Saves the World (Independent Talent Group, 2012), as well as many other published works of fiction and non-fiction. He was born in Cleveland, Ohio.

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