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Itís not often we get to paddle in northern Ohio in the winter, but from time-to-time Mother Nature cooperates and grants us a mid-winter reprieve. For the last year and a half Iíve had the opportunity to stare unsuccessfully at the winding tributary called the West Branch of the Cuyahoga that runs through the back yard of my future in-laws near Burton, OH in Geauga County. Quick trips for family functions, holidays, and poor weather have kept me from escaping into this water wonderland for over a year. It almost pained me to see water so close, but unable to paddle. Imagine being stranded on a raft in the ocean, unable to drink the water.
Lack of proper equipment has also kept me out of this winding marshy area near the Burton Wetlands and Punderson State Park. My 17 foot Perception Eclipse is not the right boat for this type of paddling, and I would highly recommend a shorter, recreation style boat for the winding and shallow stretches of this watershed. Iím a lucky man because my future father-in-law is an outdoors nut and happens to own a Wilderness Systems kayak for just such purposes. This barge-like craft is better suited as a wide, stable platform for poking around the wetlands. This boat is still just shy of 16 feet in length and I found it helpful having the hull length in building momentum to propel myself over several beaver built blockades and deadfall areas.
As the weather warmed and the snow disappeared from a Christmas storm that had previously covered the area with 15 inches of snow, I anxiously waited until we had a mini ice-out in the back yard that indicated the river was flowing and the my trip would be relatively obstruction free. Since my ski plans were derailed, I layered up with my water wicking and poly-pro ski wearables that I also use to layer when cold-water paddling. I also borrowed a paddling jacket, pants, pfd, and paddle from my future father-in-law. A quick kiss on my fiancťís cheek and I was down the stairs and out the door!
While most guide books or maps wouldnít show this body of water as navigable, I can attest that there are miles of open water that dedicated paddlers can sample. Watch the weather; catch it after a good rain and I guarantee you wonít be disappointed. I launched from a simple path that was cut through the woods and into the water. Paddlers looking to launch on this stretch of water can also launch at the bridge on route 87. After momentarily getting my bearings and taking a look at the natural and unnatural landmarks, I set off in search of new territory. While the river had overflowed its banks in much of the area, staying in the main current wasnít difficult. I did have to pay attention to the many sweepers that dangled over the river and the increased water level brought me even closer to them. This section of the river has a nice mix of unspoiled nature and some residential. You will see some houses along the way, but you quickly pass them and re-enter the wild areas of the trip.
After a short paddle through a marshy area I looked to my left and a boat length away was a large and quite industrious beaver. His mouth carried a large, freshly hewed branch and it looked like we were in a race to see who would make it to the next bend in the river. This lonely beaver turned out to be the first of over a dozen beavers I saw on my afternoon jaunt. While I spotted many beavers, I probably had just as many give me the warning splash with their tails from underwater. Beavers have not made their way back to my home waters in northwest Ohio, so this was an exciting sight to see. Beaver huts and the beginnings of many dams could be seen along the way and I was surprised that I had to only pull myself over two obstacles that looked like they were rodent-made. While the beavers were interesting, I was also shocked to see how a few beavers can almost clear-cut an area. Almost every fallen tree, stick or branch had that familiar gnawed nub that indicates it was set free by a beaver. Trees that I couldnít even get my arms around, had a band of teeth marks around its base and you could tell these trees were a work in progress.
You can probably flip a coin for the people that think these animals are wonderful sights and for those that think they are over-grown nuisances. Anyway, I was glad to have encountered such an active set of animals.
There is any number of marshy areas I could have wandered into and explored, many of them beaver produced and some were high water produced. Rumor has it that regulars even enjoy this stretch at low water, because you have an actual river channel to follow and you donít get pulled into the marsh areas by the current.
My trip took me approx. three miles to the route 87 bridge and another two miles past the bridge. The river winds and flows though and around acres of marshland and offers lots of places to explore. I was able to seek up on pods of ducks, and I even followed several large owls that skipped from tree-to-tree ahead of me. I think these were gray owls, they were quite large and they were near a marshy, bog area, with a few conifers and scrub brush, which is where they do most of their foraging. From research, northern Ohio has to be at the most southern point of their natural territory, so I hope Iím right in my guess! Deer probably out-number the residents of Geauga County, but I didnít catch a glimpse of any deer on my trip.
I ended with a quick and steady up-river paddle to my pullout and my timing was perfect, because another rain cloud started to open up again.
I submit this trip report, keeping in mind that this waterway isnít paddle-able year-round. Like with a lot of rivers, we have to watch the gauges, check the skies and hope we get some wetter weather. Paddle trips arenít always in some guidebook or on a map. Some of the best trips are homegrown and locals know the best routs and the best places to take in some new water. Even that lonely side creek or backwater can offer some great paddling throughout the year and at the right times.
Now that I got my midwinter paddle fix, Iím sure Mother Nature will freeze everything back up for a few months and Iíll be reduced to craning my neck at every piece of frozen water along the expressway on my travels.
Please keep in mind this is not the large, mighty Cuyahoga River, but a small tributary miles from the main river called the West Branch of the Cuyahoga.