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Observe, celebrate Year of the River

6/18/2009 - West Side Leader
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By Jennie Vasarhelyi

CVNP — On June 20, Cuyahoga Valley National Park will celebrate the Year of the River with a day of festivities.

The Year of the River recognizes the 40th anniversary of the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, as well as the environmental laws and cleanup efforts that followed. While you may be familiar with our river’s environmental history, how well do you know the river itself? This article will introduce you to the physical features of the river in Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP). I hope it will help you take a closer look at the river June 20 or whenever you encounter it next.

A child studies Cuyahoga River water quality with a Cuyahoga Valley National Park park ranger.
Photo: Sara Guren; courtesy of Cuyahoga Valley National Park
The 100-mile Cuyahoga River has its headwaters in rural Geauga County. It flows south before it makes a U-turn at Akron. It enters the park on its northward path to Lake Erie. Twenty-two miles of the river flow through the park. You may encounter it along Riverview Road, at bridge crossings, in spots along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, and from the windows of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad (CVSR).

Use your first look to notice basic characteristics of the river. It is small, muddy and relatively calm. It traces a sinuous, meandering route. Only in the Pinery Narrows north of Station Road Bridge Trailhead do the meanders become less pronounced. This is the narrowest part of valley, which gives the river less room to meander.

To understand the river requires grasping a basic concept — a river can build land as well as carve it. As water erodes a landscape, it picks up silt and other materials. When water flows faster and with more energy, it can pick up larger materials. As water slows down, it drops the heavier materials. These deposits then build up the land.

These sediments also cloud the river water. Our soils contain a lot of clay — the sediment that stays suspended in water the longest. This clay keeps our river looking muddy. Even if the Cuyahoga River became completely free of pollution, the water would not be clear.

The Cuyahoga River loses elevation slowly in the park, about 6 feet per mile. Its calm waters and meandering path are typical of rivers with a shallow grade. These meanders aren’t static, but change over time. Water moves faster along the outside of the meander and actively erodes the riverbanks. Water moves more slowly on the inside of a meander, so it drops materials to form bars of new land. Sometimes this process causes the river to shift its channel so much that a meander is cut off, forming an ox-bow lake that will slowly fill in. These are easier to see on aerial photographs than from the ground.

The tendency of the Cuyahoga River to meander creates a challenge for the National Park Service. While we want the river to flow naturally, we cannot let meanders damage built resources. We monitor riverbanks and stabilize them when necessary. You’ll notice stabilization projects along the Towpath Trail and CVSR tracks. Many employ natural methods such as live plantings and soil bioengineering in combination with traditional stone rip rap to prevent erosion.

What is hard to see when you look at the river are its fish. Each year, new species, including those less tolerant of pollution, are found in fish surveys. What you can see more easily, however, are animals that depend on the fish. Look for great blue herons, which are wading birds that walk out into the water with their long legs to stalk their prey. A heron nesting colony is located next to the river in the Pinery Narrows. A pair of bald eagles, which also depends on river fish, has joined the herons the past four years.

Use your next look at the river to widen your view from the river itself to its flat floodplain. Water levels pulse with rainfall, and periodic flooding is part of the river’s natural rhythm. When the river leaves its banks, water spreads over the floodplain. As it spreads, it slows down and the process of deposition begins.

The soils of the floodplain are fertile, and both American Indians and settlers have farmed them successfully. In their natural condition, they support wet forests. Its common trees are easy to identify: Eastern cottonwoods have deeply furrowed bark and triangular leaves; sycamores have stark white upper branches.

Beyond the floodplain, you’ll see the steep walls that edge the river valley. While the Cuyahoga River played a role in carving them, it is not the whole story. The Cuyahoga River is a young river that drains into a young lake. Both emerged after the last glaciers left Ohio 14,000 years ago. Before glaciers, a different river system drained this area and created a rugged environment. Glaciers smoothed older valleys and filled them with deposits. The Cuyahoga River and its tributaries have recarved the landscape, sometimes following the buried valleys, but sometimes finding less resistance from alternate routes.

The park’s Year of the River festivities June 20 will let you learn more of the river’s stories. Featured activities will include:

• A ride on the CVSR will allow you to explore the river’s history through American Indian stories. It departs from Akron Northside Station at 10:40 a.m. or Rockside Station at 12:35 p.m. The fee is $10.

• At Boston Store Visitor Center, drop in for activities all day. From 10 a.m. to noon, watershed steward volunteers will share their knowledge. From 11 a.m. to noon and 1 to 2 p.m., visitors can hike along the river to learn about returning wildlife. From 2 to 4 p.m., visitors can try water quality testing, and from 3 to 5 p.m., visitors can learn green ideas for their homes.

For more information, call (216) 524-1497.

Jennie Vasarhelyi is chief of interpretation, education and visitor services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

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