A Ragged Edge

Like a bridge over troubled waters (sorry)

Between the hours of around 7:30 am and 10 am today, the Cuyahoga River did not burn. At least not within the park boundaries. In fact, it didn’t appear in the least bit likely to combust. It is swollen with rain and melt water, running at the very limits of its banks and bridges, and very cool to the touch. (You aren’t supposed to swim in it, but I figured dipping a finger in couldn’t hurt.). There are points in the park that are truly beautiful, but, for the most part, this feels like a “make up call”. Like we were so aware and ashamed of the near total destruction our quest for growth produced here we said, lets try and make up for it by making sure nothing like that can ever happen again. The National Park designation and protection is like a salve; a great bandage under whose cover we all collectively hope this place can recover. It’s 33,000 acres along 22 miles of the river, so I didn’t see all of it, but I did see the full length of the Cuyahoga River within the park. It is crooked, as its name implies, and the mixed deciduous forest throughout the valley around the river is lovely — particularly the presence of giant sycamores with their battered and broken bark shining white among the gray oaks — but it’s not spectacular. What is pretty special are the myriad of walking/biking/horseback trails that course through the park, mostly along the old canal towpaths. I spent a few miles on some of them in the middle of a snow and windstorm and still found them delightful. In the end, it is good to know this old wound is being healed. It’s good to have a protected stretch between Akron and Cleveland to remind us all that industry has its limits and its results. It’s good to have a nice path to walk without any indication of a city at all, and to listen to the sounds of the river, the birds, the trees in the wind and to hear, just maybe, the heavy chuffing and jingling of a pair of mules as they tow their barge.

A beautiful stream at the Brecksville Crossing on the CuyahogaThe Brecksville Crossing Bridge deck. The oldest wrought iron bridge in the Valley gets a deck of end grain wood

Top – the towpath and what is left of the canal.

Middle – a beautiful creek at the Brecksville Crossing of the Cuyahoga

Bottom – my artsy shot. The oldest wrought iron bridge in the valley crosses at Brecksville and its bridge deck is end grain wood

That windstorm, it seems, is a big deal. The steady wind — all day and continuing through tonight in the Niagara Region — is 35 mph, and the gusts are 65 mph. And it is periodically snowing heavily. The snow is not like any I’ve seen. It is almost round, like little “Dippin’ Dots” ice cream. I thought it was sleet, but it’s not ice, it is snow. It is odd, I think. Anyway, the result is that Lake Erie dropped 5 feet on its western end and rose 3 feet on the eastern side, which is where I am. And that’s without the waves, which were cresting at 13 feet in some places. Towns along the shoreline that look to me like they could take on a Russian tank battalion with their bare hands are near vacant as residents stay indoors and power goes out all around. In Buffalo, they close one of the main bridges to trucks for fear they will blow completely off of it. I don’t know if you’ve ever been exposed to sustained periods of sustained high winds, but it is exhausting. When I get out of the truck to hike around — in Cuyahoga or at Niagara — it takes longer to do anything. When I stay in the truck and drive trying to escape it, it takes more concentration and effort to hold things on the road. I ask the local folks about it when I get a chance and they all say, “this is bad.” I ask if it gets like this a lot, and they say, “oh yeah, every year around this time.” Living on this edge means dealing with weather — and I’m hear in the Spring.

I chat with some folks in Buffalo and they are uniformly nice. They are worried about the power situation because they sort of arbitrage the seasons and the fuel bill — they let the oil run out if the ice breaks up — and they need electric power to stay warm if the temps drop after that. It’s going to be in the teens tonight. And the wind is knocking out power all over the place. But the folks I talked to sort of take it in stride. One of them stopped talking to check on her mother and move her to a hotel, but said she’d figure out what to do for herself later. I can only imagine the winter, when feet of snow are involved. It makes me think of all those videos of Buffalo Bills fans smashing themselves through tables. I’ve watched them and thought these people are crazy. I’ve judged their judgment. But now I sort of feel like if you carve out a life for yourself and your family in a place where every single thing you have to do is a battle against the natural world for at least 9 months out of the year; and you want to or need to smash back a few beers and jump through a table as you root for the home team, then go ahead. God bless you. This place is brutal — again, in the SPRING.

Geographically, I hit the edge at Cleveland, on the southern shore of Lake Erie. Erie is the 4th largest (another way of saying almost smallest) of the Great Lakes, and it is the shallowest. With a maximum depth of 210 feet and an average much less than that, it is subject to the great swings in depth end to end that I described above. This is caused by the wind blowing the water from one end to the other. The lake is fed by primarily the Detroit River (though the Cuyahoga pours its, ahem, water into Erie as well) and it empties via the Niagara River. It covers over 10,000 square miles of surface area.

At the northeastern end of Erie are the aforementioned folks of Buffalo, NY in all their glory, and the largest waterfall in North America. Six million cubic feet of water per minute crash over and into the Niagara River Gorge on their way to Lake Ontario. Niagara Falls is really three waterfalls — two on the American side and one of the Canadian side. American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls are our’s, Horseshoe Falls is Canadian. There are two islands that make the three falls three falls — Goat Island being the main one, and Luna being the small one that creates Bridal Veil Falls.

A brief moment of light in the midst of the snow and windstorm shows American and Bridal Veil Falls in the foreground and Horseshoe Falls in the background

And, except for the work of a gardener, all three falls might be burning like the poor Cuyahoga. Around the turn of the 19th century, the town at the brink of the falls was a huckster’s paradise. Every hat trick, tin type, boat ride, souvenir rock from the falls themselves, was finding its way into the pocket of daily sojourners from the surrounding cities. And the banks of the Niagara River were lined with Aluminum Smelters, iron works and every manner of industry for whom the cheap power of water could make a difference. In came the river to power the plant, out went the water polluted with whatever the plant used to make its wares. Into this fresh Hell comes the gardener. And not just any gardener — Fredrick Law Olmsted — who wold go one to design Central Park, Prospect Park, the U.S Capitol Park, my own neighborhood in Atlanta along with its parks, and, the master plan for Yosemite National Park. Fred showed up, saw the natural beauty of the falls, saw the disaster unfolding, and called up money and politics and public opinion in the “Free Niagara Falls” movement. It worked. Private businesses were acquired, factories removed, and commerce limited as Niagara Falls became the first state park in America, and a model for the National Parks system.

Below the falls the Niagara River makes a big bend before finding Lake Ontario. The result is the Niagara Whirlpool.

I walked across from the American side to Goat Island and then on out to Prospect Point overlooking Horseshoe Falls and the Canadian side. The lower observation points are still closed for the season, but the views are unchanged. It is a remarkable sight, and even a little uncomfortable to be in the presence of so much power. For me of course, it was another corner on the edge — the inside right corner, from which I head east and north to the top right or northeastern corner. But there is some northern edge left. Tomorrow I follow Lake Ontario to the St. Lawrence River, and then the 49th parallel across northern Vermont. Let’s hope the wind dies down a bit.

3 thoughts on “A Ragged Edge

  1. Peter Kight

    Well, I’ve been following your sojourn through Terri, but now that you are in my home grounds I am compelled to come forth… Everyone from Ohio has been burdened with the projected responsibility of the “river that caught fire,” regardless of our geographic, economic, or philosophic proximity to that which was “THE Cuyahoga.” I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but I distinctly remember being berated by a college professor who found out I was from Columbus and thus was personally responsible for answering for the sin that was “THE Cuyahoga.” I was in college shortly after the Pleistocene, so this is going back a ways. I can’t say I ever felt much of a bond with my Ohio brethren in that area…my one connection being a childhood love of the Cleveland Browns, and look what that got me…so I never built up a defense for how or what led to such an ecological disgrace. Ohio just isn’t a state where one builds a significant loyalty to the whole, unless the challenge comes from a University of Michigan fan. I do, however, have an appreciation for the people of that area who pulled together, accepted responsibility, and have worked diligently to improve both the river and the lake. I appreciate your calling that out…even if it appears somewhat reluctant. I can report that my fly fishing addicted brother now catches steelhead every year, standing waist-deep in the cold water, most often just below bridge abutments, with the Cleveland skyline observable on the horizon…on those rare days when the weather permits one to see a horizon in Northern Ohio. Think about it: Steelhead within the extended shadows of the Cleveland city skyline! Trout, those most sensitive arbiters of clean, pure environment, returning to those waters. It reminds one that while man can be callous and cruel in his negligence, once enlightened there are no bounds to what he/she can do.

    And, if you think those winds were tough, you need to hope you are lucky as you travel through Maine, Vermont, and NH…


  2. Papa

    Wow! Helps you understand why Fla. is full of snowbirds. Bud LaFont’s daughter lived in Buffalo for several years. Couldn’t wait to get back south. Be careful. Enjoyed Pete’s comments. Papa


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