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This trip report outlines the 8-mile section between Harpersfield, OH and Hidden Valley Park. This section of the river is the traditional race course for the Grand River Canoe and Kayak race produced by Lake County Metro Parks. Between 1964Ė1988, this race was also known as the Madhatters Canoe Race.
Iíve always wanted to add a section of the Grand River to my quiver of paddled Ohio rivers. Unpredictable weather and home responsibilities have kept me from running this race the last couple of years, but the stars finally aligned and I was able to make the trip to this pretty part of the Buckeye state.
Race day started early for me. I was on the road before 6 a.m. to make the almost 3 hour drive from Toledo to the race start. Directions to the put-in are easily accessed from Route 90. Iíve seen online pictures of the race start and it was just as impressive in person as it had been in photos.
Ashtabula County is home to many covered bridges, with the Harpersfield Bridge being the longest covered bridge in Ohio. The bridge was built in 1868 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Harpersfield Park skirts both sides of the river and many fishermen could be found wading in the water below the upstream dam and bridge.
As with most organized paddling events the put-in was a beehive of activity, vehicles were being unloaded, rangers directing traffic, colorful boats and apparel being tossed about. It was easy to notice that is was going to be a well organized event. A shelter house housed the registration area and colorful flags marked the starting line.
Temperatures were moderate at the race start (mid 50ís) and the sun hadnít quite poked its head out. As the morning haze burnt off, temps were supposed to climb near 70 degrees. Water temps were still cool, but not unbearable. Since it was a race, I dressed for activity and not submersion. I knew my body temp would rise to uncomfortable levels if I layered too much.
As of spring 2006, the USGS gauge for this river is not working properly, if you visit the USGS site there is a warning message that says, ĒDue to bridge construction near this gage, real-time gage heights and stream-flows at this site may be considerably in error. This condition likely will persist for some time. This message will be displayed until we feel that the construction activities no longer affect gage accuracy. We are sorry for any inconvenience this causes.Ē
After calling race organizers the day before the race, they said that the gauge is off by more than a foot. Water depth predictions on race day put water levels just over 2 ft. Some overnight rain helped to raise water depths slightly. Water levels on this river can rise and lower quickly (see Stream Keeper link in Resources section below).
I was able to unload and make it to the starting line just before the race organizers gave their pre-race safety talk. Obstacles and potential strainers were pre-marked with caution tape. Race observers and rescue boats were stationed all along the race course and I even overheard that rescue divers were volunteering that morning. It was safe to say that safety was well covered for this event.
As I finalized getting my gear in order, the first racers hit the water. There is certainly an excitement in the air during an event such as this. I waited until the bulk of the pack launched before I hit the water. One minute intervals separated racers as we sped away from shore.
The sloping shoreline of Harpersfield Park quickly rose to steep shale walls around the first couple of bends in the river. There was enough water to provide ample current and enough river action that required you to read the water through each turn. Most of the entire race course provided less than Class I rapids, except for the set of rapids right before the take-out, the river twists and turns enough that you still need to pay attention and read the river or youíll get hung up on rocks. It would be fun to run this river at higher levels.
There are really no in-river water obstacles that could cause potential problems except for a few errant rocks that easily wash out. I'm sure that higher water creates some interesting hydro-dynamics. The steep valley walls could pose a problem if you were swept into them. There are also numerous downed trees that have been swept down river and are hung up on shore. The river is wide enough to avoid these obstacles, but you still need to keep your eyes open.
Designated as one of Ohioís wild and scenic rivers in 1974, the Grand does provide a sense of remoteness. Itís rugged topography and steep valley has prevented major development from crowding its shores. You cross under several county road bridges and pass numerous waterfalls along the way. While some of the waterfalls are merely trickles, there are some that are quite dramatic and offer postcard like photo opportunities. If I was going at a slower pace, I would have taken the opportunity to explore. It is difficult in a race situation to take in all the floral and fauna, but I and several other racers did notice an immature eagle roosting above the river, watching us speed by. Iím sure we were interrupting his lunch.
It is still spring in the northern part of Ohio, so trees were still beginning to bud, flowers are still pushing through the ground and gray skyís turned to sun several times throughout the morning. I noticed a variety of silver maples, cotton wood, and sycamore trees overhanging the banks.
Throughout the race I did notice that there were a large number of canoe entries in this race, my experience is that boater numbers are swinging more towards kayaks and away from canoes. Even as a kayaker, I can say that it was refreshing to see so many two person teams canoeing in the race. I have a certain respect for the teamwork and water reading skills canoes utilize on river outings.
Watching two experienced canoe paddlers is like watching two formally trained dancers navigating the dance floor, each paddle stroke is perfectly in tune and nothing has to be said between paddlers to get the job done. On the flip-side this is purely a recreational race, so there were plenty of rock banging, red-faced, and frustrated paddlers, racing aluminum rental canoes. Each paddler fighting each other to make their boat go straight!
As the race neared the finish the shoreline started to break away from the river and the slopes slowly turned into a park. Old bridge piers and the newer route 528 bridge marked the border of the finish line. A steep cliff overlooked Hidden Valley Park from river right. The roughest water on the course appeared right before the finish.
There is a 30-yard section of class I whitewater that greeted paddlers right before the take out. I easily navigated this section of river and quickly beached my kayak after crossing the finish line.
Race organizers stood with a megaphone in-hand, ready to cheer you to shore. Race helpers nabbed your bib tab and you officially finished the race. For canoe racers, there was one more step to complete before your time was recorded. Each canoe team had to land and then run across the finish line and ring a bell to officially complete the course.
The finish line was well marked and quite festive! Banners marked the run to the canoe bell, refreshments were housed in a park shelter house, race organizers were busy posting race times on a large board, paddling vendors graced the perimeter and a DJ blasted tunes and announcements. Lake Metroparks also organized a shuttle back to the put-in so racers could retrieve their cars.
Any time on the water is a bonus for me and the morning was doubly exciting because I won my boat class! With medal and shirt in hand, I drove home happy to have had the opportunity to paddle one of Ohioís most scenic and fun rivers.
I canít wait to tackle it again.
To the take out:
Leave Harpersfield park, back towards I-90. Turn left on route 307. Follow 307 until it intersects route 528. Turn left on 528 until you see the signs on your right for Hidden Valley Park.
Touring Kayak Paddles