A River On Fire!
The First Annual Cuyahoga Falls Race
Words By: Bobby “The Dogg” Miller
Photos: Matt Jackson & Stephen Mule
In 1969, the Cuyahoga River actually caught on fire from years of pollution and industrial waste that had been dumped in the river. This horrific event sparked a revolution for regulations on water quality, such as the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Over the years, water quality has improved drastically and the river, once barren of aquatic life, now supports 44 species of fish. Fast forward 47 years and the Cuyahoga River is once again a river on fire! This time, led by an enthusiastic crew of intrepid young huckers, the Cuyahoga and the whitewater in Ohio, yes Ohio, is part of a new kayaking revolution that is gaining momentum. The “Stuck In Ohio” movement, spearheaded by Cuyahoga locals, Nic Williams and Tommy Piros, has been creating a buzz around the east coast, as they spent their rainy winter running around chasing stout drops that exist on the various creeks around the Cuyahoga area. The next step in this insurgence was to hold a race on their local waterfall section, and in the process gain some notoriety for the river, and the region. What they didn’t count on was the catchiness of their enthusiasm and the overwhelming support they would receive in making this dream a reality!
News of this race traveled quickly, and instantly grabbed the attention of The Dogg! As a veteran of Class 5 races, I love to seek out new challenges and compete at new events. The Dogg had never laid the Smackdown on a river in Ohio before, but I had heard of this section of waterfalls a long time ago, and had always wanted to try it. I know what you are thinking, “There is no whitewater in Ohio!” Ohio has long had the reputation of being a flatwater state filled with donks running around with numbers plastered all over their kayaks. I thought the same thing at one time, but come to find out, there are actually some stout waterfalls, if you know where to look. This news was pleasantly shocking, like a 7 foot sad clown with a golden voice singing Royals! Soon, the other members of the All Things Brown TV crew (Matt Sloan, Seth Chapelle and Sean Chapelle) decided to join. This was a momentous occasion for we hadn’t had a brocation, with all of us together, in almost 4 years! The stoke for this event got a huge boost when the mayor of the town of Cuyahoga Falls got behind the event and declared April 23 to be “Kayak Over Cuyahoga Falls Day!” He also pulled a few strings and got the dam company to release some extra flow, to give a perfect water level for the race. With the race day approaching, I knew I needed to get myself in good condition so I did several attainments and spent countless hours pushing the Wheel of Pain around.
We loaded up super early in the morning, and started the long drive to Ohio. Despite the fact that we are all pretty fast kayakers, our drive went at a snail’s pace (and I’m not talking about a racing snail!) with the various stops for food, gas, and time spent getting down to “comp weight.” After a bromantic breakfast at a side of the road greasy spoon, called Much Ado About Muffins, we were fueled up for the race! We finally arrived about an hour before the racer’s meeting, registered and suited up to make a quick practice lap of the course. There was a group of Eskimos who had shown up with signs to protest the use of the term “Eskimo Roll,” by kayakers. Things got heated when they hid the race numbers to try to get our attention. Before things escalated, I told them that we were all solid kayakers and we would not need to use an Eskimo Roll, but there was rumor of a pool rolling session down the street at the YMCA. So, they packed up their signs and pitchforks, and headed off in that direction. I have always found solving your problems without violence to be a useful life skill, a lesson that I learned in a painful way that one day that a fly landed on my testicles. But I digress.
Once on the course, we found a great section of whitewater, with neat drops. The run starts with a warmup containing 150 yards of Class 1-2 wave trains. The first falls was called Rookie Drop, and featured a slide into a schweet 8 foot boof. Immediately following this is Staircase Falls, a 12 foot waterfall. The left line cascades down into a pocket of shallow exploding water while the right side is sheer with a large boiling hole. Consequences abound for either line. A blown line off the left could result in a piton, that could knock the stem off your leaf, and the boil on the right could leave you caught in a trap and can’t walk out like Elvis Presley! Adding to the complexity of the drop was the fact that all flow fed quickly into “The Jumble,” a large pile of boulders, complete with various pieces of urban debris pinned just below the surface! There was no great way through The Jumble, no sneak to avoid its potential snare. To be successful in this race, you were going to have to man up and dance with that devil in the pale moonlight. If you survive all of this, another 200 yards of rocky Class 2 rapids carries you to the finish. The 3 drops, making up the crux of the run, were definitely challenging, and a blown line had the potential to cost you valuable time in the race, or worse. With easy access to walk back up and run Staircase Falls and The Jumble again, we were able to run it a couple times to familiarize ourselves with where to go.
There was a ton of support from the town for this event and, by the time the race started around 1:00, hundreds of people stood at the various viewpoints overlooking the gorge. ESPN 8, the Ocho, was there with live coverage and commentary from Cotton McKnight and Pepper Brooks. The deck at the Sheraton was packed, and they sold out of several types of beer, which they had on tap. Inside the bar and the restaurant, they had the live feed playing on the 70″ screen. The energy surrounding this event fueled the racers to paddle harder. The first racers took off, and the crowd cheered from above, creating more of a feeling of being at the Quicken Loans Arena for a Cleveland Cavaliers game rather than a kayak race in the town of Cuyahoga Falls! The cheering crowd added an element to what is typically a lonely process. When racing, it is ultimately you against the river. The river is your teacher, treating you well as long as you remain within the confines of its rules. You must learn its riddle, you must learn its discipline. The moment you step out of line, there are consequences of varying degrees. So, you search for a friend, an ally, to aid you on your journey, something to push you to keep going, despite your muscles screaming in protest as you paddle on with every fiber of your being. Ultimately, in the heat of the race, the fight is your own, and fighters fight until the bell sounds!
The short boat race was first, since it had the most competitors signed up, and was going to be a very competitive race. I love racing short boat, because you know that everyone starts on a level playing field, more or less, with their boat choice. Some races are won by whoever has the fastest boat, not who the fastest racers are. I don’t give a damn about some trumpet playing band, that’s not what I call rock-n-roll! This race would be won by whoever performed the best, a true mano e mano competition! For the kayak doesn’t make the hero, but the hero makes the kayak! I had shown up in Ohio with two goals: to chew bubble gum and kick ass! I was all out of bubble gum! Soon, I was on deck and the countdown began. I was able to keep speed and hit all of my lines in my Liquidlogic Braap. I nailed the boof off the Rookie Drop, and sailed through Staircase Falls and The Jumble without missing a beat! Oh Yesh! I crossed the finish line very happy with my run and was really looking forward to the long boat race, where speed would be felt even more! The other racers came down with smiles on their faces, pleased with their runs as well.
Burning River Outfitters shuttled the racers back up to the start, and we got ready for the long boat race. As awesome as racing short boat is, the long boat is my favorite event. Oh yeah! The longboat race is what you might call my #1 Seed, my Go To, my Bread and Butter, my Forte, my Speci-al- ity! The crop of modern 12 foot creek race boats makes going fast down Class 5 whitewater so fun! I rocketed out of the eddy and got up to speed as I entered the long series of wave trains. Soon, the crux series of drops came into view and I accelerated down the slide leading into Rookie Drop. I launched off the falls, and was moving so fast when I landed that my boat started planning across the surface as I rocketed toward the next drop. I was clocked at 717 miles per hour, and some of the spectators claimed to have heard a sonic boom as I passed! Yessir, I had that Liquidlogic Stinger purring like a puma feasting on an elk in the Amazon Jungle! I hammered my strokes heading toward the Staircase, and line up off the left line cascade. I resurfaced off the drop and was heading toward the big boulder at a rapid rate of speed! I was about to find out what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immoveable object! The smart play would have been to drag my left blade to turn my bow but I thought I could keep speed and pull off the move with a forward sweep. This proved to be futile, as I was on a collision course of doom! So, I plowed into the boulder like a Donk, and lost all momentum. Luckily, I hit the boulder at an angle that allowed me to shoot up the rock and spin around backward. I washed up on a shallow rock just downstream. This slowed me down even more, but allowed me to spin back facing forward to keep going. I paddled hard through the remaining 150 yards of Class 2 to finish strong.
After returning to the top, the coordinators decided to cancel the freestyle competition, in favor of jam session, where we hucked the falls over and over for no other reason than the love of the game. So, a group of us went out there and just had fun, launching many boofs, a freewheel here and there, and an occasional ear dip. It was such a fun section, and the Staircase Falls was such an easy drop to repeat. After we were finished with our huckfest, we headed back for the awards ceremony. In short boat, Tommy Piros and Adam Homberg tied for first, and I came in third. In long boat, Ross Crocker came in first, I took second and Tommy Piros got third. We celebrated a successful day, the racers were treated to a nice dinner at the Sheraton, overlooking the falls, thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Howdyshell! After dinner, we were invited to Tommy Piros’ parents’ house for the post-race party. We dropped by Blood Bath And Beyond Firearms and Fireworks Depot to pick up some bottle rockets and M-88’s for the celebration. It was super fun to hang out with everyone around the fire and share the stoke for this incredible event.
The day ended with everyone fired up about this awesome event. I had shown up curious about the whitewater that Ohio had to offer, and I was not disappointed. Yessir, Ohio had grown on me like a colony of e coli on room temperature Canadian beef. I was feeling good, riding an endorphine buzz, a Johnny Cash eating cake in a bush kind of high. Happiness filled my heart like a silent but deadly fart in an elevator! I have changed my view of Ohio now as a legitimate paddling destination, and I know that many others have too. Now it is time to spread the good word and make next year’s event even bigger! Chicken finger, French fries for them hoes that wanna diss! What? I don’t know what I just said but I heard some teenagers saying that the other day, and it sounded kind of cool. I guess what I’m trying to say, is that if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change! I want you on that wall! I need you on that wall! I think you’ll find that being “Stuck in Ohio” is not such a bad thing afterall!
I want to give special thanks to all who contributed to making this race a success! Thanks to Nic Williams for coordinating the race, Tommy Piros for creating the Facebook page, and Don Howdyshell for making the shirts and bibs, Mayor Don Walters, Lake Rockwell Dam, Burning River Outfitters for the shuttle, Whitewater Warehouse in Dayton for the throw bag prizes, Akron/Summit Visitors and Conventions Bureau, World Kayak for insuring the race and donating prizes and Columbus Kayak for donating shoes to all of the racers!