Canoeing to Save the Maumee River

Save Maumee Grassroots Organization canoed from Fort Wayne to Toledo starting on the most neglected waterway of all, the Junk Ditch.

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Canoeists with Save Maumee Grassroots Organization make their way through shallow water and debris as they maneuver the Junk Ditch at the start of their trip on April 19.

Earth Day eye-opener

Canoeing length of the Maumee shows how much TLC river needs

An evening campfire was a welcome way to end a day spent canoeing on the Maumee.
The industrial section of the Junk Ditch (at Taylor Street) proved especially difficult for canoists to maneuver.
River bank erosion and debris piles were frequent sights for canoeists as they paddled northward toward Toledo.
Canoes rest along the banks of the Maumee as paddlers settle in for their second night at Blue Cast Springs nature preserve near Woodburn.
Canoeing the entire 141-mile length of the Maumee River offers diverse views, with most of them rural between the river’s start in Fort Wayne and its emptying into Lake Erie in Toledo.

The Junk Ditch doesn’t come to mind when embarking on a 141-mile canoe trip from Fort Wayne to Toledo. You think about the Junk Ditch only when it is flooding. But the Save Maumee Grassroots Organization considers the ditch an important part of the Maumee River watershed. So its canoe trip started two Saturdays ago as a unique educational way to experience and expand on Earth Day; and where better to start than on the mostly neglected Junk Ditch?

The Junk Ditch starts at a continental divide in Eagle Marsh.

“This is a very unique area,” said Abigail King, founder and vice chair of Save Maumee and organizer of the canoe trip. “Looking downstream, if it rains on your left hand, the water will drain into the Wabash River, Ohio River, Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico,” King said. “Rain on the right side will drain into the Junk Ditch, the Maumee and onto Lake Erie.”

Thorn trees that reached across the ditch and a deer carcass persuaded the group to change its launch from Smith and Engle to Covington and Ardmore roads, making the trip 1½ miles shorter than planned. And yet the first 2½ miles traveled on the Junk Ditch took 2½ hours. The ditch looked promising at the start but dropped quickly to shallow water with rocks and trash.

The ditch was an eye-opener for Aaron Herndon, a New Tech Academy high school senior.

“It’s ironic that Junk Ditch is named after a man,” he said. “Yet the name is so fitting, because it is filled to the brim with junk.”

He said he saw a lot of dead animals, a television, toys and anything people didn’t want anymore. North of Jefferson, there was a lot of orange goo, Herndon added.

“Would I do it again?” says Herndon. “No, but one time around, for sure.”

Once the group made it to the St Marys then the Maumee River, strong headwinds slowed them. On their first day, an 8-mile trip ended up taking seven hours.

King said she wanted people to fall in love with the rivers. The second day of the trip allowed the group to start feeling the love. With a current and the wind to their backs, the paddlers were able to enjoy the Maumee River’s bucolic section all the way to ACRES’ nature preserve, Blue Cast Springs, near Woodburn.

By Monday seven of the 10 canoes that started were left, but it wasn’t because of Saturday’s tortuous paddle. Six paddlers needed to go back to work or were unable to get off school.

Leaving the urban and industrial section, the canoeists saw pastures and farms that line the banks of the Maumee all the way to Perrysburg, a scenic and historic suburb of Toledo. The canoeists saw blue herons and were surprised to learn that they nested in this area. They spotted a bald eagle.

They also saw stoves and more TVs in the water. Erosion at the bank was evident, as well as pipes that drained directly into the river.

One of the trip’s goals was to map the GPS location of drainpipes, as well as areas with erosion issues or debris buildups to help with the Upper Maumee Watershed management plan.

In 2011, sediment and phosphorous pollution caused about a third of Lake Erie to be covered by a dead zone. “It looked like pea soup,” King said. “In this pea soup fish and other animals are unable to live. I want to raise awareness about that.”

The group’s destination was International Park in downtown Toledo; its goal was to help bring people back to the rivers, fall in love and have stories to tell.

“This natural area needs to be preserved, and I think bringing people back to the water makes them care,” King said.

For many who participated, they said the trip was a life-changing experience. Rowan Greene, whose family has been involved with Save Maumee since he was young, thought that this was the most important event Fort Wayne has ever done.

Zeen IsMeen wants to clean up the rivers, starting with Indiana.

“I know how gross this river is, and maybe if we inform people maybe they will get more interested and help clean it up,” he said.

Dani Bradtmiller hopes the trip will raise awareness about our water and thinks we should be able to use our riverways more than we do.

“This trip was a good way to start that,” Bradtmiller said.

Cathie Rowand is the visual editor of The Journal Gazette. She has paddled a canoe from Fort Wayne to Toledo and has an interest in wildlife and other environmental matters.