Long ago, the Mahoning River was written off.
It was choked by years of pollution from steel mills that built this region and this nation.
News of the river’s death reached whoever makes my iPhone. The Mahoning River does not come up on my map app. It’s just land — until you hit the Pennsylvania border.
It’s a peculiar, but not alarming, discovery; unless you are about to explore the Mahoning River by kayak.
Chuck Miller and Sonny Bostain are their own apps for the Mahoning.
They’ve made the river their playground for the better part of five years, along with Mike Danko and a couple other friends from the Trumbull Canoe Trails paddling club.
“This is probably the second-best-kept secret in the Valley,” said Chuck. Mill Creek Park is first for him. “Even as the river is now, it’s great. It only stands to get better.”
True, these are different times for the Mahoning.
The river is moving along in the planning rooms just as fast as it is below our bridges.
Led by efforts from the Friends of the Mahoning River, money, instead of pollution, is being poured into the river. The state of Ohio is in the final stages of awarding a $2.4 million grant to Lowellville to remove one of the Mahoning dams. Dam removal is seen as a way to restore the Mahoning to its natural flow.
The Friends group has grown from six or so steady members to almost 20. On Monday, they meet for the first time with a specialist assigned by the National Parks Service to help organize the Friends movement even more.
Recently, First Energy spent six weeks removing abandoned railroad tresses from the river east of Lowellville. The tresses served as gathering spots for too much debris and created other hazards in the area.
Just this week, state specialists conducting water-quality studies shocked the river near the former tresses site. From the waters arose 21-inch walleye and 35-inch northern pike — fish that were unfathomable years ago.
While the river moves along in the planning rooms, it’s another thing to move along with it in the water.
Chuck invited me to his Valley’s second-best secret.
Our trek this week was from the B&O Station launch area that enthusiasts recently have redone. It has become kind of a Ground Zero for river fans. We finished 5 miles away at the Union Street bridge in Struthers.
It was a surreal 90-minute trip that we stretched into 2-plus hours as they taught and talked.
His buddies call Chuck “Mr. Mahoning.” But he doesn’t care too much for the title, so pretend I didn’t tell you.
A Boardman resident, Chuck’s a postal worker by trade, but adventurist at his core. Five-state bike rides, triathalons, mud runs ... you know the type. Biking Mill Creek Park was his pastime.
“Then we saw a guy riding by with kayaks on his car,” Chuck said. They learned he kayaked the river, and they were hooked.
It was trial and error to start. They were a muddy mess trying to enter and exit the river. They learned the art of kayaking and the river at the same time.
The river is literally the bottom of the Valley. We say “the Valley” often. It takes on a new meaning when you’re at its deepest point.
Most of the two hours was spent looking up: at the trains, at the bridges, at some curious onlookers, at the factories. ... We passed The Vindy, the old Wean, the water plant, and so on. Less than a quarter mile from the river, the Covelli Centre had a bustling parking lot for Cirque Musica. It might as well have been a county over; had no clue it was there.
And you see sky, trees and green space.
When we weren’t looking up, we were looking ahead. The river is a changing dance floor: flat and still, then streaming, then thrashing through the various dams. Sonny is the oldest of the crew and has as much fun in the whitewater as Mike and Chuck.
While time and Mother Nature have worked hard to bury the river’s former life, the industrial past is everywhere: old bridge abutments, hulking rail bridges and more.
“There’s enough pig iron on the shores to keep metal thieves happy if they could ever get down here,” said Sonny.
It’s also clear not all river dumping is in our past.
The city has an outdated storm sewer system. Every half-mile or so, a storm sewer pipe pokes out of the banks. From some of those pipes on the worst of our rainstorms, human waste mixes in with some of the storm water. It happens, too, at pipes that lead into Mill Creek Park. The city could be more aggressive to fix this, river observers say.
A Wilson Avenue business has underground oil-leak issues into the river. A plywood and boom contraption has been there for years, the guys say.
“You stick your oar in over there, and a sheen covers your oar,” said Mike.
A surprise to them this week was new piping they hope aims to mediate that oil slick.
That’s what they like about their playground.
Every trip offers something new to look at. They ride about once per week eight months a year, anywhere between Girard and Edinburg, Pa.
Minute by minute, you roll from state parklike settings to industrial graveyard.
They’re always fixing their playground. On this trip, Chuck had a chainsaw with him to trim some fallen trees.
Tree-trimming, clearing the dams, posting signs, creating primitive access points are among their roles. Under the Marshall Street bridge, Chuck imbedded orange poles into the river to guide kayakers over a navigable part of a dam.
They are not necessarily trained or permitted to do these things, but they’re also not necessarily prevented from doing it. They peacefully coexist with the river’s various bosses.
None of the river’s issues intimidate them, and they’ve been teased plenty — about rashes and glowing and such.
“It is a river,” reminds Chuck. “It’s not a swimming pool.”
All of this new attention brings mixed feelings for Chuck and Co.
“We never thought anyone would step up like this,” said Chuck of the Lowellville and First Energy projects.
They’re not in complete agreement with all the actions. But they like enough of it.
“There’s enough river for all of us,” said Chuck. “Let them clean it; then we’ll make it fun. Just leave enough water in it for people to make use of it.”
He cited Beaver Creek as an example of a waterway that loses too much water by midsummer to be user-friendly.
Chuck rattles off Dayton, Springfield, Kent, Ann Arbor and South Bend as cities that have made water recreation destinations out of old industrial rivers. He sees Lowellville as next on that list.
“This is not new stuff that we’re doing here. If we do it right, people will come from all over.”
Spend two hours with them, and you’d agree.