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Published: Saturday, 7/2/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

4-day trip shows why river is a treasure to cherish

BY STEVE POLLICK
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR
Matt Horvat, left, and canoe companion Steve Pollick, right, dock their canoe in International Park across from downtown Toledo on Friday. Matt Horvat, left, and canoe companion Steve Pollick, right, dock their canoe in International Park across from downtown Toledo on Friday.
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Blade outdoors editor Steve Pollick and a small team canoed down the Maumee River this week from Fort Wayne, Ind., to Toledo. This is the final installment of his report.

The Maumee River is 37 hours and 32 minutes of paddling in a canoe, 122.8 miles from Kreager Park in Fort Wayne to International Park in downtown Toledo, and a descent of just 190 feet in elevation along the way.

Such statistics, compiled in a four-day, hand-powered transit of the great river, "Fort-to-Port," hardly tells the story. It hardly is the same waterway it was 27 years ago.

PHOTO GALLERY: Canoeing on the Maumee

I was privileged to canoe the "Miami of the Lake," as the river once was known, in 1984, and yesterday completed another trip, this time with Matt Horvat, Maumee River coordinator for the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments. Following are some reflections between then and now:

Litter and trash: Back then, bankside dumpsites too frequently ruined the view all along the route. Cast-off appliances, furniture, television sets, tires, and the run of throw-away litter [fast-food trash, foam packaging, glass bottles, cans, plastic in its myriad forms, you name it] were dumped everywhere. Today, it was many miles downstream before we spied the first tire, and all through the route we saw only a handful of them.

Local volunteer groups disgusted with filthy low-life habits and agency-sponsored programs have joined to change the river from eyesore to eye-pleasing. This is a matter of respect. Foul your own nest if you will. Don't mess with this river; it belongs to all of us, we share it, and it is our duty to respect that. Just such an attitude is evolving, and growing, as evidenced in 27 years of cleanup and caring.

The nose test: We had paddled just a few miles between Fort Wayne and the next town, New Haven, when we first smelled the faint odor of sewage -- the stuff we flush and swirl down the drain. The malodor's source apparently was a large sewage outfall culvert.

Such odors were not uncommon 27 years ago. This time around, however, it was all the way downstream below Antwerp, Ohio, some 30 miles, before our noses again were assaulted with the odor of ill-treated waste-foulings. The likely cause was an unmaintained rural septic tank, which too many rural folks blissfully and ignorantly fail to maintain.

Fixing such problems usually does not happen till foul, soupy, black human waste boils up in your backyard, or that of your downhill neighbor, because of failure to clean and maintain the system. It is careless and irresponsible. But such instances seem to be on the decline along the river, compared to 27 years ago.

Indeed, Matt and I smelled no more sewage odors till we had paddled below the I-475 bridge in the Maumee-Perrysburg area, some 75 miles downstream. And we smelled no more such odors, which were all too regular 27 years ago.

All those millions of dollars on sewer and sewage treatment improvement in nearly 30 years are working. Let's not quit or fail to maintain the gains or fail to finish what new efforts have started.

Wildlife: Right at our launch site at Kreager Park in Fort Wayne on Tuesday at 6 a.m., we enjoyed a wildlife treat -- a river otter swimming cross-stream on its back. Lou Hebert, who is doing a video documentary on the river and who served on the trip support team, captured the swim on videotape. Who would have thought it, 27 years ago?

The Maumee Watershed now is home to both otters and beavers; we saw evidence of the latter near Independence Dam State Park in Defiance. Amazing.

We saw more than a dozen bald eagles, including five on Thursday between Defiance and Grand Rapids. In 1984, no one believed that eagles would be so restored.

The foregoing account doesn't include many deer, which were present but uncommon in 1984, and mink (five) and oh so many more mammals, birds, and fish. Among the latter, smallmouth bass are thriving, and their presence in number is a sign of good water quality. Not to mention such species as flathead catfish. At Grand Rapids I was shown a photograph of a 46-inch, 63-pound flathead behemoth. Big flatheads do not thrive in bad water.

Suffice it to say, the wildlife abundance and diversity are substantially better today.

This did not happen because habitat and the environment in general has gotten worse. Indeed, it has become much better. Not ideal but better.

The foregoing is not an exhaustive survey. But rest assured, this once ugly duckling of a river, the greatest river on the Great Lakes, is well on its way to becoming a comely, if not beautiful swan -- if we keep trying. Canoe it sometime, end to end, and you will see for yourself.

Speaking of canoeing the river, an additional note: The 1984 trip was self-contained, unassisted. John O'Meara, my partner then, and I camped riverside thanks to willing landowners. We carried and cooked our own food. This time, because we were to file daily reports and photographs via laptop -- unknown then -- we stayed at handy motels or bed-and-breakfast homes along the way, all scouted out ahead daily by our support team. Without such support, you'll have to arrange and reserve in advance.

Have to admit, regarding the latter, a square meal and a comfortable bed was considerably more agreeable to 63-year-old bones than on-the-wing bankside camping in pasture, the romance of such adventure aside.

Final thought: You don't love what you don't know, and you don't know what you don't care about. The Maumee River is better now, much better, from any number of perspectives, because some people care and know and love. We need more of them.

We should be proud of how far we have come, but never smug or self-satisfied enough to foolishly utter, "mission accomplished."

That is a lesson to learn from paddling our river. It's a beaut.

Contact Steve Pollick at: spollick@theblade.com or 419-724-6068



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