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A generation in the making, the Cuyahoga River is now a crown jewel that will host the Blazing Paddles Paddlefest

File image: Crew team rowing down Cuyahoga River.
Posted at 5:00 PM, Jul 02, 2021

CLEVELAND — Once a black eye on the city of Cleveland and Northeast, Ohio—the Cuyahoga River, a generation in the making, now a crown jewel of the community.

So much progress made since that fateful day in 1969, that later this month hundreds will take over its waters for the Blazing Paddles Paddlefest.

Something once unthinkable in the then heavily polluted waters.

“Cuyahoga River health is doing so much better than it was 52 years ago,” said Cleveland Metroparks Natural Resources Director Jennifer Grieser “It is really teaming with wildlife, aquatic and terrestrial that we would not have seen decades ago.”

From a national embarrassment in the 60's to now what many consider a national treasure. USA Today named the Cuyahoga River the best urban kayaking destination in the country.

“Over the last couple of years outside the pandemic we’ve seen a huge increase in visitation on the water, kayaks and paddleboards and even some rafts,” said Cuyahoga Valley National Park River Ranger Ryan Ainger.

Thanks to years of clean-up, environmental regulations, and conservations efforts, the banks of the Cuyahoga are healing.

But the healing process isn’t over as experts say portions of the river still experience elevated levels of sewage from time to time.

And if the conditions are right, higher levels of E. coli.

“It still has a ways to go, it is in no way pristine. We aren’t going to go down to the river and drink out of it," said Grieser. "But it’s definitely doing a lot better than it was in the past.”

And with the river's resurgence, comes an influx of visitors paddling down its waters.

In 2020, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park was the 7th most attended national park in the country with 2.8 million visitors.

Many, coming to go down 22 miles of river that run through the park, which can be dangerous. Kent officials rescued dozens from the river each year.

"We have some areas that are pretty flat and like a lake. But we also have sections that are class five white water and they can go from one section to another very quickly," said Ainger.

Ainger has been paddling for 15 years and says it’s best to go out in groups, wear life jackets and check the forecast. Drugs and alcohol also a big no-no on the river.

“Anything that can impair your boating is not permitted on the river," he said.

And for the river’s future, the work will continue to make it a world-known destination.

In the next couple of years, more portions of the Cuyahoga River will become accessible after a dam removal project is completed in Cuyahoga Falls.

Wildlife is thriving along the river, with bald eagles, beavers and even river otter sightings becoming more and more common.

“Revamping the river to this internationally known resource has been a huge passion of mine," said Ainger.

"Paddling down the Cuyahoga is a ton of fun," he added.

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