Urban kayaking through Columbus shows hidden nexus of nature, city
Stray beer cans and detritus from a highway overpass -- tire chunks, discarded trash -- lay scattered through the overgrown brush on either side of a deteriorating stone path.
The crumbling and uneven walkway, situated down the hill from a gravel parking lot at King Avenue and Olentangy River Road in Columbus' University District, leads to a shallow riverbank. It's from here that an intrepid kayaker can push off for a 3-mile trip through the waters of Columbus along a route that just might provide a fresh outlook on the surrounding city.
Central Ohio is home to its share of scenic riverways for kayakers to traverse, including Alum Creek and Big Darby Creek. But this route, which begins on the Olentangy River and eventually converges with the Scioto River to the south, exists at the confluence between nature and urban sprawl.
During a recent trip June 25, great egrets dipped their long beaks into the water as tiny turtles basked in the sun from branches protruding into the river. Traffic hummed endlessly along the adjacent state Route 315, with its support beams serving as obstacles for kayakers.
Throughout the first leg of the journey, Ohio State University's campus sits to the east, along with the Olentangy Trail and its steady stream of runners and cyclists. Endless construction on campus only adds to the highway din.
Along the river, bits of clothing flap from trees and worn tarps lay crumpled on the bank, likely the remnants of a nearby homeless camp washed away when water levels ran high. Colorful graffiti marks the underpasses of bridges, an unauthorized signifier of many artists' insatiable need to say, "I was here." Litter and various flotsam float into the river from storm drains everywhere.
Despite heavy rainfall in June, the watercraft still scraped intermittently against the shallow riverbed and jutting rocks. The Olentangy is notorious for its fluctuating water levels, according to Danielle Johnson, vice chair at the Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed, or FLOW, which works to keep the river and its tributaries clean.
"How quickly it drains from rain is just crazy," said Johnson, who has kayaked that stretch many times but was not part of this particular trip.
This 2-mile stretch of the Olentangy -- where a bustling city serves as a backdrop to poverty, pollution and, yet, somehow thriving nature -- might move a kayaker to become philosophical.
"You can get really deep (metaphorically) floating along that stretch of the river," Johnson said. "Our social differences, our effect on nature and nature's effect on us."
The Olentangy takes kayakers past the site where a state-of-the-art stadium for the Columbus Crew will one day be located near the Arena District. And, eventually, the narrow pass gives way to a wide river where the Scioto intersects.
If the more challenging stretch of the Olentangy proves a solitary trip, this portion of the Scioto routinely draws its share of kayakers, and it's easy to see why. Soon after the rivers merge, an alluring downtown Columbus skyline punctuated by the LeVeque Tower and Rhodes State Office Tower emerge.
Those who call Columbus home are no strangers to the iconic buildings abutting the Broad, Rich and Main street bridges. But seen from the vantage of the water, the imagery takes on a new perspective.
The east side of COSI Columbus glimmered in the evening sun.
And as kayakers pass under the Rich Street bridge, they can look up to see the famous bronze deer -- part of the public-art installation "Scioto Lounge" by Terry Allen -- peering down at them.
It's not long before travelers reach a makeshift stone exit ramp on the north side of the Main Street bridge. After hauling themselves and their kayaks out of the river, they might find the nearby Bicentennial Park the perfect place to rest and continue watching the city go by.