Blade outdoors editor Steve Pollick and a small team are canoeing 130 miles of the Maumee River this week from Fort Wayne, Ind., to Toledo and will be reporting daily on the journey.
ANTWERP, Ohio -- To be blunt about it, the upper Maumee River passes the smell test, and a lot more, 27 years later.
The upper 32 miles of this, the Great Lakes' biggest river system, between Fort Wayne, Ind., and this Ohio/Indiana border village, are noticeably cleaner and more visually appealing than they were in 1984, when I first canoed the 130-odd miles from the Fort to the Port, Toledo.
Then, the offensive odors of raw sewage were not uncommon along much of this stretch of stream. Yesterday, one sewage outflow between Fort Wayne and New Haven assaulted the nostrils with the scent of raw sewage, as did one source above Antwerp -- perhaps a neglected septic tank. But overall, the nose knows and the upper river smells, well, natural.
It pleases the eyes, too. I noticed little river-borne or bankside trash or litter yesterday, unlike conditions in 1984, where dump-sites of appliances and cast-off-furniture, assorted litter, and trash-littered banks at too many turns. Paddling partner Matt Horvat and I saw only three tires, the first one fully 22 miles downstream from the Fort, for example. Other once common pieces of trash and litter were conspicuously absent -- in quantity, if not here and there.
Horvat and our paddling companions for part of the way, John Jaeger and Lou Hebert, remarked about the relative absence of litter and trash though they had not before seen this quiet, rural reach of river, which snakes back and forth like old-fashioned ribbon candy in a succession of oxbows.
One huge oxbow, in fact, swings clockwise through more than 270 compass degrees, northwest to southwest, in a course of several miles that only gains perhaps a quarter mile in straight-line distance toward Toledo.
Indeed, the stretch was an eye-opener, not an eyesore, in a trip that should take Matt and I to International Park in downtown Toledo by Friday afternoon. Such a journey, while not Olympian, is not a cakewalk, either. The river current gives you little help; in many stretches the flat water makes paddling progress seem slow as molasses. It is not like "ruddering" your way along a crisp five-mile-per-hour stream with little muscle power needed.
We set off just before 6 a.m. at Kreager Park in Fort Wayne, part of a wonderful, scenic "Rivergreenway" that extends for several miles. The scenic walking and cycling route wasn't there 27 years ago either. So any cautions about needing to do more aside, we need to take some credit as a society for making some visible, nose-tested gains in nearly 30 years.
Indeed, paddling the upper Maumee is a perfect antidote for those seeking natural solitude from modern urban noise.
What you hear are marvelous sounds like the song of the uncommon Blanchard's cricket frog [thanks to Jaeger's discerning ear], or the whistle of an osprey, a magnificent fish-hunting bird of prey, overhead. You will encounter a noisy rookery of great blue herons, where adults "graaaawk" and their offspring squawk. The herons seemed to be everywhere, as were female wood ducks, playing "broken-wing" to lure us away from their families of skittering ducklings, which at times would dive under the surface to "escape."
Constantly along the way are reminders that the Maumee at times - ice-out and floods -- can be irrepressibly mighty. Tall old sycamores, for example, have had their faces chiseled by the rampaging river over the decades, such that their trunks at flood-level have been carved into gnarls and hollows. At times they seem to wear gargoyle-like masks with eyes and screaming mouths. Quite the characters.
As for solitude, take note: We did not see an active, occupied watercraft for a marathoner's distance -- 26.2 miles measured by our on-board GPS. The first were two canoes manned by four young men, camping and fishing their way slowly from Woodburn, Ind., to Defiance, Ohio. Otherwise in the leg, we saw one overturned rowboat, one pontoon boat at dock, and one tethered but unmanned canoe. That's it.
The only person we saw actually along the riverbank, facing the river and connecting with it, was a lone fishermen way down at Antwerp Park at the end of an 8- 1/2-hour paddle.
But journey's end yesterday carried one last surprise -- a fawn, standing frozen and undecided at bankside at Antwerp Park, as if waiting to greet us.
Contact Steve Pollick at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.