Rollin’ on the River

Could Cincinnati really be the nation’s paddle capital?

Illustration by Ryan Snook

For most of us, traversing Cincinnati involves zooming along asphalt roadways, passing gaudy strip malls, and navigating congested parking lots. Our mindless mission is simply to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. But there’s another travel experience to be had in this town: paddling a boat down one of our many streams and rivers. Such a voyage is filled with sensory experiences: the roar of fast-moving water, the warm caress of sunlight on skin, the graceful silhouette of a great blue heron gliding from treetop to treetop. And this natural experience is abundantly available. In fact, according to Henry Dorfman, the founder of Cincypaddlers, a local club for canoeing and kayaking enthusiasts, local water-sport opportunities are so prevalent that Cincinnati should be known as the paddling capital of the country. “No other city has such a great variety of paddle-friendly streams, or so many canoe and kayak liveries, or such a large paddling club,” he says.

Dorfman’s hyperbolic enthusiasm aside, the numbers seem to support his claims. Cincypaddlers has 1,900 members and holds 125 events each year. There are paddling clubs in other cities, too, but they tend to be specialized. For instance, Portland’s Oregon Ocean Paddling Society caters specifically to sea kayakers, and Minneapolis’s Superior Kayak and Outdoor Adventure Club focuses primarily on kayaking Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters. Cincypaddlers prides itself on being open to everyone, regardless of craft or ability. The group convenes every Thursday year-round on the Great Miami River in Colerain Township for camaraderie and to offer free instruction to novice paddlers.

Cincypaddlers is also a major supporter of Paddlefest (June 23–25), a three-day festival that culminates with an eight-mile group paddle down the Ohio from Coney Island to the Public Landing. It raises close to $40,000 annually for The Ohio River Way, a nonprofit whose mission is to protect and promote the Ohio. Paddlefest’s founder and biggest booster is local kayaker Brewster Rhoads, who came up with the idea when city leaders were looking for a way to promote Cincinnati as an outdoor recreation hub. As chair of Paddlefest, Rhoads has seen his event, which is now in its 10th year, grow from fewer than 300 paddlers to more than 2,000. What separates Paddlefest from similar events in other cities, Rhoads says, is that it isn’t run by canoe and kayak outfitters, whose primary focus is selling equipment. “When it comes to an event that’s actually a paddling trip that people take together, we’re the biggest,” he says.

The Ohio River Way markets Paddlefest in a variety of ways, putting up placards around the city, sending frequent e-mails to some 5,000 past participants, and partnering with Channel 9 for coverage of the event. This year, they even have plans for the mayor to publicly proclaim Cincinnati the paddling capital of America on Fountain Square on June 1. “We hit every angle we can,” Rhoads says.

Paddlefest celebrates the Ohio, but local stream-lovers also flock to the Great and Little Miami, the Licking, and the Whitewater rivers, as well as a number of nearby creeks: Four Mile, Caesar, Stonelick, and O’Bannon. The variety and proximity of these streams, they say, are another reason the city is a paddling destination. “You don’t have to drive three or four hours to find a beautiful setting to canoe or kayak,” says Teresa Lubic, director of Paddlefest and an avid canoer. “It’s right here in our backyard.” Someone who wants a fun ride in the middle of summer might choose the Great Miami, which has decent rapids for the Midwest and is reliably high even when the weather gets dry. Someone looking for a picturesque trip might pick the Little Miami, the first Ohio stream to be declared a National Wild and Scenic River.

Another feather in Cincinnati’s paddling cap: the area’s two dozen boat ramps. Because of these, kayakers and canoers don’t have to struggle down a steep bank filled with poison ivy and honeysuckle vines to access a river; they simply back their cars down a paved ramp and slip their boat into the water. But convincing local governments to see access as a good thing isn’t always easy. Dorfman spent 18 years lobbying Hamilton County to let people float their own boats in 156-acre Winton Lake in Winton Woods Park. The park’s board finally agreed in 2007 and now rents out canoes and kayaks. (You’d think that wouldn’t have been such a hard sell, considering the metro area has 10 independent liveries that stretch from Waynesville south to the Ohio River.)

The last, and perhaps best, reason to make the case for The Queen City’s preeminence as a paddling hub is the increasing cleanliness of local waterways. Mike Fremont, who at 89 is still an avid canoe-racer, spent 31 years as president of Rivers Unlimited, an advocacy group started in 1972, the year the Clean Water Act was passed. Fremont’s group helped clean up and protect many local rivers, including Mill Creek, considered one of the most polluted waterways in the city. He says industry pollution has been curtailed, and volunteers have done much to clean up rivers like the Great Miami, but runoff from agriculture and aging wastewater treatment systems is still a problem. Fremont’s dream is to see the city complete $3 billion in upgrades to the sewage system, which would keep wastewater from flowing into the Ohio during heavy rains. He argues that the economic benefits would easily outweigh the costs. “People have spent a lot of money to buy places just because they have a good view of the Ohio River,” he says. “Imagine what they’d pay if they knew with confidence that the river was clean, and they could recreate in it.”

Recreating in local rivers is exactly what Fremont, Rhoads, and Dorfman want locals to do. They know that if they can persuade people to use the rivers for fun, they will realize what a tremendous resource the waterways are and how easily they are overlooked. “You can’t imagine the quiet, the wildlife, the birds that exist on these rivers,” Fremont says, “until you’ve been on them.”

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