New event celebrates historic Indian portage path by having racers carry their canoes

2017-03-20 | Akron Beacon Journal

March 20--Local history lovers know well Akron's role as a portaging corridor for American Indians.

The city sits atop a continental watershed divide, with water on the south side flowing toward the Ohio River, and water on the north end flowing up toward Lake Erie.

This rare geographic circumstance was an obstacle to Indians paddling their way through the state, forcing them to carry (or "portage") their vessels 8 miles between the southbound Tuscarawas River and the northbound Cuyahoga in order to continue their journey.

But it took an outsider to say: "Come on, guys! This is cool. Why aren't you re-enacting this?"

After a couple of years of doing everything from researching history to pulling permits to coordinating with boundary-crossing agencies, Minnesota transplant Tom Crain has organized the first Akron Portage 'n Paddle.

On May 20, participants will follow part of the historic portage path on water before getting out and racing the rest of the distance lugging crafts that could weigh 45 pounds or more.

Crain settled in Akron six years ago to be closer to his kids, who had moved with his ex-wife when she returned to her roots in Canton. He took a job teaching at Imagine, a charter school in Akron.

An avid outdoorsman, he was hiking the towpath when he came across a life-size statue of an Indian carrying his canoe where Merriman Road descends into the valley, the famed portage path's northern terminus.

An identical statue marks the southern limits off Manchester Road, and 50 large arrowheads mark the route between the two figures.

Crain read the historical inscription, but no one had to explain to him what "portaging" meant. After all, he grew up in a state nicknamed "Land of 10,000 Lakes." He often had to carry his canoe between lakes.

"I just thought, 'Oh my gosh, there has to be an opportunity to do canoeing and portaging here,'" Crain said. "There are all these signs but nobody's actually doing it."

There may have been good reason for that, as Crain soon found out. The path crosses many quasi-jurisdictions, with dozens of groups that needed to become partners in such an enterprise.

Needed clearances

He and a committee of passionate volunteers talked to the city of Akron to pull permits and ask for the use of the downtown trolley. They spoke with Summit MetroParks to get access to the canal, Summit Lake and Nesmith Lake.

They needed clearances from Downtown Akron Partnership, Cuyahoga River Restoration, Ohio Erie Canalway Coalition and Northeast Ohio Four County Regional Planning and Development.

They connected with history experts from the Summit County Historical Society and Lippman School, and met with neighborhood organizers in Kenmore, Firestone Park, Summit Lake and North Hill.

They lined up Canal Fulton Canoe Livery to be the official canoe outfitter, Summit Cycle to help arrange bicycle rentals so the race could be expanded to folks who wanted to stay on the ground, and worked with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to acquire boating licenses.

They brought the Akron Fire Department on board for race-day emergency assistance and hired an event attorney to make sure all the proper waivers and license requirements were met.

They arranged for racers to pick up their packets and get a history lesson at Perkins Mansion the day before the race, and for activities to celebrate the conclusion of the race at historic Mustill Store.

Crain even had to get a special insurance policy written.

"They said this is so weird. We have policies that cover a canoe that is in the water, but we never insured anyone for carrying a canoe down the street," Crain said.

Organizers got a $2,500 Neighborhood Partnership Program grant from the Akron Community Foundation to get things going. Registration fees and sponsorships will pay for the rest.

Hoping to be as inclusive as possible, the nearly 6-mile race was opened up to canoes, kayaks and paddle boards. Competitors can enter as individuals or as part of two-member or four-member teams.

Racers will put in at Nesmith Lake off Manchester Road, paddle through the canal and Summit Lake, then exit the water behind the Spaghetti Warehouse in downtown Akron. They will then carry their crafts down the towpath, through downtown and to the Mustill Store at Cascade Locks Park.

If some racers find that too strenuous, they can do a light version, putting in at Summit Lake and carrying their vessels to Lock 3 Park for a 2.5-mile route.

Heck, you can even participate if you don't want to get in the water at all. Participants can also pedal their bikes, walk or jog along the route, Crain said.

"The whole point is to have you appreciate what Native Americans did here and give you a connection to this path," Crain said.

Geographic changes

Local historian Dave Lieberth loves the idea. The closest thing Akron has had to an active celebration of the path was a couple of organized walks, including the one that dedicated those Indian statues and arrowhead markers in 2000.

Otherwise, Akron has only ever acknowledged the feature by name: Portage Path and Portage Trail, Portage Path elementary school and Portage Country Club. There was a historic Portage Hotel, and a Portage Newspaper Supply.

Even the county was once named Portage, only breaking off and renaming itself Summit County in 1839 and ceding the name to what is now the Portage County to the east, Lieberth said.

While the exact portage path is known thanks to early surveyors who bore witness to the worn route, geographic changes make it impossible to mimic the entire journey.

But Crain's re-creation is close enough to be an appropriate celebration, Lieberth said.

American Indians didn't have significant settlements in the area. For most of them, Akron was a rest stop along the water highway.

"Since we didn't have native people living in a tribal setting here, consequently, we didn't fully appreciate the landmark, that big scar, 8 miles long," Lieberth said.

"Tom stepped up to say, 'Well, you have this history, so now what are you going to do about it?'" Lieberth said.

To register, visit www.active.com and search for "Akron Portage 'N Paddle."

The West Hill Neighborhood Community Development Corporation is the event's official sponsor, and profits from the race will be used by the organization for green projects and improved access to the Towpath Trail.

Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or pschleis@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.