CLEVELAND — People from all over Ohio and beyond will be converging on Cleveland this Saturday to see the city and the Cuyahoga River from a new perspective and with paddles in hand. Sitting or standing — it doesn't matter — as hundreds of kayakers and paddleboarders will be traversing the crooked path of the Cuyahoga River as part of the Blazing Paddles event, the one day celebration that gives pleasurecraft unfettered access to the river.
Whether they came to race or just have a pleasurable float on the river on Saturday, a steady stream of cars piled into Merwin's Wharf on Friday night to drop off their kayaks and paddleboards for early check-in for Blazing Paddles. The event first started in 2018 and has been an annual summer tradition ever since — except for the pandemic-related cancellation in 2020.
"It's basically a photo op for Cleveland's waterfront," said Jim Ridge, the founder of the event and non-profit Share the River organization. "Really, what we're talking about is nobody would be recreating on this body of water if it was still in the shape that it was in 52 years ago."
Ridge said organizers expect around 400 participants for this year's event — perhaps even more if there is a sizable walk-up crowd. The event has grown in popularity each year with the number of participants doubling each year. The five hour event features races along the winding stretches of the Crooked River as well has an 8.6 mile paddle and float through Cleveland's industrial engine and confluence with Lake Erie. Even those not on the water are encouraged to view the massive flotilla.
Ridge said the event would not be possible without the support of some of Cleveland's industrial giants, including the Port of Cleveland, Cleveland Cliffs, the Lake Carriers Association and a slew of other companies that rely on the river to ship and receive product.
"They've voluntarily given us the opportunity to recreate for five hours, unfettered," Ridge said. "For an industrial river, a federal navigation channel, for them to give us that opportunity, I feel like I have to work harder to get people to turn out for this thing so the industrial stakeholders can say, 'okay, this is a good thing for the community and this is an economic driver for the region. We'll keep doing this.'"
At the heart of the event is the showcasing of the river's remarkable transformation from environmental liability to economic asset.
"This river has made a tremendous recovery and when people see 350 people recreating on Cleveland's hard-working, scenic and historic river," Ridge said. "They're going to say, 'that's not the Cleveland I used to remember.'"
Adam Schumann dropped off his kayak Friday night ahead of Saturday's races. A lifelong sailor, the Mentor native said he was excited to try his hand at competitive kayaking.
"It's gonna be a great event for the river and celebrating Cleveland," Schumann said. "It's such a great resource right here in Northeast Ohio. It's underutilized and the more that people see events like this and get on the water, it's more promotion for Cleveland. We can actually use this river that people used to make fun of us for."
Best friends Ashley Thomas and Tiffany Kral were also among those that checked in early. This will be their first time participating in the event.
"It'll just be nice to be able to enjoy the city that we love and to be out in it. It will be nice to experience a different part of the river too," Kral said. "I've never actually been and kayaked the part where we're going tomorrow. It will be fun to get a new view of the city."
Races begin at 8 a.m. on Saturday with the pleasure floats beginning at 8:30 a.m.