Forty-nine years ago this month, the Cuyahoga River caught fire for the last time.
This year, on June 23, the Cuyahoga will host Blazing Paddles, its first ever stand-up paddleboard races — an elite 6-mile course with a cash prize and a casual 2-mile race. The event is paired with the Share the River Ramble, a 5K run/walk along the river banks, the night before.
“We’re racing on what used to be a sewer,” said Jim Ridge, founder of Share the River, which is hosting the event. “That speaks volumes about what’s happened since the 1969 fire.”
Edie Call, a paddler who grew up in Lakewood and lived in Key West before moving back to Ohio, believes the event will change the image of Cleveland throughout the SUP world.
“They think Lake Erie is gross. It’s so not gross anymore,” said Call.
Over decades, more than a dozen fires were recorded on the Cuyahoga.
The city had already started to clean up the river by 1969, when an oil slick on the river lit and, as Cleveland Historical puts it, “sparked pop songs, lit the imagination of an entire nation, and badly tarnished a city’s reputation.”
There’s no known photo of that fire. The picture that later ran in Time magazine was from a more serious fire in November 1952.
The location of that 1952 fire is the turnaround spot for the 6-mile elite paddleboard race, a metaphor for the turnaround of the river, Ridge said.
“We’re not so much celebrating the fire, but how far the river has come,” he said. “And how goes the river, so goes Cleveland.”
Last year, Share the River hosted its first ramble on newly built paths along the river. The free ramble had no marketing budget, but garnered 300 participants, more than half of them walkers and many from the suburbs, Ridge said. He kept hearing, “Oh, that’s where Merwin’s Wharf is.”
“It’s always fun to see people rediscovering their city,” Ridge said. “They think they know it one way, and there’s still so much to learn.”
This year, the event includes a festival — with sponsors and beer — at the Cleveland Rowing Foundation. It’s getting lots of support. The Lake Carriers Association has agreed to stop freighter traffic on the river for three hours, to let the paddlers race.
Call hopes friends in Detroit will come to Cleveland. The race is similar, Ridge said, to a Detroit River race called OABI, short for Once Around Belle Isle. The 7-mile urban race, now in its seventh year, draws hundreds of paddlers.
“If people come and have fun, more people will come and have fun the next race. That’s how you grow a race,” said Randy Rair, who grew up in Youngstown with the idea that the Cuyahoga was filthy.
The reputation has definitely changed, Rair said.
“It’s come a long way and it’s vibrant,” he said. “When you’re in a paddlecraft or you’re walking around it, you can see it’s not as dirty as its reputation. It is something you can use for recreation and not just industry.”