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Never Too Late
By Larry and Rebecca Javorsky
When you think of Ohio, wild and scenic places don't usually come to mind, but then, there's the Cuyahoga
When I arrived at my friend's house in Northeast Ohio he smiled sadly and shook his head.
"You're two days late," he lamented.
It was Tuesday. He and his family had just been out on a drive that Sunday to look at all the beautiful fall colors. The very next day the rains came, he explained, and the leaves began to melt from the trees.
"It was spectacular a couple days ago," my friend continued. "But there's not much left now."
I had come a long way to see a hardwood forest in autumn. So rather than be dismayed, I took his comments as a challenge. Maybe I had missed the spectacular peak, but, I had no doubt that beauty still lingered in the woods and was determined to find it.
We had planned to camp near and explore the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area (CVNRA), a natural place just north of Akron, Ohio, a place my friend had played in since childhood. After going to all the effort to get there, I wasn't about to let a little rain change my plans. We decided to let it rain one more day and then embark on our excursion.
Our first day out was mostly white skies and intermittent rain. I could see that autumn was in full swing — the leaves that remained on the trees were brilliant shades of yellow, red and orange. The rain was, however, slowly nibbling the leaves from the branches. I wrestled with twinges of disappointment that tickled the back of my brain.
Then, that first evening, while on a short hike, I saw it. A dull, orange ball appeared through the leaves and branches in the gray skies just above the western horizon. I ran up the trail looking for a vantage point from which to see this setting sun. In a small clearing I watched as it slowly brightened into soft, warm light that illuminated the entire forest.
The light was not only soft and warm, it was magical. The forest seemed enchanted. For a moment, the leaves danced, the water in the brook sparkled like diamonds and the sounds of the woods became a symphony.
I soon discovered that much of the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area is like that light — magical and enchanting. It did not take me long, in fact, to find the beauty I set out to find the day I arrived, and to dispel the notion that I had missed something spectacular.
Even though I may have missed the peak of the colors, I found that much of the beauty of the place is found in things other than just pretty leaves. The waters of the rivers and runs, for example, flow slowly and gently through the forest, winding their way through gullies and around huge, sculpted tree trunks. Here and there you can find a waterfall where the water turns to lace as it tumbles to a pool below. And although the forest has a wildness about it, it is quiet and peaceful, and the air is still and fresh.
This was especially obvious since the CVNRA is surrounded by bustling commerce and sprawling subdivisions. I saw quickly that this place was a wonderful way to escape noise and business, and taste the wildness of Ohio.
Since I am a nut for waterfalls, I had to visit a couple soon after we arrived. My favorite was Blue Hen Falls. From the village of Boston, it's a short jog west, up Boston Mills Road. The day was still overcast and lightly raining, so I ended up going solo. That was unfortunate for the rest of the crew, because as soon as I arrived at the trailhead to the falls, it became a different world. The colors in the forest glowed more brilliantly than any place else. The leaves fluttered in the breeze. Birds were singing. And as I hiked down the gently sloping trail, the thump of my footsteps created a soothing rhythm for my soul.
In less than 10 minutes the trail crossed a small creek, and I could feel and hear the falls nearby. Soon, all of my senses were enjoying the waterfall. My eyes feasted on the green moss that covered the rocks, the red and yellow leaves that blanketed the ground and the water that danced through the air and into the pool 15 feet below. My ears took in the gentle sound of the dancing water. And the damp leaves and moss smelled of earth and wholeness. The scene was bewitching.
MORE TO FIND
The CVNRA was packed with places like that — places that challenged my friend's claim that the spectacular was gone.
Another great find was Kendall Lake. It was only a short 2- to 3-mile jaunt from our campsite in Tamsin Park, so we headed there just before sunrise one morning. Again the enchantment of the place swept away the noise and bustle of civilization. A light mist hovered over the mirror-smooth surface of the lake. Colors reflected on the water. Dewdrops sparkled on the grass and dangled precariously on spider webs. We spent most of the morning there, sharing the lake with a number of geese and a solitary fisherman in a red canoe.
The trails in the CVNRA were a great way to get into the wild and see the fall colors. We took a short hike on the Towpath Trail, which follows the historic route of the Ohio and Erie Canal through the river valley. Since it follows the level canal path it's an easy hike even for young children. There is 16 miles of it in the CVNRA and it's easily accessed throughout the park, with picnic areas and restrooms all along the way.
If you've got a more adventurous streak in you, there's a portion of the Buckeye Trail that passes through the park. This blue-blazed trail will lead you up and down steep ravines, across streams, through dense hardwood forests, and past some spectacular waterfalls. Wildlife can be seen along the trail also: white-tailed deer, squirrels, many species of birds, and even an occasional coyote. There are, in fact, 32 species of mammals in the CVNRA, 18 different kinds of reptiles, and more than 230 species of bird that live in or travel through the area.
All told, the CVNRA has over 125 miles of trails available for hiking, bicycling, skiing and horseback riding. And that is just a sketch of what's available. In fact, as I continued to delve into the wonder of the CVNRA, it turned out that the area's history was as rich as its scenic beauty.
The river's name comes from the Native Americans who lived in the area. They called it the "Ka-ih-ogh-ha," which means "crooked river." They named it well. The Cuyahoga River begins in a swampy forest 30 miles east of where it ends, and flows in a big "U" shape for 90 miles to run its course.
Since the river runs within several miles of the Tuscarawas River to the south, it has always been an important connection between the Ohio River Valley (and hence the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico) and the Great Lakes. Native Americans used this connection for travel and trade, portaging the 6-mile gap between rivers with their canoes. They marked the portage route with signal trees — saplings with side branches they would bend up and bind at the elbows to create a three-pronged tree that looked like a candelabrum. One of these trees is still alive today, and it's in the CVNRA.
Early European settlers to the region also recognized the area's importance as a transportation corridor. The Ohio and Erie Canal was opened in 1827, and it picked up where the Native American portage route left off. Transporting goods from the north to the south and vice versa, the canal became one of the major hubs of activity in the settling of the "Western Reserve," which was the western edge of the United States at that time.
The canal commerce eventually lost out to the railroad in the late 1880s, and with the railroad came continued growth and development. By the mid-1900s the valley was being threatened by too much development and overuse. The industrial pollution was so bad that the Cuyahoga River once caught fire near its mouth.
Fortunately, before the natural beauty of the valley and its river was entirely lost to such developmental pressures, Congress created the CVNRA in 1974, preserving 33,000 acres along 22 miles of the Cuyahoga River as wild lands.
If you're a history buff there's numerous places in and around the CVNRA where you can learn about and experience this colorful history. The Canal Visitor Center, in the northwest corner of the park, has excellent exhibits and seasonally has canal-lock demonstrations with people wearing period costumes. There is a wonderful canal-boat building exhibit at the restored 1836 Boston Store, as well as an actual canal-boat stern and other interactive exhibits about the canal's history.
The Hale Farm and Village, located at the southern end of the CVNRA, is another great place for the family to learn about and get involved with the area's history. The farm features the 1826 brick homestead of Jonathan Hale, one of the earliest settlers to the region. The village next door has historic buildings and hands-on demonstrations about agricultural life and various crafts from the mid-1800s. You'll get to watch and interact with blacksmiths, broom and candle makers, glass blowers, potters and weavers, all dressed in authentic period clothing. The village has a restaurant, museum shop and picnic area.
There's also the Happy Days Visitor Center and the F.A. Seiberling Naturealm Visitor Center, both of which offer activities, exhibits and information. And of course you've got to stop at one of the small farms still operating within the CVNRA. They're great places to find some of the best homegrown produce available, as well as souvenirs and other goods. Our kids were especially fond of the huge selection of pumpkins at one of the farms.
One of the more unique ways to experience the history and natural wonder of the area is on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. Running between Cleveland and Akron, the train offers a number of scenic trips, including interpretive rides led by National Park Service rangers, and a "Fall Color Train" in October. Fares range from $7 for children to $20 for adults, and vary depending on which trip you take.
We jumped on for a short ride one afternoon, and I immediately drifted off to memories of my childhood and riding the train from Nebraska to Colorado to visit relatives. I remember living out scenes from old westerns, watching for outlaws and scanning the horizon for smoke signals. The clickety-clack of the train riding the tracks was still as exciting and nostalgic to me as it was then, and it added another bit of magic to the scenic colors of the forest.
Since there is no camping available in the CVNRA proper, it's a good idea to check into what's available in the surrounding area before arriving there. The campground we stayed in was Tamsin Park (330/650-0579). It has 300 tent and trailer sites, with electrical hook-ups, restrooms and showers, playgrounds, a couple of ponds and a campground store. There are other private campgrounds near the CVNRA, and you can find out about them through the Ohio Campground Owners Association. Two other good sources are the Travel Ohio Internet Guide and the Camping Directory of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds.
Other good recreation sites are the area's Metro Parks, since several of the parks are adjacent to the CVNRA. These parks, like Furnace Run, Sand Run and Brecksville Reservation, offer additional trails and attractions. I could babble on and on about other things to do, like catching an outdoor concert at Blossom Music Center, or riding horses on one of the bridle trails, or visiting some of the unique attractions in nearby Akron. I soon became overwhelmed during our stay by how much there was to do and see.
However, since my first impression of the place was the quietness, I decided to stick to that theme and enjoy all of it that I could during my short stay in the Cuyahoga. I mentioned this quiet to my friend one day while we were out on a trail for a hike with the kids.
"This is nothing," he said matter-of-factly. "I came out here once last winter on my cross-country skis just after a big snowfall. You wanna talk quiet — that was quiet."
Hmmm. A ski trip to Ohio in January. That might be a great idea for next year... For more information, Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area: 800/445-9667;