American Indians, the original inhabitants, called the Cuyahoga River “Ka-ih-ogh-ha”, meaning crooked. In the early 1700’s, waves of various European immigrants looking to settle on the fringe of the ever-moving west, began establishing trading posts and homes in the valley. Later, settlers from New England began to populate the valley, developing small towns along the river. Insert into this mix the grand idea of building a canal connecting Lake Erie and the Ohio River. As the hand dug canal became a reality, followed by the railroad and 20th century paved roads, the valley communities changed forever. What remains, along with scattered remnants of these bygone eras, is a unique magnificent valley perfectly serving the needs of the urban areas that make up her borders.
Most National Parks have a road that loops around or runs down its center. A main pathway that allows visitors to see much of the park. Cuyahoga Valley has an 85 mile towpath running north-south along its spine, mirroring the Cuyahoga River and a canal that once brought prosperity and connection to the rest of the world. In its heyday, horses slowly marched the towpath, leading boats along the canal and through its multiple locks. Today the easily accessible, spacious towpath winds its way through the park, home to hikers, joggers, bikers and people out for a leisurely stroll. Pick any section of the towpath on any given day and you will find people on that stretch. A green wooded slice of nature minutes away from the bustle of an urban pace, it is a haven for over two million visitors each year. I was visitor 1,989,001.
I met Park Ranger Lidia at The Boston Store Visitors Center. As with most National Park Service employees that find out about TheMountCo Project, they enjoy having a conversation with someone who is trying to help the parks. Lidia told me that her love of nature was passed on to her by her father, who immigrated to the United States many years ago. She beamed with pride when she spoke of her dad and what he had overcome during his life. We discussed several topics related to the NPS, but one topic caught my ear, because I have heard this from multiple rangers. There are myriad issue to tackle when it comes to the future of our National Parks – funding and the steep decline in visitors under the age of 25 are two that we want to create a dialog around. But a third issue that should be placed on the table is the homogeneous makeup of NPS employees. I have mentioned this before and it is not intended as a knock on anyone. However, we can’t look away from the reality and avoid this question: If the next generation continues to fail to see themselves reflected in the people that care for our parks, will their numbers continue to decline? I don’t have the answer and Lidia admits she doesn’t either, but we both know that it must become part of the larger discussion.
Hiking from the old Boston store to Brandywine Falls leads you past Stanford House, with its stately barn and curving landscape, before settling into a series of tree encircled meadows. About a half mile before the falls, the path follows a shale strewn stream, winding its way to the crest. As with all falling water, you hear it before you see it. You also hear the sound of traffic running along I-271, only steps from where the trails guides you across the top of the falls. Again I am reminded of the fact that this park has been carved out of a large populated area. The integration of national, state and local parks have been brilliantly woven together and seeing I-271 only steps from Brandywine Falls is a sharp reminder.
When I was in high school, my closest friend was Robin Alexander. He was intelligent, funny, athletic and had the worse hairdo on the planet (I’ve gotta find a photo). We used to hitchhike all over the place. Have a week off school – great – let’s walk over to I-75, put out our thumbs and see how far south we can go. We would get in the car with anyone who would stop. Sounds rational, right? Of the dozens of rides we had, only one proved to be a mistake. But that’s a story for another time. Today’s story is this. I’m walking down an isolated trail in Cuyahoga Valley – haven’t seen another person in about an hour. Suddenly my phone starts vibrating. My first inclination is to ignore, but instead I look at the screen. Facetime – Robin Alexander. WTF! I answer immediately and there’s Robin! WTF! Before I can tell him how odd and wonderful it is to hear from him he says, “Sorry, it was an accident.” Pffffffftttt. That took a bit of the air of of my excited balloon. Hey, Robin. That’s okay. It’s great to see your shiny face. “How are you?” I’m good – followed by a conversation that was as awkward as you may have guessed. But somehow as comfortable as an old pair of shoes. The next day I got a text that said “Send me the link to your website.” I hope you see this Robin. My dear friend.
My strategy on exploring a National Park is as follows. 1. Study history and layout of park. 2. Find a base camp. 3. Find closest bathroom and laundry. 4. Map out a driving route through the park. 5. Decide which trails to hike – ones that will take me into the heart of the park and provide a true sense of the park. 6. Write about what I find. 7. Rinse and repeat.
The hike around Kendall Lake, snakes through the woods on a well worn path, without much change in elevation. In short, it’s a great hike that doesn’t make you break a sweat. But let’s talk about what constitutes a lake, say, versus a pond. I noticed in Maine, many large bodies of water were referred to as ponds. In Ohio, several small bodies of water are referred to as lakes. Kendall Lake being a prime example. Let’s be honest, it’s a pond. A lovely pond, with lily pads, swaying reeds and more ducks than I could count. But in size, it’s a pond. I will be petitioning The National Park Service to have Kendall Lake re-designated as a pond. I do this with no malice in my heart.
At the northern tip of the park is the Canal Exploration Center. Opened in 2014, it is a storehouse of park history. There are several photos of the valley as it was in the days of the early settlers, including several structures that remain in use today. You can listen to John Malvin, a free African American, recall his experiences as a canal boat captain and watch an actual film clip of a horse towing a boat along the canal. As with every information center in a National Park, you’ll also find more literature than you can possibly digest in several sittings. Outside the center is an actual working lock – I think it’s #38 – the only functioning lock of the 44 locks that were once part of the canal. When they were built, the sides of the locks were built with stones, cut at local quarries and hauled into place, mostly by Irish and German workers. The white oak wooden gates held back the water of the 90 foot long and 15 feet wide locks. In its day many considered it one of the great wonders of the engineering world. Today, the towpath that led countless boats through the canal continues to thrive.
Bridal Veil Falls is a short hike, but filled with all kinds of wonder. Slow moving water over rippled sheets of shale, light bouncing on the many leveled stream. Small ferns hiding in billion year old rock, while mosses clinging to the edge of a piece of granite put in place by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1030’s. Sometimes you don’t have to venture too far off the beaten path to see nature showing off. But you do have to venture off the beaten path.