The Kayak Tell

In poker, a “tell” occurs when players exhibit some visible sign that betrays their view of their position. They might touch an ear, or blink, or shift their position in response to a very good hand, or a very bad predicament. The experienced poker player watches for such tells, and profits from them.

“Tells” extend beyond the poker table. Rivers have tells, too. And when I took my walk along the Scioto River today, I saw one of them. In two different places along the river, in the heart of downtown and near the Audubon Park dam, I saw groups of kayaks on the water, as well as a pop-up kayak company along the riverbank near the Main Street bridge.

Kayaks are a significant “tell” for the Scioto River, because they indicate that what the Scioto River project hoped to achieve is, in fact, moving closer to reality. When the project began years ago, the designers hoped that by narrowing the river and removing some of the dams, the river might be transformed from a shallow, muddy, debris-choked mess into a real river, with an actual, discernible current. Kayaks are a pretty good tell that the goal is being achieved, because they move with the current. Even more important, no one would have wanted to be at seated kayak distance from the sluggish, smelly Scioto of days gone by.

The Scioto has a long way to go before it could be viewed as a natural river, but every journey begins with a single step. Kayaks on the water are a good sign.

A Deer’s-Eye View

Betty and I took a walk around the river in downtown Columbus this morning, which gave her a chance to hang with a deer friend (get it?) on the stepped seating area in front of COSI. She and her antlered pal got to take in a nifty view of the skyline.

The seated deer sculpture is one of several deer sculptures in the riverfront area, all of which are doing very undeerlike things. I think they are pretty cool.

Canoes And Kayaks, Paddling Free

This would not be news anywhere but Columbus, Ohio, but yesterday when I walked down to the Columbus Arts Festival after work I saw people in canoes and kayaks out on the Scioto River as it passes downtown.  They were paddling around, enjoying the blazing sunshine and their water view of the downtown skyline.

IMG_1208I know, I know — rivers are supposed to host canoes, kayaks, and even (gasp) boats.  But that hasn’t been the case with the poor old Scioto.  Ever since the government built dams that converted the river into a wide, incredibly shallow morass as it crept past the downtown area, the Scioto has been a de facto no man’s land for any kind of waterborne craft.  You’d see ugly, twisted branches thrusting from the ankle-deep water, often catching various bits of debris that were floating by, but that’s about it.  No rational canoeist or kayaker would venture out onto the river’s snaggle-toothed waters.

Then Columbus decided to do something to try to make the riverfront a little bit better.  The dams that made the Scioto a sluggish, muddy stream were torn down, and the river was allowed to return to a narrower, deeper, more natural channel.  This not only uncovered lots of additional parkland on the river’s new banks, but also was supposed to allow some recreational activity on the river itself.  So when I saw canoes and kayaks out on the water yesterday, I thought:  “Hallelujah!  The plan worked!”

We can argue about why the stupid dams were built in the first place — you could write volumes about the unfortunate, unanticipated consequences of government dam projects, actually — but at least we’ve gotten to the point where a couple in a canoe can paddle past downtown Columbus.  It actually makes the Scioto seem like a real river, and the Scioto Mile seem like a real riverfront.

That’s progress.

The Greenways Take Shape

IMG_7456It’s been a while since I’ve been down to the Scioto Riverfront in downtown Columbus.  Kish and I stopped by today to take a peek at the status of the Scioto Greenways project, which is an effort to narrow the river and return it to a more natural channel — and, in the process, recover some much needed green space and downtown parkland from the former, wider, river bed.

I think it looks pretty good, although you can’t actually enter the new areas right now.  I’m assuming the chain fencing will be removed and access will be allowed when the grand opening occurs on Tuesday.  The river looks better with the green borders.  The question is, will downtown workers use the new areas?  I’m guessing they will.  People tend to like water, and in land-bound Columbus the Scioto River is just about the only option.

Rerouting The River

IMG_5408One of the main geographic elements of downtown Columbus is changing — and we are starting to see clear visible evidence of the new look.

For years the Scioto River crawled past the downtown area, a muddy brown swath that separated downtown from Franklinton and points west.  The river was so shallow that a replica of the Santa Maria moored next to the federal courthouse could never sail, and branches and other debris routinely became stuck in the river bed, giving the river a sad, derelict look.  It was . . . vaguely embarrassing.  Other cities have lakes and mountains and mighty rivers with boat and barge traffic, and Columbus had a glorified culvert.

IMG_5385Now all of that is changing.  The Scioto Greenways project aims to rechannel the river and create new parkland downtown as part of the project.  A dam at Main Street that had long blocked the real current of the river has been removed, allowing the Scioto to return to its narrower, deeper, and swifter natural state.  As a result, land that was covered by sluggish water has been exposed and is being converted to parkland.

Yesterday I hiked over to Franklinton for lunch and crossed the river at Broad Street on the way there and Main Street on the way back to check out the work that is being done.  The new channel has opened up wide bands of space on each side of the river bed that will be turned into green parkland.  On the downtown side, a promontory point is under construction; on the Franklinton side, legions of trees stand ready to be replanted.  What’s more, the river itself actually has a noticeable current, and the new river channel has a more pronounced, and attractive, bend as it passes the downtown area.

It’s a positive development for a city that is focusing on encouraging more people to move downtown to live, and more parkland next to downtown and a reenergized riverfront area is bound to help.  Of course, there’s also a question to be asked:  why was the Main Street dam built in the first place, and how much money was wasted in building the dam and then fixing the problems it caused because someone made that bad decision?

Artsy Fartsy

IMG_3825It’s the weekend of the Columbus Arts Festival, so for lunch today the Unkempt Guy, the Bus-Riding Conservative, and I walked down to the Riverfront to take in the show.  It was a cool day, but there was a good lunchtime crowd, music was playing, the scent of elephant ears was in the air, and there was lots of art to check out — ranging from paintings to folk art to sculpture to items that appeared to be made from hammered bottle caps.

The Arts Festival runs all weekend along the Scioto Mile, across the Scioto bridges and looping back again.  It’s worth a visit.

A Gull On The Mile

Today, walking along the Scioto Mile and heading back to the office after lunch, I saw an odd sight:  a seagull perched boldly on the concrete abutment next to the walkway.  The purpose of the Scioto Mile was to make the riverside into more of a part of the downtown experience, and I found myself wondering momentarily whether the gull had been hired and trained to hang out along the Scioto Mile as a kind of ready-made photo opportunity, so people would be reminded that there is, in fact, a waterfront in Columbus, Ohio.

It’s strange, indeed, to see a seagull framed against the Columbus skyline.

Columbus Arts Festival 2012

After doing some work this morning I walked down to the Columbus Arts Festival. The 2012 Festival has moved back to its traditional location on the riverfront, and the relocation was an inspired decision.  There’s lots of room for artists’ booths, street food tents, seating, and three performance stages.  The booths and tents run along Civic Center Drive, cross the Scioto River on the Rich Street bridge, and then loop back across the river on the Main Street bridge.

The set-up gives the Festival a more airy and open feel than I found at last year’s Festival.  It also gives the visitor a chance to check out the Scioto Mile park area and cross Columbus’ two cool new downtown bridges, which are works of art in their own right.  The Rich Street bridge features an interesting series of buttress supports, and the Main Street bridge uses an unusual inclined arch superstructure and has a wide pedestrian walkway. I think the two bridges, the downtown buildings, and the Scioto Mile features do a really nice job of framing the Festival and making it a visually appealing venue for the artwork.

When I was at the Festival this morning there was lots of foot traffic and apparent purchases, some fine jazz being played at the main stage, and the heady smell of street food in the air.  The Festival runs until 10 p.m. tonight and from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. tomorrow.  If you’re in Columbus this weekend, it’s well worth a visit.

On The Scioto Mile (II)

In the wake of yesterday’s post, our friends Michelle and Lee politely pointed out that there is a restaurant called Milestone 229 at the end of the Scioto Mile, as well as a series of fountains and misting stations right in front of the restaurant.  Both are unfortunately shielded from the rest of the Scioto Mile by some fencing related to ongoing construction.

My bad!  I visited the area today to have lunch with good friend and devoted Webner House reader Mike N, and I’m glad I did.  Milestone 229 serves some good food and looks to have an extensive drinks menu, although we didn’t sample any of them.  It also has a large outdoor eating area as well as a large bend of floor-to-ceiling windows to allow a good look at the fountain area.

There is good reason to encourage viewing of the fountain area, because dozens of happy kids were providing great free entertainment as they ran in and out of the different fountains and soaked themselves to the skin.  From the number of kids, Moms, Dads, and caregivers who were there, I’d say the fountain area has already become a go-to destination on a hot summer’s day.

On The Scioto Mile

2011 has been the year of downtown parks in Columbus.  Earlier this year, the Columbus Commons opened on the site of the old Columbus City Center.  Now the Scioto Mile has joined the Columbus parks parade.

The Scioto Mile is a thin strip of brick and stone walkways, flower beds and flower pots, fountains, and seating areas that runs along the Scioto River as it arcs through downtown Columbus.  The area sits atop the Scioto River flood wall, well above the water itself, and is an effort to try to reintegrate the river into the downtown area by making the riverfront a more attractive destination.

In Columbus and other cities, city planners long ago made it difficult to get to the body of water that was a big part of the reason the for the city’s location in the first place, by putting heavily trafficked roads or walls or sports arenas or fences in the way.  The Scioto Mile is an effort to reverse that approach.  Planners apparently realized what the rest of us have known all along — people like water and are drawn to it.  (Read the first few pages of Moby Dick if you don’t believe me.)  The muddy Scioto is not as striking a body of water as, say, one of the Great Lakes or the Ohio River, but it is nevertheless pleasant to sit nearby and watch as the water meanders past.

I appreciate the effort and thought that went into the development of the Scioto Mile.  I particularly like the inclusion of table areas for the brown bag lunch crowd and the swinging benches, which would be a pleasant way to spend a few minutes on lunch hour.  The tables have checkerboard imprints and are just waiting for some serious chess players to show up.  The fountains and planters also are attractive additions.  From the signs appearing at various points along the Scioto Mile, it looks like the project has had significant corporate and foundational support.

Although the park is nice, the jury is still out on how much it will be used.  The closest buildings to the Scioto Mile are government buildings and office buildings, without any restaurants, bars, or food areas in sight.  If the hope is to make the Scioto Mile a bustling place, some kind of food and drink options will have to be part of the mix.

Working On The Water

Living in land-locked, lakeless Columbus, Ohio — with only the muddy, barely ankle-deep Olentangy and Scioto Rivers in the vicinity — Kish and I view every visit to a substantial body of water as an adventure.  So it was with great anticipation that we looked forward to a trip on one of the ferries that cart passengers and cars across Lake Champlain, to and from various locations in Vermont and New York.

One of the Lake Champlain ferries

Being Midwesterners, we were blissfully unaware that the rotten, wet weather of the spring was devastating for this region of the country.  There was massive flooding along Lake Champlain and its environs, the signs of damages were ever-present as we drove along the lakeside, and even now one of the ferry runs is not operating due to the damage caused by the flooding.  As a result, it took a while to find an operating ferry.

Our second surprise came when we boarded the ferry and realized that, for everyone else on board, a trip across Lake Champlain on a ferry is a ho-hum, everyday, no-big-deal affair.  Some people didn’t even leave their cars to admire the view on a beautiful, blue-sky afternoon, and we were the only “foot passengers” on board.  It turns out that the ferries really aren’t a tourist attraction so much as a basic, hard-working element of commerce.

The view from the bow of our ferry, looking back

The ferry ride we took was about 12 minutes in duration, and on our trip back and forth the ferry carried a tractor-trailer, a huge mobile home, and dozens of cars and motorcycles.  The ship had a captain and two young crew members — probably college students home from school for the summer — who directed traffic and lowered and raised the gangplank that allowed cars to enter and exit.  The passenger area was no-frills, with no snack bar or other amenities.  There were three ferries in operation so that no one on either side of the lake had to wait more than 15 minutes for a ride, and they stuck to their schedule.

In this part of the country, ferries and water-crossing jobs have been an important part of the economy for as long as people have lived here.  For the captain and crew members who make dozens of trips across the lake every day, and for the occupants of the cars and trucks who regularly use the ferry, the romance of water travel has long since disappeared.  What is exotic for us is just part of their daily routine.