Ryan Schnurr's “In the Watershed: A Journey Down the Maumee River” is a highly readable account of a 110-mile trip he made on foot and by canoe in the summer of 2016. A strong sense of history and a deep love for the environment come through as Schnurr turns a keen eye on the towns, wildlife, buildings and people he encounters as he makes his way along the watershed. Thursday, the 27-year-old Fort Wayne native talked about his experience as we met at a coffee shop near the confluence of the three rivers.
Walking the length of the Maumee River is an unusual idea for a book. What made you decide to do it?
I had been reading about the river for awhile when I decided to do this. It was more out of curiosity than anything. I had read so much and wanted to have some firsthand experience with the river.
Had you done anything remotely like this before?
If you're asking whether I've done a weeklong, multistate walk before, the answer is no. But if you mean, do I make a habit of getting curious about something and following that curiosity as far as it will go, well, yeah – all the time.
What do you see walking a river that you wouldn't see otherwise?
It's not necessarily that you see things that you wouldn't see otherwise, but you see them from a different perspective.
Walking someplace as opposed to driving it, or stopping off for a few minutes, gives you a totally different perspective on space and also on time. By walking or canoeing the path of the river, I was able to get a better sense of the scope of the history and of the footprint of the river.
The walk took about a week. How did that compare with the time it took to research and write the book?
The bulk of the book was researched and written in about six months, from August 2016 to February 2017, when I turned in the first draft to the publisher. During this time I was also in the first year of a Ph.D. program – which I would not recommend doing.
I worked on drafting a chapter a month.
Did it turn out to be a good decision to leave in mid-summer? You made it sound like the heat was pretty bad at certain points.
The original idea was to walk it during that period because that's the lead-up to when the algae blooms tend to form in Lake Erie. It didn't work out that way, but I still think it was a good idea – though I didn't always think so when I was sweating it out.
Do you think communities and residents along the river know and appreciate the rich history of the region?
I get the sense that it's a mixed bag. A lot of people are aware of that history and celebrate parts of that history. ... I think the best way to honor history is to really take it seriously. The best way we can honor the history of this region is to really try to learn from it, and use that to inform some of our contemporary projects and activities.
The part about the Black Swamp –
Yeah, the Great Black Swamp.
– I think a lot of people would be surprised to know that a lot of this area was really, truly swamp.
It's amazing, reading the firsthand accounts of people crossing this area. I'm just sort of tromping through it on a highway, and people talked about taking days to get through it.
How close did it come to Fort Wayne?
The best I can tell – and I'm not a geographer – it didn't extend all the way to the confluence of the rivers. But it definitely came across the state line, toward Fort Wayne.
What area did the best job of honoring its past?
If honoring the past means taking it seriously for what it is and learning from it, then that seems like a very different thing than what we might traditionally think of as honoring the past, with statues and things like that.
Schnurr brings up Diana and Paul Bauer, a Defiance couple he wrote of, who run a bed-and-breakfast in a guesthouse they purchased and renovated.
Diana Bauer tells him, “Our philosophy is that we'll take a place and clean it up, take as good a care of it as we can, and then we'll eventually pass it on to somebody else who will hopefully do the same thing we did. That way these old houses can keep on living.”
This is almost a different model. We're going to inherit what we inherit, do the stuff we can with it when we have it, take care of it, and try to pass it on to someone else who will do the same. That is, I think, a model for honoring the past that is probably the best one I came across.
You focus a lot on environmental issues: the effects of pollution, the need to preserve wild areas. Yet this is a time when the EPA and preservation efforts are under strong attack. Are you paddling upstream on this issue?
I think I'm coming down firmly on the side of those who would have us live responsibly with respect to the natural world, which, by the way, includes us. There are some people, especially among the members of the current administration, who are willing to serve the interests of capital over everything else. But there are also a lot of us who aren't. I think we're the stream, and they're a dam.
What do you think of Fort Wayne's plans to develop the downtown waterfront?
Did your trek provide you with any insights about how this city should go about honoring its waterways?
I think it's great that people are paying so much attention to the rivers. Historically speaking, we can trace a lot of the issues in rivers like the Maumee to development in the region that hasn't taken them into account – or that has seen them only as either an obstacle or an economic resource.
So I think the best way we can honor our waterways is to do things in the region that takes them seriously as part of the community.
I've been impressed by the river plans that are part of these efforts so far, which include the need for riparian buffers and erosion control.
What surprised you most on your journey?
The more time I spent with the Maumee River, the more I felt that it would always retain a certain mystery to me. I could spend a week straight on its banks and still not feel like I knew the river much better than I did before.
What does the river know? What can we learn from a river? I think for me it was part of a larger, ongoing question of how do I live responsibly in the world? Maybe rivers have some things to teach us about that.
Tim Harmon is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette