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In addition to daily news coverage, the WKSU news team regularly delves into topics that deserve closer attention and coverage.

Watershed: Sharing the Cuyahoga

photo of Lake Erie tugboat
The lower Cuyahoga River serves as both a commercial shipping channel and, increasingly in recent years, a hub for recreation.

Over the past 50 years, freight traffic on the lower Cuyahoga River has increasingly competed with smaller watercraft as the river has rebounded to become a recreation channel. Watershed is a series looking at our waterways and what the future holds for them. This installment looks at one river, competing interests.

The Rockside Road Trailhead in Valley View is generally considered the start of the lower Cuyahoga. To the south, there’s wildlife and lush vegetation. But head north and you’ll see an area scarred by the remnants of industrialization. Meg Plona is a biologist with Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and she’s also a kayaker.

“There are safety zones that are setup for paddlers," Plona said. "You have traffic with freighters coming in and out. And when the freighters come in, they take up the entire width of the navigation channel, along with the jet propulsion and propellers that really thrust a lot of water and can push you aside easily. Although it’s flat water and looks easy, you just have a lot more to deal with, safety-wise, in that channel.”

Charles Frederick teaches in the landscape architecture program at Kent State University. He’s a Coast Guard veteran. And each year, he’s part of a group that kayaks from Kent all the way to Merwin’s Wharf in The Flats – a journey that can include some close calls with commercial traffic.

“I remember one time we just got into a real small group and decided we’re just going to paddle as fast as possible to get through there. So that they saw all of us; that was the big thing.”

photo of Jade Davis
Jade Davis, VP of External Affairs for the Port of Cleveland, says commercial traffic has been rising at the port for the past several years -- but so has the number of kayaks, canoes and paddleboards in the Flats.

Going commercial
He’s referring to the crews on commercial vessels, many of them going to and from the steel mills of Cleveland, out to Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes and then on to the St. Lawrence Seaway. After steep declines in the mid-2000s, traffic has risen steadily in recent years: at the Port of Cleveland, international tonnage shipments in 2017 rose 20 percent.

“We’re moving salt. We’re moving construction stone. A lot of cement is made in Northern Michigan but it’s consumed in the lower Great Lakes,” said Jim Weakley, President of the Lake Carriers’ Association. He heads out on a ship a few times a year. He says he’s seen first-hand why the Cuyahoga is nicknamed “the crooked river.”

“I am constantly amazed at the ship-handling talent of our masters. As they’re getting ready to make one turn with the bow, they’re finishing another turn at the stern. So they have to simultaneously maneuver two turns on the Cuyahoga River. And we can take a ship that’s over 700 feet up the river without a tug.”

That’s a ship more than an eighth of a mile long trying to navigate not just around twists and turns, but sometimes around paddleboards, kayaks and canoes.

“We are all about safety in our industry. The increased use of the Cuyahoga River creates more opportunities for unsafe conditions. And recreational boaters sometimes don’t recognize the danger they put themselves in. Sometimes they actually want to reach out and touch the hulls of our ship, which is just patently a bad idea.”

Don't touch the ship
The spot where some of those near-interactions take place is in The Flats, not far from where Jade Davis

photo of Andrea Irland, Meg Plona
Andrea Irland (left) has been heading up the effort to have the Cuyahoga designated an Ohio Water Trail. Meg Plona (right) is a biologist with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. She also kayaks the lower Cuyahoga and says despite the water's flat appearance in the shipping channel, it can be difficult to navigate.

serves as Vice-President of External Affairs at the Port of Cleveland.

“Right along where we are – especially in this bend here, over by Shooter’s, where you go into the Old River channel -- that is definitely a place where you have a lot of boats docked up. And as ships are trying to turn in and out of Old River channel, you can definitely see some near-collisions. Right here by the boardwalk area, over where Nautica Queen is docked – you oftentimes see that’s where people dock to go and catch up and hang out with friends and things like that. "

That’s important for paddlers like Kerry Pachla from Avon Lake and Chris Van Cauwenberge from University Heights. They say recreation has grown rapidly in recent years through initiatives like the Cleveland Rowing Foundation’s summer league, which started last month at Merwin’s Wharf.

“This wasn’t even here. We had a boat house way down there. All of this has blossomed in the last couple years.”

“Anyone can row. Anyone can come to Cleveland and have a really great experience.”

photo of Cleveland Rowing Foundation
At Merwin's Wharf in the Flats, the Cleveland Rowing Foundation often competes alongside people relaxing on the river,

All of that increased recreational use has given rise to a movement to have the Cuyahoga declared a Water Trail by the state. The move would bring in funding for signage for fixed hazards like bridge abutments and low-head dams, as well as mile markers and alerts about freighter traffic. Charles Frederick – the kayaking Kent State professor – is one of the people working to get the designation by year’s end. Until that time, he’ll stick to his rule of thumb: “It’s called the law of tonnage: if it’s bigger than you, it has the right-of-way.”


Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.