Moon over the Cuyahoga

By David Beach

You drive out of the city, east on Route 87, across the Chagrin River and on out through Geauga County. Just before the town square at Burton, a country lane called Rapids Road turns off to the right. You go south on it for several miles until you come to Russell Park. In the park, a primitive boat landing provides access to a narrow, slowly flowing riverthe beautiful Cuyahoga.

Yes, beautiful. The Cuyahoga River rises from springs in the snowbelt highlands just east of Chardon. Instead of flowing directly north to Lake Erie, it wanders southeast to Cuyahoga Falls. There it runs up against the escarpment separating the Lake Erie and Ohio River watersheds and finally turns north to Cleveland. Before being sullied by the sewage of Akron and Greater Cleveland, the river is amazingly unspoiled. The 25-mile stretch of the Upper Cuyahoga between the Troy-Burton township line and the Route 14 bridge by Lake Rockwell has been designated a state scenic river.

One clear, cool evening a couple of years ago a group of six people on a Cleveland Museum of Natural History field trip pushed off from the boat landing in three canoes. Our guide Bob Faber, a naturalist from Hiram, pointed out a pair of concrete bridge abutments, remnants of an old inter-urban trolley line. They would be the last manmade structures we would see along this undeveloped part of the river.

We paddled and drifted quietly downstream, under over-arching silver maples and willows, past riverbanks lined with spatterdock lilies and buttonbush. Around a bend we saw a mound of sticksa beaver lodge. Faber said there were at least nine lodges in the next couple of miles.

The surrounding land was flat, low and marshyhabitat for many animals and rare plants. Nearby were kettle lakes made thousands of years ago by huge blocks of melting glacial ice. Together, the watery system of lakes, bogs, wetlands and river make up the Cuyahoga Wetlands. Parts of the area are protected by the City of Akron, which draws its drinking water from this area, The Nature Conservancy, the Museum of Natural History and the Geauga County Park District. However, from the stern of the canoe Faber said he worried that increasing development in Geauga Countythe eastward spread of Cleveland's exurbiawould eventually pollute the clean water. He hoped a green corridor along the river would be preserved.

We drifted on. Ahead, a heron lifted off. Wood ducks flew across the treetops. The twilight began to fade and the fall colors drained with the light out of the evening landscape. At a wide spot in the river, Faber pointed out where a creek entered. He warned us to be careful later on the return trip. In the darkness it would be easy to make a wrong turn up the creek.

After another mile or so we turned the canoes around and paused. It was perfectly still and dark. We looked past the black outlines of trees and could see nothing but endless marshno farms, no houses, no lights. We had found a little corner of wilderness. We enjoyed the feeling for several minutes, each of us lost in our own private reveries, holding our breaths so as not to break the spell.

I thought, this is how the entire river used to be. A pure, waterlogged world meandering lazily to the lake. Cleveland's burning industrial sewer, the dredged and bridge-crossed shipping channel, the pleasure boat highway through the neon Flats used to be like this.

Faber dipped his paddle in the river and started us back upstream. A full moon had risen behind the trees. Shafts of moonlight, like silver spotlights in nature's theater, illuminated our way.

"A magic night," Faber whispered.

We glided in and out of the moonlight. The only sound came from our paddles stroking easily against the imperceptible current.

Suddenly, there was a sharp splash in front of us. We all jumped. It was a beaver slapping the waterto alert the other beavers? To scare us away?

Faber chuckled. "They always startle you. Once I had a guy almost fall out of the canoe."

We were on edge nowhuman animals peering into the night, waiting for something else to happen. We seemed a thousand miles, a hundred years, from civilization.

There were two more splashes, and we jumped each time. As we reached the landing, a barred owl screeched like a tortured ghost in the woods, as if saying goodbye to us from a different world.


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